Backstage at the Bolshoi Theatre.
The good news is that tickets are available -- if you plan well and reserve them three months in advance, or if you're willing to part with a lot of money. The first Bolshoi tickets I was offered by a specialized agency here in Moscow would have cost e1/4250 a piece. On Russian holidays they can be even more expensive.
Instead, I decided on the 6 euro option. For that price, I didn't get a ticket to a performance, but I did get a tour of the theatre. And what was great about that was that getting tickets was easy. The tours are offered on Wednesdays and Fridays and start shortly after 12 noon. You can buy tickets at the box office starting at 12 on the day of the tour, though to be sure you should be there a little earlier. The tour in Russian costs 6 euros; the English tour costs 15. It's a bargain and a real alternative for anyone who, like me, can't get a ticket to a performance. But it's also the perfect complement to an evening in the theatre.
Through the Bolshoi in plastic socks
Our group meets at the side entrance to the theatre. Then, as almost everywhere in Moscow, comes a security screening. And we all get snazzy bright blue plastic slip-ons. Without them, no lowly visitor can move through the venerable "Big Theatre" (Bolshoi is the Russian word for big). Of course it's different in the evenings at performances, but for a tour behind the scenes, they're obligatory.
Xenia, a friendly, cultured lady, leads us through the back door, but then into the place where it all happens: the large auditorium for the main stage: 1800 seats, dark wood, red velvet and lots and lots of gold.
The Bolshoi past and present
The theatre as we see it today was reopened in October 2011, after six long years of renovation. Evidently the theatre was already falling apart in the Soviet era. Cracks had formed, plaster was flaking off everywhere, the main entrance and upper circles had to be closed. Even official bodies admitted (although not until the restoration was finished) that, before it was closed in 2005, that the risk of the Bolshoi Theatre collapsing was 70%.
The renovation and refurbishment are said to have cost 500 million euros, but -- and people in Russia value this -- the results are well worth it. The Bolshoi is now technically state-of-the art, and optically a perfect copy of its tsarist-era opulence. All hammer and sickle symbols have disappeared. Instead everywhere the double-headed eagle emblematic of the monarchy hangs resplendently -- usually gilt, of course.
By the way, the gilding is said to have been carried out here in the Bolshoi in the good old Russian manner: take vodka, stir it into egg white, and voila -- the perfect adhesive for gold leaf! Despite that, Xenia adds with a twinkle in her eye, she's never tried the method herself.
The box where Stalin liked to sit was right next to the stage. Nowadays it tends to be rich businessmen who treat themselves to a seat in Stalin's favorite box, Xenia tells us. In contrast to the dictator, who often watched the performances secretly and unrecognized, going to the Bolshoi is now once again about seeing and being seen.
Behind the scenes
Not only does Xenia take us next to the tsar's box (unfortunately it's not open to the public), but all the way up to about the same level as the colossal chandelier. It hangs high above the large auditorium, and weighs two tons. While we're there, the orchestra is rehearsing, and if we close our eyes it's almost like a "real" visit to the Bolshoi.
Then we go backstage, to a room that usually remains concealed from audience members: the costume workshop. You can take pictures here only in certain places, where it's guaranteed that you won't be photographing any of the costumes for current productions. But you can look, if just for a few minutes: lavish robes, headdresses, glitter and sequins, and of course plenty of white and pale pink tutus.
Getting up close to the ballet troupe
Then we go another flight up and we're right above the large auditorium. The giant chandelier hangs directly below us. Here is the large ballet rehearsal stage. At least twenty dancers are there, unspectacular in practice clothes, without make-up, dripping with sweat. Sleeping Beauty is being rehearsed -- just the supporting roles, but even that is fantastic. There are about 200 dancers currently in the ensemble. Thousands apply to be accepted every year.
At the edge of the stage there's a piano, and next to it an elderly woman who shouts out commands as if this were an army barracks. I think the leaps, steps and turns look perfect. She obviously doesn't. The young ballerinas knuckle under, nod and gasp for breath. Naturally, photos are taboo here.
But how wonderful it is to sit on an old wooden folding chair and watch the dancers at work! Here it's clearer than in any performance what sheer hard graft is involved in creating the lightness and ease we see onstage. Here, without orchestral accompaniment, with no lighting or costumes, it's also much more evident how thin the young women are. I whisper a question to Xenia and she says the girls weigh 45 kilos at the most, and that most of them weigh less.
As we leave the rehearsal stage, Xenia tells us that the female dancers at the Bolshoi retire at the age of 38, and the men in their early forties. The ensemble at the big Russian theatre no longer consists only of Russian dancers. In the current season there are also Brazilian ballerinas, and several members of the troupe come from Ukraine. Asked if there are conflicts within the ensemble and if the war in eastern Ukraine has made working together more difficult, Xenia shakes her head vehemently. "We don't do politics here. We dance."
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