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Russia's shiny new Bolshoi grappling with gripes

When Moscow's Bolshoi Theater threw open its doors after a six-year renovation, a gilded handle broke off in a reporter's hand during the first dress rehearsal for the opening opera.
/ Source: Reuters

When Moscow's Bolshoi Theater threw open its doors after a six-year renovation, a gilded handle broke off in a reporter's hand during the first dress rehearsal for the opening opera.

It was a palpable sign that after a $700-million restoration Moscow's theatrical jewel is struggling to live up to a centuries-old reputation as a bastion of Russian culture.

In the three months since its reopening, performers have criticized the renovation, audiences booed its operatic premiere and complained about ticket prices, two Bolshoi ballet stars decamped to a rival theater and other dancers suffered injuries.

"The theater is in a difficult situation," said Valeria Uralskaya, editor-in-chief of Russia's Ballet Magazine, adding the troupe, who performed at a smaller New Stage during the refurbishing, needs time to grow into the new surroundings.

The renovation returned real gold leaf and alabaster to the 18th century theatre's grandiose interior. Engineers boasted every piece of decor was made out of special materials designed to bounce back sound to improve the acoustics.

Back stage, however, dancers grumbled that practice rooms had become cramped and the Bolshoi had lost the kind of charm that can only exist with the patina of a bygone era.

"The theatre's spirit has completely deteriorated," Marianna Ryzhkina, Bolshoi's prima ballerina in her 22nd season, told Reuters while sipping tea in her dressing room after a recent performance.

"The rehearsal space has been taken apart and replaced with office-like rooms with low ceilings and other defects," she said lounging in a sweatsuit at odds with her heavy stage make-up.

Two dance studios have sloping ceilings so low, the dancers risk bumping their heads during high lifts, Ryzhkina said.

Many of the theatre's long-serving staff say they are nostalgic for the creaking parquet floors and squeaky wooden doors, now replaced with bland beige tiles and plastic.

"It is sad to see the theatre's creative air go," one of the Bolshoi's concierges said.


Billed as the start of a triumphant new era at the theater founded by Empress Catherine the Great in 1776, the Bolshoi's reopening was celebrated in grand style last autumn with a black-tie gala for a star-studded audience.

Rare pine paneling, plush red velvet seats and gold leaf, hand laid according to a medieval egg-and-vodka recipe, was to whisk audiences back centuries to the theatre's glory days.

But the first visitors said the show ruined the experience.

Tradition-loving Russian audiences, shocked by its on-stage nudity and flashy video installations, booed and hissed Mikhail Glinka's season-opening opera "Ruslan and Lyudmila."

A month later, as critics awaited the premiere of crowd-pleasing classic "Sleeping Beauty," staged by 85-year-old Bolshoi legend Yuri Grigorovich, two star dancers quit.

On-stage, off-stage lovebirds Natalia Osipova, 25, and Ivan Vasiliev, 22, left for the smaller and lesser-known Mikhailovsky Theater in St. Petersburg.

In a parting jibe, the marquee performers said they left in search of creative freedom not money -- although a free flat and generous wages were part of the Mikhailovsky offer.

All eyes now turned to David Hallberg, who joined the Bolshoi as its first American principal dancer last September.

The striking, fair-haired, six-foot-two dancer gracefully debuted in Sleeping Beauty, winning praise from critics eager to forgive the Bolshoi its opening opera flop.

Success and redemption were short-lived, however. Despite a new shock-absorbent stage coating to make jumping safer for dancers, Hallberg sprained his ankle on the ballet's second night and left for two weeks of treatment in the United States.

To add insult to injury, Russian culture fans flooded the blogosphere with complaints about the cost of tickets, particularly those bought by ticket touts for resale at an enormous mark-up.

In a bid to address the problem, the Bolshoi now asks to see passports at its ticket counter, but men dressed in puffy black coats against the Moscow winter still hustle tickets nearby.

A seat in the dress circle for the premiere of "Der Rosenkavalier" opera in April was on sale at the box office for $110, but the show is officially sold out. Touts are offering the same ticket for as much as $300 dollars.

Despite the challenges, the Bolshoi draws a full house of visitors willing to pay the high prices for a night in one of the world's most famous theatres.

"It's my first visit to Moscow, and I was told I had to go to the Bolshoi at any price," a French fashion marketing director who paid $200 for tickets told Reuters.

"It was worth it," she said.