BOLSHOI AND KIROV BALLET COMPANIES

RUSSIAN BALLET COMPANIES

The large cities of Russia traditionally have had their own symphony orchestras and ballet and opera houses. Although funding for such facilities has diminished since the break up of the Soviet Union, attendance at performances remains high. The ballet companies of the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow and the Kirov Theater in St. Petersburg are world renowned and have toured regularly since the early 1960s. The Moscow Classical Ballet

The Perm Ballet Academy is considered the third major ballet school in Russia after the schools connected with the Bolshoi and Kirov. The school is known for combining the pure classicism of the Kirov and the power of the Bolshoi.

Perm is a Russian city in the Urals. It was where Serge Diaghilev was born, grew up and founded the Ballet Russes. Graduates of the school include the Bolshoi star Nadezhda Pavlova and the Kirov’s Olga Chenchikova and Lyubov Kunakova.

Bolshoi

The Bolshoi Ballet of Moscow is the world's most famous ballet company. Founded in 1775 and named after the Russian word for "big and best", the Bolshoi was little known outside of the Soviet Bloc until 1956, when it gave a command performance in London. The Bolshoi has over 250 dancers, 2,100 employees and its own orchestra. [Source: Juliet Butler, Korean Air magazine, June 1997]

Bolshoi manager Vladamir Kokorin said that there are three Russian words that all foreigners know: Vodka, Kalashnikov and Bolshoi. The company "captured the imagination of the West," wrote British journalist Juliet Butler, "with its exquisite productions, it shepherding by the KGB, defections by dancing stars and rumors of despotism by the management."

The Bolshoi ballet came into its own in the 1950s under director Yuri Grigorovich, a former dancer, choreographer and artistic director. A controversial figure he has been described by some "a genius" and "brilliant" and by others as "Stalinist" and "brutal." As of the early 2000s the Bolshoi was under the director of Boris Akimov, a former dancer and well-respected teacher.

The Bolshoi Ballet performs in the Bolshoi Theater. Props and costumes the Bolshoi Ballet have been produced by hand since 1936 in workshop in an abandoned factory down the road from the Bolshoi theater. The Bolshoi has its own medical staff, hospital, massage parlor, kindergarten, sauna, and holiday resort. It main rehearsal halls have cracking paint and warped floor boards. The Moscow Ballet Academy is affiliated with the Bolshoi. It has branched in the United States, Japan and Korea.

Bolshoi Dancers

Bolshoi dancers have traditionally been known for their power and passion. They were often quite muscular and often bounded around like gymnasts. These days they are more delicate and lithe and resemble models.

Although big name soloists earn large sums of money, the members of the corps de ballet earned only $100 a month in the 1990s. One dancer told Butler, "False eyelashes can cost $10 and a pair of tights, $12. We have to buy all these things ourselves, so you darn your tights until you're blue in the face...We're expected to earn money on the side by trading our names as Bolshoi dancers. Some teach in kindergartens or schools." Dancers are required to appear for morning dance classes even after appearing in grueling three-act ballets the night before.

A handsome male dancer, who models and dances at nightclubs told Butler, "Sometimes I'll finish a performance like this and then go tearing off to some nightclub where I dance until three in the morning. We need the money." When asked if she ever thought of quitting, one dancer said of course not. "People look at you differently, you can see the respect in their eyes. It took a tremendous lot of work to get here and once you've made it you'd be mad to leave."

Many Bolshoi dancers smoke, get drunk and have a reputation for promiscuity and fighting among themselves. One dancer told Butler the Bolshoi is known as "one big family" because of all the wife-swapping that goes on.

Famous Bolshoi Dancers

Great Bolshoi dancers include Maya Plisetskaya, Rudolf Nureyev and Olga Lepeshinskaya. In the early 2000s, the top male dancers included Nikolau Tsisjaridze, Andrey Uvarov, Evgeny Ivanchenko. Top female dancers include Maia Alexandrovam Anna Antonicheva,

In 2003, the star Bolshoi ballerina and celebrity Anastasia Volochkova was fired because she was deemed too fat. Sshe weighed 50 kilograms and is 168 centimeters tall). A spokesman for the theater said, “She is heavy for a ballerina’ she is hard to life.” The ballerina said, “This is a planned conspiracy against me.” She sued. After a two month legal battle she was reinstated but was not given any major roles. She called the talk about her weight “humiliating and absurd for Russian ballet.” She lost her $1 million damages claim against the Bolshoi chief. She embarked on solo tours.

Hard Times for the Bolshoi

The collapse of Communism and the subsequent end of state funding produced severe financial problems for the Bolshoi. In the 1990s the Moscow theater had tattered carpets, broken bathrooms fixtures, and walls with crumbling plaster. In 1996, a 10-centimeter gap opened in one the theater’s walls. The theater was in such a bad state of repair there was talk it would be forced to close for two years for repairs. The facade was fixed with a UNESCO grant. In 1992, the Bolshoi was saved from collapse by emergency funding issued by a decree from President Yeltsin.

The Bolshoi has been accused of mismanagement, emphasizing entertainment over serious music. A lot of its top talent has left for the West. One artistic director for the opera quite after a short time because he said performers skipped rehearsals and ignored his orders.

Many ballet critics blamed the Bolshoi's creative problems on the ballet director Grigorovich. He was replaced in 1995 by with general director Vladimir Vasiliev. Dancers loyal to Grigorovich staged a strike. Yeltsin ordered Vasiliev to restore the ballet's luster.

In 1997 performances were widely praised. Much of the credit went to Sir Peter Ustinov, the company’s new artistic direct. Although his descendants are primarily Europeans, the Russians regard him as one of their own.

