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© Ismene Brown 1992-2019


Bolshoi labour contract ready at last

Urin: warmer times ahead

State should fund art, not wages, says Medinsky

"I had a very serious objection to the desire of the collective to take part in resolving creative issues.

We had to be adamant"

2 JUL 14   Wreathed in smiles, but admitting to agonies of impatience at the six-month-long negotiations, the Bolshoi Theatre chief Vladimir Urin yesterday announced the launch of the pioneering new union agreement with performers and staff. The smiles on the staff side are not quite so broad, it’s reported, but they have acquired a raft of comforts to sweeten what has evidently been a painful process.

Urin has won some major discipline battles to control the capriciousness of frustrated or jaded Bolshoi dancers and orchestral players who (it was complained by his predecessor as theatre chief  Anatoly Iksanov and former ballet director Alexei Ratmansky, among others) often did what they wanted, taking foreign gigs without notice, going off ‘sick’, vanishing from scheduled performances, and variously not being reliable.

No longer will Soviet-era lifetime contracts be available to dancers; they will be short-term, renewable every two or three years. The lifers (some of them not seen at the Bolshoi for years, like Anastasia Volochkova, or even employed fulltime abroad, like Svetlana Lunkina in Canada) will have to submit to periodic certification and a much easier legal dissolution of their arrangement. Urin warned the performers that they had chosen a risky profession and the Bolshoi was not ‘social security’.

In return, company performers have won a voice in how performance bonuses are paid out - which means the artistic directors have to be more transparent in their preferences - and also a prized new sanction on foreign producers: outside guest artists will have much more difficulty being hired, as foreign producers will have to conduct auditions at the Bolshoi itself and put the company artists at the front of the queue.  This appears the direct result of the brouhaha caused last year when the John Cranko Foundation, based at Stuttgart Ballet, failed to cast the Bolshoi’s most senior ballerina Svetlana Zakharova for the premiere of the long-awaited Onegin - placed second by the visiting producers, behind a junior dancer. Soon after, Bolshoi chief  Iksanov was fired.

However, the provision is also likely to impinge on opera producers from Britain and Europe who expect artistic control over their productions. (Next season David Alden’s Billy Budd and Richard Jones’s Rodelinda are in the Bolshoi schedule, though those contracts were made a while back.)

With 3,000+ on roll, the Bolshoi seems set to spend its money as a priority on home-grown personnel now, after a period of internationalist outlook. This certainly fits with the outlook of Putin’s government, which is notably more nationalist than was a case a few years ago.

‘The administration had to be adamant’

Urin revealed more of the toughness of the challenge in an interesting interview with news agency ITAR-TASS’s Olga Svistunova yesterday. He described the difficulties as, in part, reconciling Russian Federation labour legislation and the theatre’s own labour charter, formed under the Soviet regime. ‘The search for a common language was no simple matter,’ he said.

The artists had, painfully, to accept Urin’s demand to update the old lifetime contract system with new fixed-term renewable contracts, and the question of how earnings are paid.

He also rejected the performers’ demands to take collective artistic decisions. ‘I had a very serious objection to the desire of the collective to take part in the resolution of creative problems. But the administration had to be adamant.

‘Staff may of course participate in discussion of creative matters, but only within the artistic council. Decision-making is for those who lead the collective. Presently they are Tugan Sokhiev, music director, and ballet artistic director Sergei Filin. There will be no collective decision-making on artistic operations in the Bolshoi Theatre. I absolutely insist on this. Under our contract with the Culture Ministry, we have the duty to account for everything that happens in the Bolshoi Theatre.’

Overall, the new deal looks like a resounding demonstration of strength by new boss Urin, who was headhunted at short notice from the much smaller Stanislavsky Theatre, and in the face of widespread scepticism has wrested calm from unbelievable turmoil last year, while also concluding a savvy-looking, highly pragmatic solution to many of the surface irritants.

It also appears to conform to what the government wanted to hear, oiling the Russian ballet’s inefficient Soviet-era systems rather than rethinking them - that much deeper structural question has been kicked into the long grass.

Sergei Filin, the attacked ballet director, attended the press conference, sitting beside Urin, just 2 days after being released from emergency treatment at the weekend for an allergic reaction. This adds weight to the suggestion from his friends and associates that the severity reported of his supposed condition was exaggerated media spin by his opponents.

Here’s the Izvestia report on the agreement.

