Arts: The Russians are coming

Once the jewel in the crown of Soviet culture, the Bolshoi Theatre was brought low during Communism's decline. Will a month's visit to London by both opera and ballet restore their reputation?

The Bolshoi is back, and with an entourage of 420 dancers, singers and musicians, looks set to live up to its name and reputation for being "big". Under the command of its new general director, Vladimir Vasiliev, the opera and ballet companies, together with full orchestra, take up residency at the London Coliseum next week. While the ballet company has been here several times before - its last visit was in 1993 at the Royal Albert Hall - the month-long season marks the first visit to England for the opera company - although it appeared at the Edinburgh International Festival in 1991. It will stage Mussorgsky's Russian epic, Boris Godunov and the first Western performance of Peter Ustinov's production of Love for Three Oranges by Prokofiev. Four of the six ballets being presented - La Bayadere, Swan Lake, Giselle and Don Quixote - are new productions.

But regardless of its sheer physical size, what about the Bolshoi's tradition of greatness? In the recent economic and political upheavals in Russia, the theatre has not escaped sharp poundings which have resulted in its once glorified reputation becoming somewhat tarnished. News filtering out of Moscow after glasnost depicted a theatre with huge financial challenges, stagnant repertoires and backstage bickering - especially in the ballet company, whose overseas tours began to lack lustre and appeal, a fact well documented in a Channel 4 film, Dancing for Dollars, about the troupe's disastrous visit to Las Vegas three years ago.

Yet, convinced of its immortality, and buoyed by the indomitable Russian spirit of optimism, the theatre has managed to remain afloat. More recently, with changes in management, there have been positive glimmers of hope that the Bolshoi is undergoing rebirth and regaining its former glory.

Ballet performances in Moscow over the past year have shown a healthier company with diversely talented stars and an excellent, well-drilled corps de ballet. Vasiliev feels the time has come to draw back the curtains (which, in the company's Moscow home, are still embroidered with the hammer-and sickle) and show what has been accomplished in his four years at the helm. "I did not want to send out the companies before," he says in his plush office at the famous theatre. "So I have waited until now, when we are ready for a big tour with new repertory and a new level of quality. I want to show British audiences the whole Bolshoi - the opera, orchestra and ballet - to show the Bolshoi Theatre in full force."

After the 1917 Revolution, the Bolshoi Theatre stood for the biggest and best in Soviet culture. A hotline to the Kremlin assured that its coffers were constantly filled to nourish and promote the opulent productions which also acted as propaganda tools for the country's communist image. Every visiting dignitary was automatically taken to a night out at the plush red and gilt theatre to be awed by Soviet artistic and cultural supremacy. The opera company staged lavishly designed and sumptuously costumed creations which overflowed with de Mille-style casts-of-thousands, while the ballet's athletic, full-blooded dancers catapulted over the wooden, raked stage in waves of undulating heroism.

Initial tours abroad took the West by storm, while at home the performers were cult figures, known by all, from the Politburo autocrat to the collective farmer. To be a member of the Bolshoi Theatre meant fame, status and a very good living. But the advent of glasnost, perestroika and the second Russian Revolution, changed the fairy tale into real-life drama and the theatre fell on hard times. This was especially evident within the ballet company, where the dancers were divided in their loyalty to their brilliant but autocratic director of 30 years, Yuri Grigorovich; on his controversial departure, some members staged a strike.

Vasiliev's appointment as general director of the theatre surprised many as it was automatically assumed that he would be first in line to take over from Grigorovich at the ballet company. His life and career has been centred around the ballet. A pupil of its choreographic school, he joined the company at 18 and quickly became one of its legends, performing Russian classics with grace and elegance, and new Soviet works with muscular power and bravura. He first met his future wife, the exquisite ballerina Ekaterina Maximova, in the classroom when they were both 10, and the two became the darlings of Moscow. Banished from the company by Grigorovich in the 1980s for speaking out about the loss of the Bolshoi's Russian classical heritage in the director's choice of repertoire, both dancers gained valuable experience at home and abroad.

"I didn't seek this position," Vasiliev says about his new job, "but I was told that if I loved my theatre I should take it." He has worked hard in the past four years to pull up the standards of the companies and restore confidence. "All the artists now have contracts," he reports proudly, "and I think you'll agree that the dancing is better, especially the men, who are now more lyrical, while the women have become stronger."

But this new job has not been without troubles, especially financial ones. At the end of his first season, he warns: "We are living from hand to mouth and we may not be able to open next season for lack of funds. We need $45m [pounds 28m] to survive but only receive $12m [pounds 7.5m] from the government." He sighs as he runs his fingers through his once blond mane in despair.

As well as the running costs of the theatre, an estimated pounds 125m is needed for repairs to the crumbling theatre, though, as one of Unesco's heritage sites, financial aid is expected. And there is still a final payment of pounds 63m to be found for the construction of the Filial Theatre next door. The two companies will move to the new building during the renovation of their old home.

