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' Urin himself has only two and a half years left on his own contract, and hence any job he offers may not endure under his successor'
23 OCT 15
As still no news emerges from the Bolshoi about Vladimir Urin's choice of successor to Sergei Filin, and the reduced nature of the job now on offer, I have translated a commentary by a leading critic Anna Gordeeva in Moslenta, which though it was written over two months ago, airs the strength of antipathy Filin attracted, including (allegedly) from his boss.
Gordeeva criticises his character, his artistic direction and his work ethic, and while her interpretation of events is not always consistent with previous news reports I've seen, it signposts factors that may explain the lack of follow-through to Urin's protestations two months ago that the new ballet director would be named any day.
Moscow ballet observers are telling me that a key internal factor is that Urin himself has only two and a half years left on his own contract, and hence any jobs he offers may not endure under his successor. This is being seen as an even greater disincentive to potential candidates to succeed Filin than the shrinkage of autonomy in the job from an authoritative artistic director to a new job more analogous to an unassuming company manager, subordinate to the theatre chief.
All of which may explain why Makhar Vaziev, formerly the longtime 'acting' ballet director at the Mariinsky under Valery Gergiev, let it be known recently that he had been approached by Urin to take the new downgraded Bolshoi ballet job, but claimed to have no interest in repeating his unhappy experience as a hamstrung subordinate. As artistic director at La Scala Ballet, Milan, Vaziev, 55, is at last flexing his creative and programming wings and enjoying international success.
UPDATE 26 Oct: Vaziev has in fact been on terms which should soon emerge.
Gordeeva's opinion piece came out originally just after Urin first announced Filin's contract would not be extended. It predates his surprising later suggestion that Filin would be retained in the Bolshoi to develop a new choreography programme.
Urin gave an interview elsewhere in which he strongly denied that his changes to management functions were designed to enable him to act as a dictator, but it can be argued that he has made the top job more like Gergiev's in his hands-on management of Bolshoi artistic policy.
The change echoes his successful directorate at the much smaller Stanislavsky Theatre, and will play well to those who are lobbying for Nikolai Tsiskaridze to succeed Urin at the Bolshoi when his own contract expires in 2018. Should Urin's contract not be extended by the Culture Minister (and he will be over 70 by then, and has often said in the past that he would like to retire), his successor would take over a chief executive job now redefined as formative in the Bolshoi's artistic identity, a long way from the structure of management under Urin's predecessor Anatoly Iksanov, who left artistic matters to his artistic directors.
Something interesting was pointed out to me by a Moscow insider about the reduced ballet job - Yuri Grigorovich's still vigorous presence and unchallenged myth is a pivotal factor. For 30 years the Bolshoi Ballet's director and unchallenged choreographer of its Soviet identity, Grigorovich, who is now 87, aroused such dissent that five years after the USSR disintegrated he was made to resign. But in the turbulent years that followed, with nine subsequent ballet directors in the past two decades, still there has been no real alternative groomed to Grigorovich's core productions of the Bolshoi's classical stagings.
Alexei Ratmansky, Bolshoi ballet director 2004-8 (the years of Filin's dancing peak), hoped gradually to unlock Grigorovich's monopoly on classical repertoire, but the conservatives prevailed and he quit Russia in frustration.
The job that Urin has said he wants Filin to do from next year is to run and develop a choreography programme, to raise a new generation of Bolshoi choreographers and thus, organically, refresh the repertoire.
But, as my insider pointed out, with only two and a half years left on Urin's own contract it may well be that he can take his time to rearrange the chairs as he and his wife are thought capable of keeping the Bolshoi Ballet going pro tem, as Filin plays out his final months of (characteristically) active programming.
Gordeeva's article here is emphatically complimentary about Chernomurova, stating that after Filin left the ballet job at the Stanislavsky for the Bolshoi, she effectively did the headlining deals to bring Neumeier and Kylian into the smaller Moscow company's rep. And hence it follows that she is capable of doing the same for the Bolshoi.
Evidently Filin's idea of modern choreography (which has included Wayne McGregor, Christopher Wheeldon, Jean-Christophe Maillot and Declan Donnellan) does not play well with the more conservative Bolshoi audiences and political masters. But the rest of the ballet world has long mourned that the Bolshoi has such particular difficulty in seeing the artistic universe as it is, mainly beaming in creativity from the West.
Filin, by the way, was said by Urin to be staying in charge of the Bolshoi Ballet's London tour next summer, though given Makhar Vaziev's strength of personality, once he takes over from Filin in March, that may well change.
And so on to Gordeeva's commentary (remembering that it is more a reflection of atmosphere than latest events).
Samurai Urin and faithless Filin
Bolshoi Theatre general director Vladimir Urin has announced that the contract of the ballet artistic director Sergei Filin, which expires in March 2016, will not be extended. The news was hardly surprising to anyone at all in the ballet world. What was going to happen was clear from 9 July 2013, when Urin took up his job.
