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Backstage At The Bolshoi Ballet


This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan.

In a piece for The New Yorker, David Remnick notes that some institutions mirror important aspects of society: the office of heavyweight boxing champion from Jack Johnson to Mike Tyson here in the United States and in Moscow, the Bolshoi Ballet, from its establishment under the czars of the Soviet era and now in Vladimir Putin's Russia where a dancer and two other men stand accused of an acid attack on the ballet's artistic director. Remnick's piece is called "Danse Macabre: A Scandal at the Bolshoi Ballet." And New Yorker editor David Remnick joins us from our bureau in New York. Nice to have you with us today.


CONAN: And your readers will remember, of course, you covered Moscow before and during the collapse of the Soviet Union. How, in those days, did the Bolshoi mirror its society?

REMNICK: Well, it's falling apart like the Soviet Union was. The Bolshoi Ballet in those days had lost many of its best dancers to the West through defection and the rest, and just as the Kirov Ballet did in St. Petersburg. But it was also being slowly defunded because the country was being slowly defunded as it went into a state of economic and - disintegration, especially in the early '90s.

CONAN: There was...

REMNICK: And then you had a budget for the entire Bolshoi Ballet and opera - a huge complex of employees and performances and productions - of no more than $10, $12 million. Now, you're up - just for the ballet company, it's $120 million.

CONAN: You also wrote that it was a - mirrored the stultification of society in the end old - at the end of the Soviet empire.

REMNICK: Well, during the Soviet period, the greatest choreographer of all, Valentin, was not being danced on the stages of the Bolshoi and the Mariinsky or Kirov in St. Petersburg for the same reason that you weren't reading Solzhenitsyn or Grossman or Mandelstam. It just hadn't broken through. It took Gorbachev and perestroika and glasnost - you remember all those ancient words in the late '80s - to have that happen. And so it's no mystery why the street would be reflected on the stage.

CONAN: And now, how is the reflected on the stage?



REMNICK: If you go to Moscow today - I'm not talking about the provinces and I'm not talking about provincial cities, but Moscow, the very center of Moscow - is in some ways Riyadh or a kind of oil-rich capital. That's what Russia is today in terms of its economy at the highest levels. The very high elites, which all congregate in downtown Moscow and have their country homes in - outside, have enormous amount of money. The highest concentration of billionaires in any city in the world is in Moscow of all places, and when I lived in Moscow, you could barely buy a potato or an onion or get a box of matches, and this is reflected in the most glamorous state-controlled theater of all, the Bolshoi.

CONAN: Just to interrupt our conversation for a moment, we are seeing black smoke emerging from the Vatican, which means there was no pope selected in the most recent vote, so onto tomorrow. But in any case, on back to the Bolshoi Ballet.


CONAN: And, David Remnick, as you look at the influence of all that money, one of the accomplishments of the Bolshoi, you say, is that it has managed to make itself ideologically independent.

REMNICK: Well, this is a great thing. I mean, the days of any ideological control over the arts are more or less over. It's not the case with the media. I should be very, very quick to say. Ideological control over television, in particular, is - could not be tighter around the neck. But when it comes to the arts, when it comes to literature, when it comes to theater, there is really - it's quite open, and you can see and hear and do pretty much what you'd like to do.

CONAN: And that's quite a change from the days of the Soviet era.

REMNICK: Well, in the late Soviet era, in the Brezhnev era, there was a man named Yuri Grigorovich, who ran the Bolshoi Ballet, and he ran it with no more - no less a sure hand than Brezhnev ran the Soviet Union, probably even surer hands since he wasn't falling apart the way Brezhnev was. And Grigorovich's own ballets were these kind of agitprop, heroic, pompous productions like "Spartacus" and "Ivan the Terrible." And as I say, the great genius of the 20th century, Russian-born, of course, George Balanchine was - his choreography was nowhere to be seen. Where that was performed in all its glory was at New York City Ballet.

CONAN: And now we see this scandal at the Bolshoi. And again, it is - several people in your piece say it's the street coming into the theater.

REMNICK: It's not just one scandal. The most recent scandal is that the artistic director was coming home one night at about 11:00, and he was approaching his apartment building, and a man came up to him behind him and said (foreign language spoken), which is a kind of threatening way to say - in a mob movie here, it would be, you know, Vito Corleone says hello.


