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Tough on foreigners, but new deal calms Bolshoi

Two theatres ‘have lost their best leaders’

Tsiskaridze: ‘Save ballet from the half-educated West'

"We are not a laboratory to which the state gives money to carry out experiments, whether the public comes to the show or not"

31 JAN 15     

Bolshoi chief Vladimir Urin has confessed that he has become a conservative in his policies, due to political and public pressures, against his instincts as a moderniser at the Stanislavsky Theatre, his previous job as leader.

In a long, wide-ranging interview, the business paper Kommersant’s eminent dance critic Tatiana Kuznetsova puts some surprisingly bold challenges to Urin about the relations between the Bolshoi and the government, and asks him to explain how the ballet company has recovered from the notorious acid assault on its leader, Sergei Filin, and the complex inside relationships involving former star dancer Nikolai Tsiskaridze.

She also attacks Urin’s reactionary programming, apparently responding to government posturing against Europe and the West by withdrawing from the Bolshoi’s recent attempts to become a player in the world ballet scene as a creative force.  

The interview covers the Bolshoi’s opaque ticket-pricing, Urin’s relations with celebrated former Bolshoi stars Natalia Osipova and Svetlana Lunkina, and the shadow cast on David Hallberg’s employment in the Bolshoi by the recent tensions in political relations between the US and Russia. She also points out the heavy anti-contemporary bias among Bolshoi coaches, which Urin says is a major obstacle to artistic development.

The frankness of Kuznetsova’s questions, and the readiness of Urin to answer them for publication (all Bolshoi interviews can be expected to be officially “cleared” for publication in a way foreign to Britain), indicate that at least a window remains open for honest, nuanced discourse in Russia, despite the freeze setting in on Putin’s crude delineation of a renewal of Cold War attitudes between Russia and the West.

Urin’s appointment in place of the dismissed longtime chief Anatoly Iksanov 18 months ago has so far given a degree of reassurance to those Westerners who saw Iksanov as a modernising force, but it’s clear from his replies here that he has had to climb Himalayan peaks of diplomatic negotiation and had to play some unexpected hardball just to achieve basic levels of working competence in the theatre’s vast structure.

He goes so far as to state at the interview’s end that the theatre is in effect not a viable working organism, its 3,000-plus staff as well as the seismic conflicts of politics, artistic visions and personalities making it essentially intractable. (A reminder that the dancers, singers and musicians only form a minority of the employment roll.)  

At his appointment, it’s worth remembering, Urin, who is now rising 68, said if he found the Bolshoi unwilling to reform and take on his idea of basic governance, he would go. He said at the time he only took the job to avoid someone else he considered undesirable getting the job instead. This name was speculated as being Nikolai Tsiskaridze, whom Urin refused to reinstate after his sacking in 2013, but who has recently powerfully strengthened his own position with his appointment in winter 2013 as head of the prestigious Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet.

Here is a translation of Kuznetsova’s fascinating interview with Urin this week.

Kommersant, January 28 2015, 00:03, by Tatiana Kuznetsova

"The chief problem is a theatre with 3,000 staff"

The Culture Committee of the State Duma on Monday stated the necessity to inquire into the policy of pricing tickets at the Bolshoi Theatre. “To start with, we need to consider the cost of tickets for any production. 15,000 rubles means 200 dollars. We’ll work it out,” said committee head Stanislav Govorukhin. TATIANA KUZNETSOVA put concerns about the parliamentary initiative, and other current matters concerning the country’s leading theatre, to to the Bolshoi general director Vladimir Urin.

KUZNETSOVA: How would you respond to Stanislav Govorukhin’s statement?

URIN: Well, we would be happy to talk about our sales and pricing policy to members of the Duma.

But actually, it’s really not possible to understand the price of tickets at the Bolshoi. For instance, at the Paris Opera ticket prices are stated on their website, and performances are divided into three bands: the most expensive are the big classics, the cheapest are the experimental contemporary productions. And in the Bolshoi, if a production’s tickets sell out (and they sell out for virtually everything), it’s not possible to see how much they cost - there simply isn’t that information. Do you also split productions into price bands?