Vasiliev has also been attacked in the press for lacklustre and unimaginative choice of repertoire, to which he answers: "In order to move ahead, we need to remember the legacy of the past. Future generations will never forgive us for the removal of past works." Yet he himself has reworked two of those "past works", Giselle and Swan Lake which will both be seen in London. In the former, the changes are minor, (though the humble peasant girl is now costumed by Givenchy), but in that icon of balletic tradition, Swan Lake, Vasiliev has dared to fiddle with the scenario, replacing the Evil Magician with a step-father King, and the Black Swan with a Russian Princess. His reasoning for these changes is strong, but he will face tough critics in London.

The artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet today is Alexei Fadeyechev, who ended his auspicious dancing career last summer at the age of 38. Unlike Grigorovich, he believes in accessibility, in an "open-door" policy where any one of his 210 dancers can come and talk things out. But whatever budget cuts are needed, he says he will never consider a smaller troupe: "We need a large company, to fill the stage with white swans and bayaderes if we are to keep the classics alive. And we need to retain the permanent bond of traditional handing down from older ex-dancers to young ones, as in our past."

There will be some familiar balletic faces, such as Nina Ananiashvili, Nadezhda Gracheva, Andrei Uvarov and Mark Peretokin on the Coliseum stage this July, while the Bolshoi's latest stars Konstantin Ivanov, Nikolai Tsiskaridze and the 18-year-old Svetlana Lunkina will be making their London debuts, showing that the Bolshoi spirit and spectacle are not diminished, but very much alive.

Since this is the opera's first visit to London, direct comparisons with past achievements are difficult, though the ballet company will be measured against the Kirov Ballet which brought a scintillating array of productions and dancers to London last year. But the two Russian companies, though bonded by the same legacy, have grown their own identities. They can be compared to that national delicacy, caviar. The Kirov is the black, refined and easy on the palate, while the Bolshoi, a rosy red, is more pungent to the taste and crunchy to the bite. It is also bigger.

The Bolshoi Ballet and Opera are at the Coliseum, St Martin's Lane, London WC1 from 6 July until 7 August. For information and booking 0171- 632 8300

Arts and Entertainment

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Metallica are heading for the Main Stage at Reading and Leeds Festivals next summer

Music

Arts and Entertainment
Kurt Cobain's daughter Frances Bean Cobain is making a new documentary about his life

Music

Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp

TV Jungle security stepped up after murder and 'suspicious death' near to camp

Arts and Entertainment
TV
PROMOTED VIDEO
Arts and Entertainment
Look out: Broad shoulders take Idris Elba’s DCI John Luther a long way
tvIdris Elba will appear in two special episodes for the BBC next year
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift is dominating album and singles charts worldwide

music
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Kieron Richardson plays gay character Ste Hay in Channel 4 soap Hollyoaks

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Midge Ure and Sir Bob Geldof outside the Notting Hill recording studios for Band Aid 30

music
Arts and Entertainment
Jake Quickenden and Edwina Currie are joining the I'm A Celebrity...Get Me Out Of Here! camp
tvThe two new contestants will join the 'I'm A Celebrity' camp after Gemma Collins' surprise exit
News
The late Jimmy Ruffin, pictured in 1974
people
News
Northern Uproar, pictured in 1996
people

Jeff Fletcher found fame in 1990s

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the new Paddington bear review

Review: Paddingtonfilm
Arts and Entertainment
Tony stares at the 'Daddy Big Ears' drawing his abducted son Oliver drew for him in The Missing
tvReview: But we're no closer to the truth in 'The Missing'
Arts and Entertainment
Henry Marsh said he was rather 'pleased' at the nomination
booksHenry Marsh's 'Do No Harm' takes doctors off their pedestal
Arts and Entertainment
All in a day's work: the players in the forthcoming 'Posh People: Inside Tatler'

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne plays Stephen Hawking in new biopic The Imitation Game

'At times I thought he was me'

film
Arts and Entertainment

books
Arts and Entertainment
One Direction go Fourth: The boys pose on the cover of their new album Four

Review: One Direction, Four

music
Arts and Entertainment
'Game of Thrones' writer George RR Martin

Review: The World of Ice and Fire

books
Arts and Entertainment
Sean Bean will play 'extraordinary hero' Inspector John Marlott in The Frankenstein Chronicles
tvHow long before he gets killed off?
Arts and Entertainment
Some like it hot: Blaise Bellville

music
Arts and Entertainment
A costume worn by model Kate Moss for the 2013 photograph

art
Arts and Entertainment

music
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

    It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
    Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

    Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

    The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
    Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

    Sarkozy returns

    The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
    Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

    Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

    Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
    Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

    Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

    Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
    There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

    In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

    The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

    UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

    It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

    It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
    The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

    Staying connected: The King's School

    The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
    Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

    Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

    Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

    Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

    The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
    Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

    When two worlds collide

    Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

    Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
    Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

    Putin’s far-right ambition

    Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
    Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

    Escape to Moominland

    What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?