Ballet and Russia are synonymous in the sense that when a person thinks of one the other isn’t too far from the mind. It was Peter the Great or his wife Catherine the Great who first introduced ballet to Russia, accounts differ, but it was in the early 1700s when the dance first made it to our Eurasian friends. Since that inception the art of the dance has become, not only a sense of pride for the Russian people, ballet in Russia is an absolute life line to the cultural landscape.
Russian ballet reaches so far there are not only schools in St. Petersburg, Moscow and other cities in Russia, schools that teach the art of Russian ballet are found all over the world. Russian ballet companies call Paris home as much as they do in Russia and theaters that focus on Russian ballet decorate the entire globe. The fact is though, there can only be one called the best and that one would be the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow.
This article focuses on why we feel this way so here we go…
1. It is one of the oldest in the world.
While ballet got its start during the Italian renaissance, there is no denying the long history this specific genre of dance and musical composition has in Russia. For the Bolshoi Ballet specifically, the roots go incredibly deep. The lead directly to Empress Catherine II, who gets the definite credit for the beginning of this one grand ballet company, the Bolshoi.
The Empress granted full rights to Prince Pyotr Urusov, the prosecutor in Moscow, for the arrangement of several genres of entertainment and one of his inceptions was the Bolshoi. It was on March 28, 1776, a short time after ballet was first introduced to Russia, that Urusov took on this responsibility. It is this historical date from which the Bolshoi Ballet grew into existence.
Before there was a theater to call their own, the single company, which included ballet, opera and drama at the time opposed to the separate entities we know today, would learn, rehearse and perform in the gymnasium of Moscow University. The Moscow Foundling Home, a famous orphanage founded under Catherine the Great, was a constant source of children to educate in the art of ballet. Visiting performers from all over the world.
Yet, it wasn’t until 1825, when the company was given a newly constructed theater to perform in, did they take on the name Bolshoi, which is said to mean “great” or “big.” The style that would slowly emerge from this prestigious company would be different then the ballet that was coming out of St. Petersburg, another Russian ballet mecca. Instead of the long-established form of St. Petersburg, the dance at Bolshoi would develop into something motivated by Russian legend and would become less formal.
The repertoire of classical ballets performed by this company are vast. Some of them are La Bayadére, Le Corsaire, Giselle La Fille Mal Gardée, Swan Lake, Coppélia and Don Quixote. Other famous works were debuted with the Bolshoi including Cinderalla, composed by Sergei Prokofiev and choreographed by Rostislav Zakharov. Also, the Moscow Choreographic Institute uses a syllabus that directly correlates with the “Moscow” style that exemplifies the Bolshoi dance. This school trains students for future careers dancing with the Bolshoi Ballet.
2. The ballets are performed in one of the world’s most exquisite theaters.
As we said previously, the performing and rehearsal spot for this company was first the gymnasium of Moscow University. It didn’t take very long for a separate building to be erected on behalf of the ballet. The first one was placed on the shore of the Neglinnaya, an underground river the runs through the central part of the city. This theater was named Petrovsky and it opened on December 30, 1780.
That theater burnt to the ground in the fall of 1805 and for some time the company would perform in other locations until 1808 when they began to have productions at the Arbat Theatre. This theater also caught fire and was destroyed during Russia’s was with Napoleon in 1812. Construction for a new theatre building would not begin until 1820.
In 1825 the new theatre opened and it was dubbed the Big Petrovsky Theatre, Bolshoi meaning “big” simply because the new building was greater in size than the previous. For opening night, the entertainment was a “prologue in verse” titled The Triumph of the Muse. Dances were performed to compositions by Alexander Alyabiev, Alexei Verstovsky and F. Scholtz.
The ballet used to bring in the new theater that evening was Cendrillon composed by Fernando Sor, whose wife, Félicité, was the guest ballerina for the performance. It is said that the new theatre, albeit large, wasn’t big enough to hold everyone that wanted to attend that evening so another date had to be added to accommodate all the fans.
Nearly thirty years later, this building would also burn in a fire, which is said to have been typical of theaters in its day specifically due to the gas lights used to illuminate the rooms. After auditioning architects and reconstruction The Bolshoi building that opening on Tsar Alexander II’s coronation day in 1856, is the theater that stands in Moscow today.