Yes. We have about five or seven in each genre. It’s the same grading as at the Paris Opera, but there’s also an added element for audience demand for a performance.

And how can one know which gradation that refers to?

That’s a good point - we certainly will post on the site what the gradation for a show is and the prices.

The prices have jumped up a lot. Last year the first row of the dress circle for Don Quixote on the New Stage cost 3,800 rubles, while this year the second row for the same show is now 5,000 rubles.

We have not raised the stated prices for the production for a year and a half. This is an internal increase, which could have been the result of some less desirable seats being made cheaper. For instance, the most expensive ticket for the New Year Nutcracker on 31 Dcember cost 18,000 rubles [£170], where for a regular performance in high demand the most expensive ticket costs 12,000 rubles [£115], and so on.

The Dmitrichenko, Filin, Tsiskaridze affair

Maybe the Duma inquiry is in its way the result of a social need, the public not being satisfied with the present noise that surrounds the Bolshoi? After all, you were appointed general director of the Bolshoi Theatre at the end of the most scandalous season in its history. In January 2013 there was the criminal attack on the artistic director of the ballet, Sergei Filin, and in March a leading soloist of the Bolshoi Pavel Dmitrichenko was arrested on suspicion of carrying out the crime. Then it emerged that one of the reasons for the conflict was Dmitrichenko’s common-law wife, the soloist Angelina Vorontsova, who Filin had refused to allow to perform Swan Lake. Then the theatre’s trade union, under the leadership of Ruslan Pronin, supported Dmitrichenko, Nikolai Tsiskaridze expressed doubts about the gravity of the injuries inflicted upon Filin, and appealed to the Bolshoi against charges of infringing professional disciplined, and in June was dismissed from the theatre after his contract was allowed to expire. And then it went quiet - no scandals in the 18 months that you have occupied the position of general director. So does it mean that all the conflicts were solely linked to those four people I just named?

I think it’s not accidental. If a conflictive situation exists, it’s the protagonists who have made the conflict happen. And actually with my arrival many situations have withered away: Tsiskaridze doesn’t work here any more, Vorontsova left for the Mikhailovsky, Pronin, who had been dismissed from his job with the trade union, was re-elected, Dmitrichenko was convicted. Of course it doesn’t mean that all internal disputes within the theatre are fully resolved. Those voices can be heard even to this day. But it’s other people now, different standard-bearers for ongoing differences.

And what are the reasons for the conflicts?

The usual ones that exist in any theatre. Battles of egos, social issues, problems with employment or repertoire - because the performers’ life is short, especially in ballet, and people feel everything very keenly. But now it seems to me we’ve moved into a more civilised way of relationships in the theatre. I’ve met with the creative and technical crews in the theatre and we have concluded a collective agreement. We considered the issues to do with finances, social needs, questions of artists’ employment, principles of fairness. For me what was most important was to get into a normal dialogue, as so often the reason for conflicts is a lack of communication with the collective. Which is when you get gossip and rumours overtaking proper information.

When you became the Bolshoi general director you gave a speech, rather in the spirit of Alexander I, when you said, “everything will be the same, as if my grandmother was doing it”. But for this year and a half actually the whole structure of authority and power in the Bolshoi has changed radically. One could say a very clear vertical set-up has emerged. Now it’s you, as general director, who personally controls the repertoire policy, which means you’ve taken into your own hands not only administrative leadership but also the artistic leadership as well.

To me this is a basic principle.

Yet your predecessor took the opposite position. Anatoly Iksanov gave the musical director and artistic directors freedom, arguing that the job of the general director was to enable the artistic process.

This is also the director’s job, but it’s important to realize that the general director is the first person answerable for the result of the artistic policy. And I never take any decisions alone - every time I discuss matter with those people who are charged with the Bolshoi’s artistic policy. If something’s to do with ballet, then it’s Sergei Filin, if it’s opera and other general musical matters, then it’s Tugan Sokhiev. They’re the ones who sign off the schedule.

