November 01, 2004

Inside the Bolshoi

Very little escapes the fear of terrorism in our world today. And so, beginning this season, everyone entering the Bolshoi is thoroughly scanned and searched, as if they were boarding an airplane. Long lines of audience members snake between the theater’s columns, waiting to pass through the metal detector and to open their bags; another line – replete with ballet stars, stagehands, journalists and guests – extends out the stage door. Following recent bombings and the fire at the nearby Manezh, no one thinks of protesting. The hum of conversation surrounds the entrances; jokes are made about how all are equal before the greatness of the Bolshoi.

Yet some are more equal than others. The heavy oak door opens and the line respectfully steps aside to let pass a small, elderly lady with grey hair and a piercing, searching gaze. She is Soviet ballet legend Marina Semyonova, a renowned teacher who trained generations of the Bolshoi’s best dancers, and who this year celebrated her 96th birthday. Semyonova gave up her weekly classes only last year, but continues to work with individual dancers. To see her exchange cordial greetings, passing coolly through formalities and setting off down the corridor with a brisk, businesslike step, is to immediately understand what is meant by “regal simplicity” – perfect beau monde or theatrical society manners.

The 228-year old Bolshoi Theater measures its history in ages. In each, the soloists, conductors, managers, staging traditions and even the architectural appearance of the building change. At times, the Bolshoi has been a yardstick; at others a theatrical backwater. It has been threatened with closure several times, but it has always been the country’s principal theater, and not just because it is Russia’s largest, both physically (the word bolshoi means “large” or “grand”) and in the number of its employees (currently about 3,000, with 250 in the corps de ballet alone). No, the Bolshoi is Russia’s principal theater because the state of the Bolshoi can be used to judge the cultural situation in Russia more broadly.

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