Bright lights, big pity

When the Bolshoi Ballet first hit America in the late 1950s, tickets were like gold dust. So how come, last year in Las Vegas, they were playing to 6,770 empty seats a night?
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When the Bolshoi Ballet crept out from under the iron curtain to tour the world in the mid-Fifties, the West was totally knocked for six. When they finally hit the United States in 1959, ballet fiends were sleeping rough for days on end outside the Metropolitan Opera House. When the dancers decided to dismiss the official cars and walk from the hotel to the theatre, people threw bouquets as they passed - and well they might. The Bolshoi of the Fifties was a truly awesome assembly of dancers: Galina Ulanova (arguably the greatest ballerina in living memory), Raissa Struchkova, Nicolai Fadeyechev and a chorus of unimagined power and beauty. People didn't just go once out of curiosity: they went every night.

But would it play Vegas? The company waited nearly 40 years to find out. At the end of 1996, Ed Martin, a born-again balletomane from Waynocka, Oklahoma, persuaded a group of his neighbours to co-invest in a project to bring Moscow's finest to Las Vegas and Los Angeles. This would-be ballet impresario had enjoyed considerable success bringing Russian ice hockey teams to tour America and his interest in ballet was recent but sincere: "I could watch 30 hockey games back-to-back and never be bored but the Bolshoi mesmerised me."

Martin, formerly a Methodist minister, was bowled over by the corps de ballet in Swan Lake "In some ways I felt that I've been in the presence of God." Martin fondly imagined that his enthusiasm would be shared by everybody and that the very word "Bolshoi" was a licence to print money. It wasn't. Ed's tragicomic story is told in the first of Angus Macqueen's two-part documentary series Dancing for Dollars, which chronicles the problems faced by Russian ballet after the collapse of Communism. The second film, "The Kirov in Petersburg", outlines that company's financial and artistic struggles in the context of its glorious heritage. "The Bolshoi in Vegas", shown on Channel 4 tomorrow, is a cautionary tale of corporate greed and individual incompetence, crosscut with archive footage of the successful Fifties tour and sleazy clips of the night-life Las Vegans seem to prefer.

The first lesson Ed Martin had to learn was that ice-hockey players travel considerably lighter than ballet companies. His organisational skills proved unequal to the sheer logistics of transporting 245 dancers, musicians and technical staff with all their equipment. Forty-eight hours before curtain-up, an entire container of gear had yet to materialise. In it were the Swan Lake costumes, all the scenery and all the musical instruments. Unknown to Mr Martin it also contained 120 bottles of vodka, 120 bottles of Russian champagne and unthinkable quantities of dried fish (the technical staff were clearly not wasting hard cash on foreign food). US Customs kicked up a fuss but they would hardly have begrudged the scene-shifters a little home cooking had they known what the Bolshoi would face in Nevada.

The Aladdin Theatre had 7000 seats and anyone planning to watch an entrechat six from the balcony would need a telescope. Nice wide stage of course but, er, where was Mr Martin planning to put the orchestra? The Bolshoi, whose dollar-crazed management had for some reason approved the venue, were not impressed: "In 25 years this is a first. Where are our instruments? Where is the orchestra pit? Where are the sets?" A US technician was more relaxed and drew a line across his neck: "I'm hired from here down, they're hired from here up. I don't make those decisions." At first glance, this looks like run-of-the-mill, backstage brinkmanship. We all knew it would be all right on the night and, in one sense, it was: the scenery, tutus and dried fish all turn up 90 minutes before curtain-up but there was still one vital element missing: the audience. Ed Martin has sold exactly 44 tickets.

This may have had something to do with Mr Martin's virtual failure to advertise, foolishly imagining he would merely have to hire the hall. After a superhuman PR effort, they managed to swell the first-night house to 230. The low take-up might also be explained by the fact that the front stalls were $300 each - even the cheap seats were $85. "We've got a cash crisis," says Martin, finger on the pulse, "and if I don't pay them, the little shits won't perform in LA." In the end, Martin's liquidated company lost $1.8m and his investors lost their money. The Bolshoi only ever received their original advance, although they did get their fare home, which was a relief, as Las Vegas's slot machine culture clearly revolted them. "Who are these people?" asks one of the Russians. "Who can sit all day pressing a button? That's a culture? That's degradation."

Culture and degradation are, of course, two things that the Bolshoi know rather a lot about. Since the collapse of its cosily funded life under Communism, the company has been forced on to the streets, turning tricks for hard cash. Unfortunately, individual members of the Bolshoi have felt very much the same way and various breakaway groups of dancers, notably Yuri Grigorovich's lamentable Stars of the Bolshoi, have gone to the States on hard-currency raids over the past eight years or so with minimal sets, bitty programmes and low production values. This "bullshit Bolshoi", as Martin neatly describes it, has devalued the company's stock abroad. The final humiliation of Las Vegas may make it impossible to regain credibility with impresarios.

Victor and Lilian Hochhauser brought the Bolshoi to Britain many times in the Sixties and Seventies and Lilian remembers the glory days with some sadness. "It was wonderful. They had their new production of Spartacus during that period at a time when there were stars to dance it but they just don't have the names any more." And whose fault might that be? Step forward Yuri Nikolaievich Grigorovich, artistic director of the Bolshoi from 1964 until power was finally wrested from him in 1995. "He was desperately autocratic and he didn't nurture any new talent. The main problem for the Bolshoi today is the lack of great dancers but even the corps de ballet was never in the same class as the Kirov. The rot set in years ago - that terrible season at the Albert Hall! I couldn't sit through it. It did them irreparable damage."

The company enjoyed successful British visits in 1986 and 1989 with unforgettable performances from the young Irek Mukhamedov, the Robert De Niro of dance. Resulting consumer confidence meant that the five-week season at the Albert Hall in 1993, dire though it was, was a virtual sell-out and the pop promoter Derek Block and his new friend Yuri fondly imagined that the British public's appetite for old rope was insatiable. Hence their demented plan to charge punters pounds 55 to watch ballet outdoors in the north of England. By the time the whole sorry enterprise was cancelled Block had only managed to shift 8,500 out of 250,000 tickets for his outdoor Bolshoi. He lost over pounds 1m.

Perhaps nobody thought to relay this sad story to Ed Martin and his chums from Waynocka. Mrs Hochhauser certainly has plenty of advice for budding impresarios. "First of all, no one with any idea of the ballet business would put a company into Las Vegas. I mean, we all know that the Bolshoi is not in the best of health at the moment but I can't believe that anyone would succeed in those circumstances - something like Riverdance would be fine. He probably thought $300 a ticket covered him very nicely but there's no way you can get anyone to pay that unless they've got really big names." So is that it? No more Bolshoi in Britain? "I wouldn't like to exclude the possibility of there being any way back for them but it would have to be done extremely carefully, the right price, the right ballets. You have to judge the type of ballet that the public will want to see but always introduce something new. This July the Kirov are introducing Don Quixote and Balanchine's Symphony in C but Swan Lake must come whatever, you always do well with Swan Lake. You want to make it interesting but it has to sell well."

Old hands like the Hochhausers know that these days the name on the poster is no longer enough but no one told Ed Martin: "We understood that the word Bolshoi would be enough to sell tickets." He faces financial ruin with the deflated countenance of a man who has just read the small print on his deeds to the Brooklyn Bridge. "I thought it was as sure a thing as you could have. I didn't think it could fail."

'The Bolshoi in Vegas': Channel 4 tomorrow 9pm. 'The Kirov in Petersburg': Sunday 18 May 9pm. The Kirov Ballet will be performing at the London Coliseum from 9 July to 2 Aug