Why is that? Because these two people are painfully different.
Urin is a team man. Before his appointment to the Bolshoi he worked for 18 years as director of Moscow’s Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Lyric Theatre, and during these years no one ever heard of any conflict inside the theatre. Up to 2004, the Stanislavsky ballet company was headed by choreographer Dmitry Bryantsev - in his time a creator of whom many had hopes, who was staging shows at the end of the 20th century that made all Moscow laugh. His productions came over as jokes - but Urin did not allow himself a single derogatory or sharp word to his ballet master. That’s the type of guy he is, seems to be the way to sum up his position.
When in 2004 Bryantsev died, and Urin’s wife Irina Chernomurova took up the job of programming the theatre, it became clear that this couple could see very well indeed what was good and what was bad. For instance, ballets appeared in the theatre from the great choreographers John Neumeier and Jiri Kylian, invited by Chernomurova. But until then it was all about trust in colleagues, and then trusting them again. That is how Urin conceived theatre to be, and it was what he asked of others.
Filin was 'a headache for authorities'
Sergei Filin is also celebrated in his career, though not for loyalty. A great dancer, one of the legendary Big Five (Filin, Tsiskaridze, Uvarov, Gudanov, Belogolovtsev), he was a constant headache for the authorities. Filin was always fixing to get out of his workplace and off to some moneyspinner on the side - and it didn’t worry him whether his absence would impede work on a premiere. In the theatre everyone values the chance to work on some side project or other, but they consider premieres sacrosanct, a priority. Everybody, except Filin.
It’s not at all clear why in 2008 when Vladimir Urin decide to search for a new artistic diretor for the ballet at the Stanislavsky, he invited Sergei Filin, who was not known to have any management skills. It must be that some part was played in the decision by the magical aura of stardom - for whatever his escapades, Filin really was a star. The dancer left the Bolshoi, began business at the Stanislavsky, and gave interviews about his loyalty to his new theatre.
But in spring 2011, a personnel vacuum appeared in the Bolshoi Theatre: the balletmaster-restorer Yuri Burlaka, a quiet, scholarly man, refused to extend his contract in this far from peaceful job. His deputy, and pretender to the job [IB: Gennady Yanin], was immediately exposed in a pornographic scandal. The then chief of the Bolshoi Theatre, Anatoly Iksanov, invited Filin, who had by then been leading the Stanislavsky Ballet for two years without any great noise.
Quit at the season's height
Vladimir Filin understood Filin’s wish to change jobs: this transfer from a Moscow arena to the national stage, offered new money, new prospects. But he was staggered when his former colleague quit at the height of the season. Since olden times, it was understood in the theatre that changes from one theatre to another would be made in summer, so that nobody was done down. But here’s the artistic director disappearing in March, and deciding to take some performers with him. No, of course, samurai Urin did not utter a bad word about it in the press, but at times when he met Filin, the expression on his face was eloquent.
Filin very likely hoped he would never come up against Urin at work again. But in July 2013, the Russian Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky removed Iksanov from the position of general director of the Bolshoi Theatre, and appointed Vladimir Urin. And Filin, once again, found himself artistic director of a ballet company in a theatre led by Urin.
By now the entire theatre had great pity for Filin. He suffered badly when a criminal attacked him and splashed acid in his face. For all that, the theatre did not believe that it was a dancer, Pavel Dmitrichenko, who ordered the attack, wanting to take revenge on the artistic director for making a disgusting proposals to his girlfriend, and it was decided to gather signatures of support from fellow performers and collect money for him.
Mistakes in judging talent
The girl whom Filin would not bestow roles on, and - according to her - suggested to be nicer to him, was dismissed from the Bolshoi [IB: incorrect - Vorontsova resigned] and quickly became a prima at the Mikhailovsky Theatre - indeed, a first-class ballerina. Thus it seems even artistic directors can make a mistake in judging talent. But when you look at the present Bolshoi ballet company, you may see more than one inexplicable promotion, and more than one oddly obstructed career. None of this could have escaped the eye of Vladimir Urin.
Filin probably appears to Vladimir Urin as a colleague who cannot be relied upon. And he has no truck with that. Furthermore, his wife, Irina Chernomurova, transferred from the Stanislavsky after working there a whole season without her husband, leaving all the finances in perfect order. Quietly but confidently, Chernomurova, with better relations than Filin with the ballet world and possessing undoubted diplomatic talents, has the authority to plan future premieres. So now the theatre’s director himself oversees casting, and repertoire is supervised by the head of artistic planning (Chernomurova’s job now). What need of an artistic director?
Indeed, there is nothing left to do. And so, after the expiry of Sergei Filin’s contract in March 2016, this job will be abolished, and there will simply be a ballet company manager. Whose powers and responsibilities will not be small - hiring and casting. But the control from above will be far greater. And clearly this will be a person on whom Urin can rely.
Bolshoi Theatre in early 1900s (postalgossamer.wordpress.com)