REMNICK: And he brought a glass of - a kind of jar out from behind his back, filled with a liquid and flipped it into the face of this man. Sergei Filin is his name, the artistic director of the ballet. And it was sulfuric acid, and it burned and burned and burned. And happily, the only good thing about this is that there was a lot of snow on the ground, and Filin had the good sense to smear the snow into his face, which somewhat limited the burning. But it did terrible things to his eyes.

He immediately went blind on the spot. He couldn't get into the house. He couldn't find - he couldn't use his phone because he couldn't see the numbers. He kept smearing snow and snow into his face. And finally, he stumbled his way to a kind of guard booth near the parking lot, banged on the door and told the man, you know, help me, please. And they called an ambulance and they called his wife. And, you know, and so a mystery began.

But I have to say that this had been preceded by many other small and large scandals. For example, the - when the artistic director's job had come open two years before, there was a certain man who was up for the job. His name is Yanin. And while that job search was going on, thousands of people in the dance community, in the theater community and so on were sent an email with a link with pornographic pictures of this guy Yanin engaged in all manner of sexual congress. And that was the end of Yanin.

There was the incident of the too fat ballerina. I'm not making this stuff up. After all, it's in The New Yorker.


CONAN: That should be true.

REMNICK: And I, you know, it's hilarious on one hand and very dark on the other, which is kind of reflecting - it is kind of a Russian novel in the Putin era.

CONAN: Yet you also say the horrific, pornographic attack against this man - some of these acts depicted were homosexual acts, and that is extremely taboo, at least publicly, in Russia.

REMNICK: I think, in the dance world, it's accepted that there are plenty of gay dancers and choreographers and the rest just as anywhere else. But it's in the larger world of Russia that - especially official Russia - that homosexuality is a really deep taboo. In fact, one dancer, for whatever reason, I had mentioned in my early version of the piece that he was gay. And it was a relevant fact that he begged me, and I quickly acceded to the fact to not mention this because, as he said in his email, this is Russia, David, not where you live.

And, you know, this is no joke that the legislators in any number of cities and now on a national level are trying to pass and, in some cases, have already passed what's called anti-gay propaganda legislation. And it's such a loose definition of what this is. You could be walking down the street with your lover's hand in yours, and that could be considered anti-gay pornography or rather propaganda. Books that are either incidentally about gay life or gay sex can be banned. Any - certainly a gay pride parade would be outlawed by this kind of thing. Russia is really retrograde on this subject, and that's a subplot in this piece as well.

CONAN: Yet these kinds of attacks are not unusual in Russian business, in Russian politics, in Russia itself. And you interviewed Sergei Yurevich Filin, the victim of this attack, who said from the start he knew who did it.

REMNICK: Right. He had some suspicion. He had disputes with people in the company, whether it was over money. Remember, if you're the artistic director of a ballet company and there are 200-odd dancers there, you have their fate in your hands. A ballet dancer has a very short career. He or she is extremely competitive with the other dancers. Everybody wants to be the prima ballerina or the top soloist in the male case, and there's just so many that are going to get that job. And if you're not getting that job, your salary is extremely low. Your chance of stardom is extremely low, and it all happens very quickly, just as it would on a baseball team or a basketball team or anywhere where the career length is very short. So Filin had this power.

And, you know, in the last couple of decades, they have been turning over artistic directors like flapjacks at the Bolshoi. They've had five in little over a decade. That's a lot. And for example, Ratmansky, Alexei Ratmansky, who's now in New York, was probably the best of them, and he went - he left there running, yelling and screaming because he couldn't take this atmosphere of threats from jealous boyfriends and people who wanted to use money for their favorites to get parts. It was an awful situation.

I should say, even though we're talking about Putin's Russia, even though Khrushchev and Stalin and Brezhnev and all the rest used to go to the ballet all the time because this was a centerpiece of Russian high culture, Putin couldn't care less. Putin never goes. He's interested in sports. He's interested in flying with the cranes. He's interested in all kinds of kind of outdoorsman stuff, stripped to the waist. He's not interested in the ballet of the opera. Couldn't care less.

CONAN: Now, we know that one of these frustrated dancers has now been charged with instigating this case along with a friend of his, a thug. I think it's fair to (unintelligible).

REMNICK: I think it's fair to say. Yeah.

CONAN: Yeah. And a getaway driver, yet they've confessed and a lot of people say of course they confessed. They needed to find someone and it's all put-up job.

