Two centuries of scandal, intrigue and dancing in Russia are masterfully handled in Simon Morrison’s Bolshoi Confidential
In 2013, the headlines about the Bolshoi Ballet were less about the perfect execution of athletic feats and more concerned with a vicious acid attack on its artistic director Sergei Filin. The world gasped in shock and struggled to reconcile the barbarous action with the refinement of the art form. Insiders were quick to point out that this was not the first scandal that the vaunted troupe had weathered in its history.
One such insider is Simon Morrison, a music professor at Princeton University and a leading authority in 20th century Russian and Soviet music. In his latest book, Bolshoi Confidential: Secrets of the Russian Ballet from the Rule of the Tsars to Today, Morrison narrates a stormy tale of the personalities that shaped the company and ruled the country.
He begins and ends his book with the attack on Filin, but the tale actually starts with the enigmatic founders of the theater, Michael Maddox and Prince Pyotr Urusov.
Maddox was an Englishman of dubious theatrical and scientific origins – he may or may not have been a magician. Urusov had little success with early theater projects: One collaboration was brought to an end when his partner vanished “with the costumes and salaries owed to the staff.”
In order to build a theater, Maddox borrowed large sums from the Imperial Foundling Home under Catherine the Great, which conveniently was also a bank; and a mortgage broker, a pawn shop, and a performance school for children.
Curious and intimate anecdotes are related throughout the text, making the large-scale historical narrative more accessible.
Little-known facts emerge, such as the decrees of a capricious emperor banning shoelaces from the stage, or stipulating that “men could teach ballets but were not
allowed to perform in them.” Government officials in Moscow banned a claqueur (professional fan) from the city for throwing a dead cat on stage.
Morrison spins tales of obscure dancers raised from lower ranks to stardom as prima ballerina assoluta, a title reserved for the most accomplished performers, and little known composers who came from the darkness of the wings into the spotlight, like Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky.
However, every glittering success seems to throw up a scandalous counterpoint. Morrison explains that during the reign of the tsars, the Bolshoi was “a harem of sorts for the court” and it was considered a right of passage for a young nobleman to have an affair with one, or more, of the dancers.
Bolsheviks at the Ballet
The Soviet years saw a reinvention of the company and theater. Speeches were given by Lenin and Stalin from the main stage and Morrison describes the troupe’s struggles to perform a repertoire aligned with political ideals.
The Bolshoi found new purpose by joining “rocket science and chess in the effort to prove, on the world stage, that Russian political and nationalist might was right.” World tours also provided ample opportunity for low-level espionage by KGB operatives, and for dancers like Alexander Godunov to defect to the West.
The book sweeps through nearly 250 years of history with ease and flair. Morrison, in depicting the less savory aspects of history, paints a picture of talented individuals caught up in world affairs and events beyond their control. He gives an authoritative peek behind the curtain, to reveal what drives a dancer “to transcend the cracked joints, pulled muscles, and bruised feet,” but never loses sight of the political context.