Of course, as with any historic building, as the years go by renovations are necessary and the Bolshoi is no different. In October of 2002 a New Stage was erected so that extensive work could be don’t on what is known as the Historic Stage. Today is a historic landmark in Moscow but also filled with some of the best technology of the times.
3. Some of the most prominent names in ballet are associated with the Bolshoi.
Many prominent names within the world of Russian ballet have been associated as well as artists from other countries. Marius Petipa, the father of Russian ballet, choreographed works for the Bolshoi. It is here where Alexander Gorsky, another dancer of that time, would rework some of Petipa’s staging. The Red Poppy was staged by Vasily Dmitrievich Tikhomirov for the first time. World famous dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov danced with the Bolshoi in Toronto.
Olga Vasilyevna Lepeshinskaya was given the honor of the People’s Artist of the USSR in 1951 for her time as a ballerina with the Bolshoi. Male dancer Vladimir Vasiliev, who was known for his authoritative jumps and powerful presence, danced with Bolshoi, and conductor Yuri Fyodorovich Fayer, who is widely known for his talents in ballet circles, served as chief conductor for the Bolshoi Theatre for forty consecutive years until 1963.
4. It has been through some astounding changes.
Not only has the theater gone through some construction changes over the years, the ballet company has also been revamped and reinvented. After the revolution and Russia became the Soviet Union, the newly appointed rulers of the land got heavily involved with what type of art was being established in their country, as well as the message it sent to their people. Specifically, during the beginning, the company would perform works that had a high theme of revolution.
During this time Alexander Gorsky was manager of the Bolshoi Ballet but he was succeeded by Vasily Tikhomirov, who continued his predecessor’s work and direction with the company. It was especially important for the Bolshoi to be a place where new talent could be cultivated and fostered. During his tenure legacy works included The Bolt, The Fountain of Bakhchisarai and The Bright Stream.
The company left the Bolshoi Theatre for a short time during World War II and relocated to Kiubyshev, which sits by the Volga river. They would occupy this space for around two years. It is during this time that the Bolshoi names Leonid Lavrovsky the main choreographer and he and his company debut Gayane to the world. After this and the premiere of Prokofiev’s Cinderella, Lavronsky is appointed Artistic Director.
After the death of Stalin, Bolshoi takes their show on the road and many of their artists become international stars. Eleven years after his appointment, Lavrovsky is replaced by Yuri Grigorovich, who would stay on with the Bolshoi for more than thirty years. Notable works during his time there are Spartacus, The Stoneflower and The Legend of Love. Under his direction Vladimir Vasiliev, Natalia Bessmertinova, Maris Liepa and Ekaterina Maximova thrive as prime dancers.
After Grigorovich retired and the Soviet Union disbanded the Bolshoi has had its own financial struggles. Because of them they have had a slew of directors follow in his footsteps including dancer Vasiliev, Alexei Fadeyechev and Boris Akimov. That was until 2004 when Alexei Ratmansky came on board. From him the Bolshoi saw great achievements like the revivals of The Golden Age, Le Corsaire and The Flames of Paris.
After leaving the company in 2008 Ratmansky still choreographs works as a guest on occasion under new Artistic Director Yuri Burlaka. His achievements thus far include the restoration of Paquita Grand Pas and Esmeralda.
5. It gives you a reason to consider a visit to Moscow
The Bolshoi Theatre and the Bolshoi Ballet are some of the top reasons, artistically and culturally, to take a trip to one of Russia’s greatest cities. In fact, if you Google “top sights in Moscow” the Bolshoi Theatre comes up in the top five attractions for tourists. Others include the Kremlin, Saint Basil’s Cathedral, Gorky Park and the Red Square. Each of these places, and many others, give tourists a great taste of Moscow from a historical level.
Still, the Bolshoi Ballet makes the top of our list for places to see/visit while visiting Moscow. Steeped in ancient tales and talent that far exceeds the reaches of their pointes, this ballet by the name of Bolshoi, is as respected as they come.
Check out some facts about one of the best ballets in the globe: