Behind the curtain: Scandal, tragedy, art and politics at the Bolshoi

By Jamie Saxon

ON THE NIGHT OF JAN. 17, 2013, a hooded assailant approached Sergey Filin, artistic director of the Bolshoi Theater Ballet, and flung battery acid in his face. The crime made international headlines and stunned a community of artists known for elegance rather than violence. Some months later at a gala at the Kremlin, Simon Morrison, a professor of music and an expert on 20th-century Russian and Soviet music and ballet, met Filin, who had undergone numerous operations in Germany and had lost all of his sight in one eye.

“You could still see the scars on his neck from the acid,” Morrison said. “He wore these dark wraparound glasses and had an attendant with him administering drops. It was horrific, deeply macabre.”

Bolshoi Confidential: Secrets of the Russian Ballet from the Rule of the Tsars to Today

In his new book, Bolshoi Confidential: Secrets of the Russian Ballet from the Rule of the Tsars to Today (W.W. Norton & Company, 2016), Professor of Music Simon Morrison weaves a richly detailed account of the Bolshoi Ballet from its origins in 1776 under Catherine the Great through its glorious history as a cradle for high art, political intrigue and shocking scandal. Book cover courtesy W. W. Norton & Sons.

Morrison’s encounter with Filin inspired him to explore whether the Bolshoi — a symbol of Russia presented to the world as a great cultural icon — had been roiled by these types of scandals in the past, and what that said about the institution historically and politically. He wrote a piece about the attack for the London Review of Books, prompting a literary agent to suggest that he write a book about the incident.

Morrison knew that the story of the attack, despite its tragedy, would not on its own have a lot of traction or depth as a book. He had to get into the history of the organization, explore the archives and talk with other scholars. To learn more about how art and politics intersect at the Bolshoi, Morrison began an intensive three-year research process.

The result is a richly detailed account of the crown jewel of Russian culture, considered an emblem of power by the government since its founding in 1776, according to Morrison. “It is a tale about the kind of negative pressures that lead to the creation of great art,” he said. “One of the morals of the story is that in the Soviet experience there’s something about immense censorship, repression and threat that leads to the production of masterpieces. The Bolshoi has been burned and rebuilt and almost liquidated numerous times, yet has produced some of the world’s greatest ballets, including Swan Lake.”

A member of the Princeton faculty since 1998, Morrison has been diving deep into the Moscow archives — once with mittens on his fingers — for nearly two decades and knows them well. He also knows the art of “gentle pestering” often required to access them. Morrison earned his Ph.D. in music history from Princeton in 1997, and his previous works include Russian Opera and the Symbolist Movement, The People’s Artist: Prokofiev’s Soviet Years, and Lina and Serge: The Love and Wars of Lina Prokofiev, a biography of Prokofiev’s first wife.

His research for Bolshoi Confidential took him into the small theater museum at the Bolshoi and the immense theater and dance archives in the Bakhrushin Museum as well as the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art and the Russian State Archive of Social Political History, which houses the records of the Central Committee (the operating division of the Stalinist government in the Kremlin), among others. He also enlisted the help of freelance archivist Ilya Magin, whom he said was indispensable for researching the Imperial era in the St. Petersburg archives. In addition, Morrison conversed with dance critics and historians in Moscow “who have lived and breathed ballet all their lives.” He even wrangled an invitation to spend the day at the dacha, or country house, of Yuri Grigorovich, ballet master from the Khrushchev-Brezhnev era into the 1990s, now almost 90.

Among the gems Morrison uncovered was an enormous box of bureaucratic correspondence about the search for a real donkey for the ballet Don Quixote, created by the famous choreographer Marius Petipa. During the ballet’s first run in St. Petersburg in 1869-70, a female donkey was borrowed from a nearby vaudeville show. “This poor thing had a heart attack and died on the stage during a rehearsal,” said Morrison, who read the long veterinary report. In Moscow, the Bolshoi used a male donkey from the Moscow Zoo. “This donkey was trotted in with its minder from the zoo to the theater every day for the show and there was a budget for ‘treats in the form of bread and oats’ for the donkey. To the present day in Moscow, they use a donkey in Don Quixote,” he said.

Stalin at the Bolshoi

Professor of Music Simon Morrison explores how the Bolshoi Ballet was used throughout history as a political tool. Pictured is Joseph Stalin (fourth from right), former leader of the Soviet Union, attending the Bolshoi in the mid-1930s. (Photo courtesy of the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art)

Throughout its storied past and to this day, the Bolshoi — the theater and its eponymous ballet company, arguably the finest in the world — has been indelibly controlled by the government — culture and politics, performers and bureaucrats, forever entwined. For example, the iconic Soviet ballet of the late 1920s, The Red Poppy, a tale of Soviet sailors who are detained in China, is about the Stalinist regime’s involvement in the rise of Communist China. “The Central Committee decided when and how this ballet would be produced and performed in 1927,” Morrison said.

The Bolshoi, with more than 2,000 seats, was a kind of political convention center during the Soviet period, Morrison said, and was used for the signing of the Soviet Constitution in 1935. After the Revolution, Vladimir Lenin gave speeches there.

In 2005, at the start of its most recent renovation — which took six years and cost $680 million — the theater was gutted and boxes of ancient materials were found in the basement and attic. Soldiers were brought in to move the materials into the administrative building next door. “There is always that connection between arts and the government,” Morrison said. “The Bolshoi is a national treasure.”

Dancers practicing

Elizaveta Gerdt, one of the few ballerinas who did not leave Russia after the Soviets took over, instructs Bolshoi ballet dancers Maya Plisetskaya and Vladimir Preobrazhensky in 1947. (Photo Courtesy of the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art)

While once accessible to people of all classes with affordable tickets in the Soviet era, today the Bolshoi is no longer “the people’s house,” Morrison said. Tickets can cost as much as $500. “It’s a kind of playground for the petrolruble crowd in that way in which oligarchs now control so much of the culture in Russia, much of it eroded into popularized entertainment.”

But still the Bolshoi Ballet goes on. In late May, Pavel Dmitrichenko, the dancer who was convicted of and imprisoned for organizing the attack against Sergey Filin, was released on bail having served only half his sentence. “He now wants to dance again at the Bolshoi,” Morrison said. “If he does, which I think is 50-50 at this point, he may well be performing in the ballet that he was performing in when he was convicted, which is Ivan the Terrible. If that happens, the perverse ironies pile up because Ivan the Terrible is rumored to have blinded the architects of St. Basil’s Cathedral on Red Square to ensure that they never again built anything as beautiful. Dmitrichenko’s rehabilitation is so implausible that it is almost guaranteed of happening. Ballet is like that.”

Hero explores Vietnam War experiences

play/ Vietnam war

Undergraduate Eamon Foley created a major performance work that explored the Vietnam War and featured performances by fellow Princeton students, PHOTO COURTESY OF THE LEWIS CENTER FOR THE ARTS

FOR HIS SENIOR THESIS, Eamon Foley combined indie rock music, dance, aerial choreography and ethnographic research to create an original theater-dance piece titled Hero, which tells the story of a young man transformed by his experiences in the Vietnam War.

The senior thesis is a major research or creative work required of all Princeton undergraduates. Foley’s thesis, featuring a cast of fellow Princeton students, was performed April 25 through May 1, 2015, at the Lewis Center for the Arts’ Matthews Acting Studio, the Program in Theater’s black box theater.

The script is based on Foley’s interviews with Vietnam veterans and other research, including his visit to Vietnam in summer 2014. “I spent a lot of time studying ethnography — the idea of gathering information through interview,” said Foley, who graduated in 2015 with an anthropology degree and a theater certificate. “I thought this would be a great way to look at where anthropology and theater meet.”

A documentary about the experience of creating Hero, by Danielle Alio and Jamie Saxon, takes viewers through Foley’s 10-month creative journey, from early fall 2014 when he had no script, no choreography and no cast — just “a lot of great ideas bouncing around in my head” — through opening night.

-By Danielle Alio and Jamie Saxon

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