Izvestia, July 2, 2014, 15:18 by Yaroslav Timofeev

‘New openness and trust in Theatre Square’

The Bolshoi Theatre has completed its collective agreement. The list of provisions that will regulate the life of the 3,000-strong staff roll was born in agony. ‘I shouted and I roared, I kept running out of patience,’ admitted the theatre’s general director Vladimir Urin happily. ‘But at yesterday’s meeting [Monday], when yet another query about some wording was raised, I counted to 10 out loud, I calmed down, and I answered the question.’

During the six months of negotiations, Urin was not the only one to learn how to grow - the principal ballerina Maria Alexandrova, for instance, has become a professional in labour law, the three separate unions existing in the Bolshoi have been unified, and the rolling tide of mistrust between the staff and the management is, it would seem, now back to average.

The 250 participants in [Monday’s] working conference voted for the final document almost unanimously, but only after five hours of debate and agreement to a series of amendments.

Izvestia has already disclosed the many innovations in the collective agreement. Almost all of them appear in the final version, including the continental breakfast on tours, and a ban on performing in temperatures below 19 degrees Centigrade. Defending the importance of these details, Maria Alexandrova refers back to Suvorov (‘Eat a good breakfast’) [IB: I’m guessing she means 18th-century General Suvorov and his famous military manual] and recalled how once she was obliged to dance in a temperature of 5 degrees Centigrade to a public drinking brandy to warm themselves.

Precedence for home performers

Among the new provisions, announced at a briefing after the conference, is a strict precedence for staff artists before guest ones. Now the directors and producers of a production will be obliged to conduct their casting auditions inside the theatre, and only in the absence of suitable theatre artists may they put in guests.

On the other hand, staff artists will now be forbidden to take employment contracts abroad without the consent of the Bolshoi Theatre. According to Urin, any singers and dancers who breach this will be dismissed from the troupe, as ‘work inside the Bolshoi must come first’.

Contracts in the Bolshoi Theatre will remain time-limited: the chance to leave for some other company will recur every 2 to 3 years. The few performers who have unlimited contracts won’t find their position any easier; they are now bound by a certification process - a legal means to break off the employment relationship.

This contract clause has been one of the most painful in the discussions: the general director reminded the artists that they ‘have chosen a risky profession’, and they may not ‘turn the theatre into a social security’.

He had the last word. The one nod towards the workers is the obligation to give them notice of the non-renewal of the collective agreement a month before its expiry date (under Russian law the notice only has to be three days).

Urin promised to help those fired workers, once left without earnings, but he said law does not permit this to guarantee the amount and type of this assistance in the contract.

'The agreement is not ideal'

At an unusually cheerful briefing - unusually for the Bolshoi Theatre - it was felt that the union leaders were less satisfied with the agreement than the chief.

‘The agreement is not ideal,’ said Maria Alexandrova.

‘This is only the beginning of our work,’ acknowledged the director Elena Balaeva.

However, only a couple of years ago, to hear such phrases spoken at an official briefing at the Bolshoi would have been impossible.

There genuinely is a new openness and trust entering the building on Theatre Square. And together with them some of the pleasant bonuses of opening a dialogue. For instance, Vladimir Urin said, at the request of the ballet dancers a fitness centre has been opened, which had been overlooked in the reconstruction of the main theatre building. And soon they’ll get to a truly revolutionary decision: to replace the slippery floor in one of the rehearsal studies, something that the disgraced Nikolai Tsiskaridze had complained about.


Provisions of the labour agreement previously noted:

     •     Dancers and employees to have a say in how the £6million annual performance bonuses are allocated - the main bone of contention that was claimed to be behind the vicious acid attack on ballet director Sergei Filin last year.

     •     Artists to get 28 extra days of paid leave (on top of the standard 28), though the theatre may withdraw them ‘in a case of disciplinary violation’.

     •     All employees are promised a 40 percent extra payment for work after 10pm (usual Russian labour law provides 20 percent, said Urin), and every two years they will get preferential passes to the Sputnik corporate resort in Anapa and the Silver Forest holiday village.

     •     The right to choose an alternative bank to the Bank of Moscow, the traditional Bolshoi bank.

     •     The right to have a continental breakfast when on business trips and tours.

     •     The management has strengthened the right to fire employees who conceal health problems that interfere with their performance of work duties.

     •     The union agrees to ‘go to the maximum’ to avoid strikes.

For an article I wrote last month for Dance Magazine, former Bolshoi ballet director Alexei Ratmansky [2004-8], now based at New York’s American Ballet Theatre, told me he thought the new labour contract was more about making the dancers ‘feel better’ than any real need to improve their conditions, which he described as already some of the best in the world.

New deal calms Bolshoi, but is tough on foreigners