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"It is stupid to imagine this as a usurping of the ballet director’s authority by the nightmare dictator Urin"
17 SEP 15
Bolshoi chief Vladimir Urin has stated that he has already decided who the next ballet director will be, succeeding Sergei Filin, but did not announce it at the season opening on Thursday because it would have hijacked the announcements on repertoire.
In a long interview with he blames himself for allowing the media to get the wrong end of the stick in his changes in the ballet director’s authority. He says essentially it means that the old autonomy granted in Soviet times to Yuri Grigorovich has no place in modern ballet management.
Other topics in this useful interview include his priority to rejuvenate the Bolshoi Ballet’s coaching staff, too many of whom have no ability to handle new choreography, and his high regard for the new Bolshoi Opera music director Tugan Sokhiev, whose collaborative approach Urin apparently hopes to replicate with his new ballet director. He confirms the surprising news that the Bolshoi Opera will not tour at all this season.
He says that the Bolshoi Theatre budget is being frozen next year at the 2015 level, which was cut by 10% from last year. What with inflation, which for the whole of 2015 has been nearly 16%, and what with the artistic necessity to work with foreign creatives who are not paid in rubles, he says that among economies to be made the wage bill for the 3,000 employees will also be frozen next year.
Asked by Izvestia why he does not save money by stopping hiring foreign stagers, choreographers and performers, he says the Bolshoi Theatre has to prioritise the right choices for art.
Zavyalova asked him about rumours that Brigitte Lefèvre and Slava Samodurov were in the frame to head the Bolshoi Ballet. Urin said that as his door was always open to journalists, when the phrase ‘sources say’ turned up in the press he always smiled. The fact was that Lefèvre had been in Moscow on the jury of a ballet competition, and as she was a friend of his they had met up, and someone had seen them doing so. Samodurov was also in Moscow preparing a new ballet next year with the Bolshoi, and being a rising and excellent new choreographer who would be likely to work again with the Bolshoi, once again it was evident how rumours arose.
On the inflammatory subject of how the ballet director’s job was being changed - Filin’s job was disappearing, Urin has said - the general director said that he felt himself to be at fault for not sufficiently explaining it.
"We understand things differently now. The 21st century is an era of professionals who work in organisations, jointly formulating repertoire and theatre policy"
URIN: There is a quite serious problem in any theatre, and particularly in the Bolshoi, which is the ability simultaneously to optimise the quality of existing repertoire and also mount new creations. More often than not new creations are built around specific soloists and the capacity to organise this around the remaining rep is a very lively problem in the Bolshoi.
It’s not important what the job is titled. What’s important is the person who occupies it. One could be titled company director, as it was before, but still be deciding all questions related to the ballet, including implementing the repertoire policy. I can only dream that in today's Bolshoi there’d be a young choreographer who could define the trajectory of ballet development like Yuri Grigorovich did in his time. Grigorovich wasn’t only talking about his creations, he also set the repertoire policy. He really was the artistic director; he shaped the company through his own accomplishment.
But nowadays we understand things differently. The 21st century is an era of professionals who work in organisations, jointly formulating repertoire policy and the theatre’s direction. The handsome title “artistic director” emerged for the job when former ballet dancers moved on to lead the company.
Take the opera company - now the plans for the next three seasons, including 2017-18, have been set out. For each of them I have spent many hours discussing them with Tugan Sokhiev, the repertoire, the schedule. This requires much deep thought and discussion. Now, the ballet leader also needs to be capable of this kind of dialogue.
It is stupid to imagine this as a usurping of authority, the nightmare dictator Urin restricting the ballet director to administrative matters, not allowing him into repertoire policy.
I hope that I’ve found a colleague for this who, like the musical director, will work together with me on repertoire policy. But finally the most important responsibilities still lie on the shoulders of the ballet company’s leader: the artistic condition of the company, the development of young talented performers, the nurturing of opportunities for them to prove themselves.’
IZVESTIA: Will the job of company manager remain?
This is a contract matter. I think when we present the new ballet director I will strive to make it absolutely clear what his duties will be.
So ideally he should combine the job of artistic director with the company manager?
It goes without saying. In the theatre you can’t separate the one from the other. We can’t discuss a proposal about new productions if we don’t know for certain whether this or that artist is free to dance.
What position is Filin going to have now?
I have announced my offer to him to stay in a capacity within the Bolshoi Theatre. He thanked me for the offer. I am discussing with him the outlines of a post and its title, which he would take on.
