Captain Moonlight's Notebook: Bolshoi ballet here to make a few pointes

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The Independent Online
'BALLET is my life,' the genial and slightly overweight Londoner said. 'That's a joke,' he added instantly in case anyone took him seriously. Making money, I imagine, would be a more accurate description. Derek Block is the 50-year-old impresario, agent and promoter who made his fortune in the pop world and who has brought the Bolshoi Ballet to London.

He is taking a big risk and so are the Russians. The ballet world in Britain is sceptical - January is traditionally a time when theatres in London are half- empty and the venue, the Albert Hall, has never been used for ballet before. The stage occupies half the huge central arena. The other half is filled by the orchestra. The Bolshoi's artistic director, Yuri Grigorovich, has broken down full-length ballets into 'suites' - that is, the popular and exciting bits, a kind of Classic FM approach.

Some dance critics believe this spells disaster. I hope they will be proved wrong. Grigorovich thinks so. He said when he was last in Britain the critics complained that his ballets were too long. I don't think you have to worry too much about Mr Block but the Bolshoi is different - it is penniless. Its five-week London season which began last night is designed to show the rest of the world that the company is still up there among the best and not stuck in a cultural time warp.

In the bowels of the Albert Hall there was a strong smell of cooked cabbage wafting along the corridor from the canteen. The smell was most definitely pre-glasnost. There were Russians everywhere. The signs were in Russian, the menu was in Russian, the conversation was in Russian, the minders were Russian. Most Russian of all, the dancers were studying the prices and not spending money. They shared cups of coffee and saved their precious sterling for the January sales outside.

The auditorium has been transformed into a copy of the Bolshoi Theatre itself. The organ is hidden by a huge floor-to- ceiling canvas painted to resemble the Bolshoi's five tiers. In front is a large proscenium arch, modelled on what everyone now calls the Tsar's Box. In Moscow the hammer and sickle remain in place above it: the theatre was, after all, awarded the Order of Lenin on its 200th birthday in 1976 for being what Leonid Brezhnev called the Soviet Union's pride and joy. In London the hammer and sickle have been removed and replaced with the Romanovs' two- headed eagle.

The Bolshoi today is as conscious of its foreign audience as it is of its leading, some critics say, former leading position in the world of ballet. For now that its state subsidy has been reduced to little more than tea money for its scene-changers, it has to earn its keep. It also has to show the ballet world that there is an unrivalled reservoir of talent despite the departure of its top stars for fat contracts abroad. Thus its unlikely marriage with Derek Block.

He first met the Bolshoi in the United States a year ago. Mr Block said he wanted to move out of pop because profit margins were too low. The Russians, he said, were no fools: they knew their dollars and pounds and he did not 'get them cheap'. It is costing him pounds 3m to bring the Bolshoi to London, including bed and breakfast for the company at the Kensington Hilton, pounds 20 daily allowance for the corps de ballet and performance fees from pounds 200 to pounds 300 for the leading dancers.

'Its a bit different from pop concerts,' Mr Block said, 'but not too different. I just let the Russians get on with the artistic side and I worry about the logistics.'

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