REMNICK: Well, remember the criminal justice system in Russia, the judicial system in Russia is extremely primitive - extremely prone to bribery, state control. So nobody fully trusts it. Nobody fully trusts it. And because in their everyday lives, they know if they get pulled over by a cop, they might not have done anything and the cop just wanted a bribe and it goes all the way up to the top with these high-profile trials, like for the band Pussy Riot. You know, these young women who did a kind of performance art in a very prestigious cathedral and they were arrested for this. And the next thing you know, they're spending a few years in a prison camp in far eastern - in Siberia.

So people are very suspicious anytime the police or the judicial system says case has now been solved. There's always the thought that there's a puppet master, a grand poobah that's running the, you know, the low-level thugs. But the arrest they made was of a dancer in the troop who is angry with feeling about issues on money and parts and his girlfriend wasn't getting the part in "Swan Lake." I mean, you know, if bodily injury wasn't involved here, the whole thing is hysterically funny, at the same time. I mean, you know, violence, you know, is being expended over "Swan Lake." I mean, it's almost too good to be true.

CONAN: We're talking with David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, about his piece on the Bolshoi Ballet titled "Danse Macabre." You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

And as we look at this, there is a darker aspect. There is still this great division, at least one great division in the Bolshoi. There is a sort of institutional opposition, a man who bitterly resents every one of those five directors because none of them were him.

REMNICK: This is Nikolay Tsiskaridze. Let me just correct myself. I don't mean to say that it's too good to be true in the sense that it's this - I'm overlooking the fact that somebody's deeply injured and maybe even blinded. But the details of this are just so bizarre that they seem to go beyond the boundaries of reality. But they are absolutely true. There is dancer Nikolay Tsiskaridze, who is from Georgia, hence the complicated name, and he thinks of himself as the last great star of the Bolshoi.

His career on stage is fading as everybody does after a certain point. He's 40 years old. And he is seen as the big troublemaker at the troop and that people who run the theater thought that in some way he had poisoned the atmosphere of the Bolshoi. So you have characters here who are - and I hope it's told well in the magazine - that really are worthy of some strange combination of "Black Swan" and "Crime and Punishment."

CONAN: Yet, amid these larger-than-life figures and these enormous passions and these jealousies, there is the broader picture of what is happening in Russia and the way it is reflected in what is happening at the Bolshoi. And what was once one of the grand cultural institutions anywhere in the world, well, it's not that anymore, is it?

REMNICK: Well, I think they've gotten some bad publicity now. And I, you know, can't be avoided. When I showed up to start reporting on this piece, the very smart and kind publicity person, press spokeswoman, Katya Novikova, said maybe you should write a story about festival - of the 100th anniversary of the "Rite of Spring." And I said, you know why I'm here. And she said, I know why you're here, and then proceeded to be very available and very straightforward in doing her job. She was not evasive.

I think they recognized this is a big blow to them. I mean, you could imagine. It's beyond reckoning. The notion that say the Metropolitan Opera here in New York or San Francisco Symphony somehow, you know, the first violin is throwing acid in the face of the conductor because he or she is not getting the solo that they want. It's beyond imagining. In Russia, it's in concert with the reality of everyday.

CONAN: And it is - yes, the liberation of the money, there is no longer than ideological fight. There's also the corruption of the money.

REMNICK: Yeah. You know, it's still a state-run institution and the state is a lot richer than it was. But they also now have a board, and the board is dominated by this new and growing class of oligarchs who are in all the obvious businesses. As I say, Russia is - its economy is, in some ways - I don't mean to make a cartoon of it, but not that dissimilar from Saudi Arabia. We're talking about oil and natural gas. That's where all the big money is from and then some other resources as well.

And these people - in the same way that Rockefellers and Carnegies in their time who were pretty roughshod people want to kind of do something for their image by becoming associated with the arts. These people want to do the same as well, although they don't want to wait three generations. They want to do it all in one generation.

CONAN: David Remnick, thanks very much for your time today. Appreciate it.

REMNICK: My great pleasure.

CONAN: David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker. His piece is titled "Danse Macabre: Scandal at the Bolshoi Ballet." There's a link to it at our website. Just go to npr.org and click on TALK OF THE NATION. Tomorrow, Political Junkie Ken Rudin will be here with all the week's political news and that includes former New York Governor Eliot Spitzer on political redemption. It's the TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News. I'm Neal Conan in Washington. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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