In recent years several famous ballet coaches died. Are you going to replace them?
No company can exist normally without renewal, and coaches are a vital part of the company. I’m happy that among the coach-repetiturs we have a whole array of professionals of the highest class, people who know and preserve tradition, who are in the theatre supporting productions of standard repertoire at the very best level. But there must also be new young coaches brought in.
If one’s talking about the Bolshoi’s problems, above all it’s this shortage of coaches who are capable of handling everything new that’s coming in. It’s not only about handling it first time round, but also completely absorbing and understanding it, so they can pass it on to others. This is a serious problem and the new ballet director will have to work on it, since the theatre repertoire actually does contain more and more contemporary works which need to be accomplished in a professional way.”
"In the past we might have said we’ll do this, after all we’re the Bolshoi. Now we’ll say, this is something we can’t do just now - another time"
Urin also spoke about a new attitude in the Bolshoi to finances. He said the 2016 budget would be comparable to 2015, which itself was 10% smaller than 2014. The special presidential grant to top up performer salaries was not reduced in 2015, but Urin had no information on 2016 as yet.
Does the economic crisis impingle on the world of the board of trustees?
No. We’ve got not only some new trustees but some additional sponsors. Last year the trustees decided that the membership fees would total not €250m but €350m. Though the accountancy is done in euros according to the Central Bank, we actually receive the money in rubles, and this has notably enhanced the theatre’s budget. We resolve very many creative difficulties with the help of our sponsors and trustees.
Will there be a salary increase in the theatre in 2016?
Under the current budget this is unrealistic. A very significant part of the budget is taken up by employment pay. Salaries include not only budget money but a significant part that we ourselves earn. There are 3,000 people working in the theatre. Even if we raised the salary of everyone by just 1,000 rubles, it would add up to a vast sum. So we are holding salaries at the 2015 level. But there will be no decrease in earnings: it’s in the contract of the general director that I am obliged never to reduce that figure. Today the average [monthly] employee salary is about 70,000 rubles [£670]. The average salary of a corps de ballet member is about 130,000 rubles [£1,200].
As a whole, has the Bolshoi Theatre budget increased or decreased?
As I already said, on paper it stays as it was in 2015. But if we talk objectively, in real terms it will be less as a result of inflation.
Besides, there is another factor: among the people we work with are foreign directors, stagers, choreographers, artists, whom we pay in foreign currency. You know what is there in rubles. Several materials that aren’t produced in Russian we buy abroad. In the theatre money’s always been accounted for, but now especially so. Where in the past we might say: “We are going to do this - after all, we’re the Bolshoi,” now we’ll say, “This is something we can’t do just now, but we’ll do it some other time.”
Shouldn’t you be looking for cheaper ways to put on productions?
Our primary aim has to be to make reality of creativity. In fact, we do, for example, give directors and stagers limits defined for each production, we say that they must stay within the prescribed amount: this is a normal amount comparable with that spent by the great European opera houses.
It’s another conversation that we do of course take a great interest in spending as little as possible. But this means that people tasked with technical realisation as well as financial prudence will be looking for ways to do the sets to the very best level from whatever the materials are.
Should you not stop inviting foreign specialists instead of hiring native ones, on economic grounds?
Not. This is an absolutely central principle for us. Above all we start from the position of art. For instance, the theatre’s musical director Tugan Sokhiev considers that Berlioz’s Damnation of Faust - one of this season’s premieres - should best be done by the director Peter Stein. He knows the work very well, he understands and feels it. In this case there’s no question of it’s either inviting Stein or some Ivanov or other because he’s cheaper.
"Russia has always been rich in voices. And it’s a sin to have singers of the highest class in our country but let them sing abroad while we invite foreign singers over here"
But besides this, there’s another serious and important issue. The opera company according to its official state roll at the moment consists of 54 people. That’s what came about before my arrival. In no other opera house in Moscow is there such a tiny company establishment. It was the result of the desire of the past theatre directorate to hire in the majority of performers for each production on the side. I take a different view. Russia has always been rich in voices. And it’s a sin to have singers of the highest class in our country but let them sing abroad while we invite foreign singers over here.
One factor is very relevant: any invitation to a singer means that the production can only run twice a year at best, because invited singers have their diaries planned in advance. If a production isn’t done for six months, then the revival needs a large amount of time and rehearsal again. Now, the practice of inviting guest singers can be varied for certain productions and certain projects, but if there are singers essential to a production, in the first rank, of course they must sing. I think the necessity in the immediate future is to increase our roll.
