Bolshoi learns steps to capitalism

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The Independent Online
The Bolshoi Ballet was in London last week, on its quietest but perhaps most important visit ever. Its task was to start the former Soviet Union's most famous arts enterprise on the road to capitalism.

A four-man delegation led by the Bolshoi Theatre's commercial director, Vitali Fomin, was getting to grips with computer systems for seat bookings as a first step to increasing its revenue.

At present the Bolshoi has little control over its tickets, which are a Russian currency all on their own. A well-established but informal system grew up over the years in which seats were allocated to government, Communist Party and company members. Many were sold on, and most visitors to Moscow obtain Bolshoi tickets from hotels or other third parties. So not only does the Bolshoi not sell large clutches of its own tickets, it fails to receive any cash for them.

The Bolshoi and Mr Fomin have taken months negotiating through delicate Moscow protocol to change this. There would be uproar if Muscovites, ardent ballet and opera fans, were priced out. 'It is very important that all marketing programmes are directed to satisfy audiences in Moscow as well as throughout the world,' said Mr Fomin.

The Bolshoi also wanted to be sure that it understood all the ramifications of these new routes for cash flow. A year ago it started to talk to a Scottish marketing group, Sporting Partnership. The fact that it had taken so long showed the 'seriousness of the intentions of both parties to make sure everything is right, and that the projects which we have prepared will bring good results for the Bolshoi', said Mr Fomin.

Early next year a computer system will have been installed in Moscow, connected to booking agents all round the world. Anyone planning a visit to the city can check from their home town what the future Bolshoi programme will be, and book a ticket, in confidence that it will guarantee a seat. Hard-pressed Russians will still be able to buy admission for less than 100 roubles (less than 50p), local inflation allowing.

But tickets are only the beginning of the Bolshoi's quest for cash. It has to support a staff thought to total over 3,000 - nobody seems sure of the exact number - in its ballet and theatre companies, orchestra and workshops, as well as to pay for the upkeep of the buildings and precious museum.

The costs run into tens of millions of pounds, and are no longer guaranteed to be covered by the state.

Mr Fomin and his colleagues want potential Western sponsors to take whole boxes or seat blocks. They also looked at glossy programme designs to attract Western advertising, and merchandise for a Bolshoi shop.