Bolshoi and Money

In the 1990s the Bolshoi got about $7.5 million from the government and about $1 million from box office receipts. The rest came from donors and money earned on foreign tours.

Efforts to earn money have tarnished the Bolshoi's reputation. Overseas tours have been unimaginative and mediocre. In 1994, a British tour was cut short and forth of the performances for an Australian tour were canceled. Perhaps the lowest point for the Bolshoi was s series of 1996 performances at the Aladdin casino and hotel in Las Vegas in which 1,500 tickets a night were sold for the hotel's 7,000-seat theater.

The ballet, opera and orchestras spend of the year on tour. The performers like this. When they are home they are paid in rubles, sometimes as little as $100 a month. When they are abroad they earn fees in foreign currency approaching those of Western performers.

Kirov

Although less well known that the Bolshoi, the St. Petersburg-based Kirov Ballet has distinguished it over the years as the better ballet. In the late 1800s its great director Marius Petipa choreographed the definitive interpretations of Sleeping Beauty, Raymonda, The Nutcracker and Swan Lake. Natalia Dudinskaya, Tamara Karsavina, Irina Kolpakova, Ninel Kurgapkina, Natalia Makarova all danced for the Kirov.

Named after a Bolshevik politician assassinated in 1934, the Kirov is a resurrection of the tsars Imperial Russian Ballet. The Kirov is famous for it's the pure classicism. "The technical supremacy of the Kirov is legendary," wrote Julie K.L. Dam in Time, "but it is the combination of athleticism and artistry that makes the company unique."

After the collapse of Communism there were plans to change the Kirov’s name, but the ballet's directors decided to keep the name after learning that American astronomers had name a newly discovered planet Kirov.

Kirov Training

The Vaganova Academy is affiliated with the Kirov ballet company. It was founded in 1728 and is named after Agrippina Vaganova, the legendary teacher who worked there from 1921 to 1951. Students at Vaganova have included Russia’s greatest dancers: Nijinsky, Pavlova, Balanchine, Nureyev, Baryshnikov and Makarova. Anna Pavlova described the school during Vaganova’s reign as a “convent where frivolity is banned and merciless discipline reigns.”

The Kirov has a reputation of guiding great dancers through exercises that strengthen and lengthen their muscles, giving them beautify bodies and great athletic ability. After entering, dancers are encouraged to stay with the company and teach, passing on their knowledge to a new generation.

Students at Vaganova enter when they are 9 or 10. Medical test are done at that age to determine whether they can endure the rigorous training, which lasts six days a week and goes on for eight years and is comprised of six hours of dance classes and practice a day.

Describing a senior ballet class under a 75-year-old teacher, Bob Cullen wrote in Smithsonian magazine: “In a large rehearsal hall, 11 members...begin their warm-up exercises at a bar extending along three walls. The teacher, Lyudmila Safranova...enters dressed in a severe black ensemble. ‘Don’t move the arms so much, she commands Alina Somoba, a dark-haired 17-year-old in white tights, red leotard and running shorts . ‘It’s enough to move the hands.’”

There are abut 300 students in the performing department. Only 60 students are admitted each year ad nine out of ten applicants are turned away. After eight years fewer than half graduate. Only two of the 40 or so that graduate make it to the company. Many dancers go abroad.

Kirov Today

The director of the Kirov in the early 2000s was Makkar Vaziev He was known for reenergizing the Kirov and staging sexy, energetic shows that left audiences almost gasping for air.

"Aside from the big-name stars, perhaps the truest indicator of a company's strength is the quality of its corps de ballet," Dam wrote in 1997. The Kirov corps resembles a field of corn being wafted by a gentle breeze, a perfectly matched body of dancers breathing and moving together."

The Kirov has suffered from the same financial problems as the Bolshoi and its artistic director, Oleg Vinogradov, was accused of taking bribes and attacked twice by gangsters, But the company has managed to stay afloat by constantly touring and cutting corners with costumes and sets.

In 2003, the Kirov performed Don Quixote and La Corsaire at the Aladdin Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas.

Kirov Dancers

The Kirov and its home venue, the Marinsky Theater, gave the world Anna Pavlova, Vaslva Nijinsky, Mikhail Fokine, Natalia Makarova, George Balanchine, Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov.

In the early 2000s, the Kirov contained 28 principals dancers, including the prima ballerina Altynai Asylmuratova and lead male dancer Igor Zlensky.. Top male dancers at that time included Andrian Fadeyev and Leonid Sarafanov. The top female dancers were Daria Palenko, Irina Golub, Evgenia Obraztsova and Elena Vostritina.

The performers at the Maryinsky like touring. When they are home they are paid in rubles, sometimes as little as $100 a month. When they are abroad they earn fees in foreign currency approaching those of Western performers.

The Kirov lost more dancers to the West after the break up of the Soviet Union that the Bolshoi. It 2003, it lost one its star ballerinas, Svetlan Zakharova, to the Bolshoi.

Video: Glory of Kirov with Mikhail Baryshinkov, Natalia Dudinskaya, Tamara Karsavina, Irina Kolpakova, Ninel Kurgapkina, Natalia Makarova, Rudolph Nureyev

Image Sources:

Text Sources: New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Times of London, Lonely Planet Guides, Library of Congress, U.S. government, Compton’s Encyclopedia, The Guardian, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, Time, Newsweek, Reuters, AP, AFP, Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic Monthly, The Economist, Foreign Policy, Wikipedia, BBC, CNN, and various books, websites and other publications.

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© 2008 Jeffrey Hays

Last updated May 2016

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