How have you changed the opera company in these two years?
The question of production itself is chiefly concerning me, since one can’t succeed in changing the overall life of an opera company itself. One particular task: to show works in productions of highest musical qualities. And for this the roles have to be sung by those who are up to it.
The hard and painful part of the job of a leader is the necessity to part with people. We’re trying to do this considerately, taking on board human feelings, psychology. Of course, it’s still going to offend people. But this is the eternally tragic story of theatre, especially in lyric theatre. Sooner or later artists have to depart the theatre. Very often artists who aren’t in a state to master material start getting preoccupied in speculation, they start saying, “We’ve done so much, we worked all our lives, and then without explanation they throw someone out of the theatre.”
I always regard these artists with very great pain. Really it’s these performers who always dazzled on stage, they defined the Bolshoi repertoire. But it’s not healthy in a theatre to cling to what was yesterday. In this particular regard life in our professional is extremely tough. Unfortunately the voice doesn’t last forever, just as in ballet the physical capacity can’t last. There comes a time when an artist can no longer dance flawlessly, and the voice doesn’t sound how it did 5 or 10 years back.
Could one say that you’re taking steps to rejuvenate the company?
The Bolshoi Theatre is not a theatre for the young. There must be performers of many ages in a company, the older generation, the middle and the young talents. The younger generation props up the middle one. If this process isn’t going on in a theatre it means it’s stagnating, its development has ground to a halt.
Has the number of members of the opera troupe remained the same since 2013?
Yes. But the percentage of artists who can no longer achieve the musical level required in productions, in the view of the musical directorate, has decreased. We’ve parted with quite a lot of soloists, and we have young performers in their place.
Why are there no tours for the opera in the next season?
We have big plans, a lot of premieres to put on, which was why we decided not to flood the schedule with tours. As regards our policy on touring in general, we have no problem in the Bolshoi with organising any destination we wish for a tour - it’s not in question. We constantly carry on talks about possible tours. It wasn’t long ago that we were in discussions with La Scala and the Paris Opera. So we do have intensive conversations among colleagues about it. But every time that question arises: why are we actually going, what’s the artistic result going to be of this or that touring story?
The following season (2016-17) we’re planning opera company tours to Paris, to take part in the Aix en Provence Music Festival, Savonlinna’s opera festival, as well as La Scala and Covent Garden, in an Expo programme in Astana. But this year we’ll work at home.
‘In Tukhan Sokhiev I’ve got a colleague with whom I speak the same language’
Tugan Sokhiev has been in the Bolshoi for a year now. What have been the results?
As for the results this isn’t a question for me. As regards process, I’m happy that I have alongside me - from my point of view - such a very talented and gifted man. When I think of my time at the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Theatre, it was always supremely important that when I arrived I found a highly creative company: the choreographer Dmitri Bryantsev, the director Alexander Titel’, the chief designer Vladimir Arefiev. With Sokhiev’s arrival here at the Bolshoi I’ve got a colleague with whom I speak the same language. And we have so many different issues to discuss: the structure of the opera troupe, guest invitations, repertoire plans.
Every time he’s here - and in 2015 he has set precisely half the season - we’ve always been working closely. Tugan is a very hardworking man. He’s continually in studio, at rehearsals, ie not only with the orchestra - everything interests him in the young singers programme, where he’s watching how it develops. Alongside Dmitri Vdovin (director of the young programme) he sits in on all auditions for entrants into the programme. He is very much including in the theatre’s work. Even when he goes off on contracted performances, we are in practically daily touch.
How much time will Sokhiev spend with the Bolshoi in the 2016 season?
Considerably more than in 2015. He is leaving the Berlin orchestra. He’s keeping only the Orchestre Nationale of Capitol Toulouse and his contracted invitations. Now he’s getting many more invitations, including from European opera houses. But so far he is refusing them, wanting to concentrate on his work here.
But I would like to comment that today no director of a theatre of any rank should seal himself up in his own theatre. He must live in the musical life of the whole world so as to understand what’s going on. This really strengthens his authority at the Bolshoi itself when on the podium of great opera houses the world sees the chief conductor of the Bolshoi Theatre.
Bolshoi Theatre chief Vladimir Urin (photo Izvestia/ Vladimir Suvorov)