The Bolshoi Rocked by New Directions

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Since the mid-1990s, Russia's most renowned ballet troupe, the Bolshoi, has run into serious trouble. Infighting among the artistic and administrative management and a string of directors has damaged morale and standards. Now, another new director is trying to shake things up with a new repertoire. But he has drawn the enmity of some principal dancers, who say he is destroying the Bolshoi's storied traditions.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Robert Siegel.

MELISSA BLOCK, host:

And I'm Melissa Block.

For many years, Russia's Bolshoi Ballet was the flagship of Soviet culture. But in the 1990s, in-fighting and a series of different directors seriously damaged its morale and its artistic standing. Now a new director is shaking things up. But he's made enemies with some Bolshoi veterans, who say he's destroying the ballet's celebrated traditions.

NPR's Gregory Feifer reports from Moscow.

GREGORY FEIFER reporting:

Scaffolding now surrounds the Bolshoi Theatre's signature building, a stone's throw away from the Kremlin. But the 150-year-old structure isn't the only part of the Bolshoi under reconstruction.

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FIEFER: In a new building next door, dancers stretch their superbly limber bodies. They're part of a troupe trying to rebuild itself and live up to its reputation as the world's best ballet.

Leading the reform effort is 37-year-old director Alexei Ratmansky. He acknowledges critics who say the Bolshoi has relied on aging choreography and has refused to experiment. He says the ballet can move beyond repetitious productions of the classics.

Mr. ALEXEI RATMANSKY (Bolshoi Ballet): I would like the audience and the dancers and the critics to realize that Bolshoi doesn't mean we have to produce the chef-d'oeuveres for centuries. We are allowed to take risks and we have. Otherwise, it's not possible to move forward.

FIEFER: Ratmansky has invited foreign choreographers and new, younger talent to drag the Bolshoi into a new era.

(Soundbite of music)

FIEFER: He led the Bolshoi's production of Sergei Parkofiev's Romeo and Juliet, restaged by a British theatre director. But Ratmansky's approach has drawn bitter criticism. Some of the most vocal comes from one of the Bolshoi's best-known stars.

Principal dancer Nikolai Tsiskaridze says Ratmansky has trashed the Bolshoi's traditions and insulted its dancers. Tsiskaridze calls the Bolshoi's current repertoire an embarrassment.

Mr. NIKOLAI TSISKARIDZE (Bolshoi Ballet) (Through translator): For the past 14 years, I've been the main face of the Bolshoi, one the theatre's main artists. And suddenly, someone arrives from nowhere, someone who never danced here and who couldn't have even dreamed of it and now he's saying the Bolshoi has no good traditions and its dancers are old supporters of the Communist Party.

FIEFER: Not everyone agrees with him. Ludmila Semenyaka was one of the Bolshoi's biggest stars in the 1970s and now coaches prima ballerina Svetlana Zakharova. Semenyaka says it's natural for dancers to have conflicts with choreographers, but that Ratmansky needs to impose disciplinary authority. However, she praises Ratmansky for provoking controversy.

Ms. LUDMILA SEMENYAKA (Bolshoi Ballet coach) (Through translator): Because when there's silence in the same old productions, that's not enough. We need a breath of fresh air and for the theatre to seek out new projects, but that can be a difficult process.

FIEFER: The Bolshoi Ballet's troubles began in 1994 with the ousting of famed director Yuri Grigorovich, who had run the troupe with an iron fist for 30 years. In the year 2000, then culture minister Mikhail Shvydkoi was appointed to rebuild it.

After six years of chaotic leadership, he says he found the ballet in shambles.

Mr. MIKHAIL SHVYDKOI (Former Culture Minister, Russia): Maybe because the great epoch of Grigorovich finalized. And Bolshoi lost a lot of the real big stars. They lost musicians. They lost singers.

FIEFER: Shvydkoi overhauled the company's management. The budget was increased and Ratmansky was appointed director of the ballet. Ballet scholar Vadim Gaevsky says while Ratmansky isn't a radical innovator, he is a talented choreographer. Gaevsky says the Bolshoi will improve, but that at least for now it's main rival, St. Peterburg's Mariinsky Ballet, will probably remain the world's best.

Mr. VADIM GAEVSKY (Ballet Scholar) (Through translator): The Bolshoi is the Bolshoi, that's what called a brand. But the Mariinsky Theatre is real art, that's the difference.

FIEFER: The Bolshoi supporters disagree. They believe a successful restructuring is underway and they expect the Bolshoi will once again lead the ballet world when the main building reopens in 2008.

FIEFER: Gregory Fiefer, NPR News, Moscow.

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