And if one of them categorically disagrees with my argument, then I’m never going to impose my own decision. To debate, to persuade is another matter. I can’t say we’ve actually got any intractable problems. Right now Sokhiev is in Moscow, and every day we’re on the phone every three or four hours discussing what’s going on right now and what will be happening. Today we finished off deciding the season schedule for 2015-16, both the premieres and the revivals. We’ve basically prepared the 2016-17 season, and for opera we’ve planned for 2017-18. I’ve discussed the ballet season 2015-16 in detail with Sergei Filin, and planned the 2016-17 season.

In that answer there’s a bit of a bombshell hidden. The majority of observers have been convinced by now that, considering your fairly complex relationship with Sergei Filin after he quit the Stanislavsky Theatre, you will not be renewing his contract in 2016. But now you’re saying that you’re discussing the 2016-17 season with him. Which would limit the freedom of any successor. So does this mean that Filin is staying?

I haven’t taken that decision. It will depend on a whole range of circumstances. In two or three months we’ll have to sit down and talk about how we see our working life together in the Bolshoi. I wouldn’t single-handedly be the one resolving the question of extension or non-renewal of his contract. This will be our common decision, depending in part on Sergei’s own position. Yes, we do have our diffrerences, but that’s normal. Right now, for instance, he’s insisting on reviving two ballets which I don’t consider essential to return to the repertoire. Both points of view will be submitted to the artistic council - which comprises 20 of our coaches. I will hear out all the arguments and I hope we’ll come to a consensus.

Lack of new ballets

The repertoire listed on the theatre’s website has 19 one-act ballets and 30 full-length ballets. This season there are being performed 20 full-length ballets and only two one-act ballets. All the modern ballets by Western choreographers have been dropped, choreographers who are well-known for their one-act works. There is no Chroma by McGregor, which was an outstanding achievement for the company, no Forsythe, Elo, Kylian. Not one Balanchine ballet - the troupe is doing Jewels only on its Hong Kong tour. What’s going on? Is there a new doctrine of only classics and native work? Is it the proof of the thesis that “Russia is not Europe”?

Not exactly. It was necessary to clean up the site. To remove productions that in practice left the repertoire - their licence had expired or had no performers left. But my position is absolutely certain; I gave evidence of it at the Stanislavsky Theatre and I negotiated it with Sergei Filin: it’s classics first, then the best of 20th-century ballet, and, of course, of 21st-century choreography. But you must understand that if a ballet hasn’t been done for a year or 18 months, then its revival isn’t just about renewing a licence. It’s a colossal amount of rehearsal, practically putting it on afresh. It seemed to me from the very start that the theatre was not taking a true position. The theatre was putting on a large number of one-act ballets, among them some very interesting works, but unfortunately they were being lost soon after they premiered.

Perhaps they simply had no one in to rehearse them? Among the 20 coach-repetiteurs at the Bolshoi working with artists on present repertoire, all of them are experts in classics, and only one of them can work on contemporary choreography.

I agree. We can’t move on when we have such a pedagogical balance focused only on classical ballet. If it’s all we have we will make a good job of killing ourselves off. This was a subject on which I had some serious discussion with Sergei Filin. If we want to move ahead, we need to think about who among our teachers is really able to engage with new repertoire. As every time we bring modern productions into repertoire we have to invite in Western coaches and stagers. Take Balanchine - Jewels was in the repertoire for December, but we had to take it off: no rehearsal schedule had been agreed with the coaches of the Balanchine Foundation.

Yes, where are native coaches of this work to be found? People who understand the difference between Forsythe and McGregor? There was Yan Godovsky, and Anastasia Yatsenko who just left the Bolshoi.

We’ll be contracting in Yatsenko as and when. And I hope we will soon find coaches from within the company itself. One imminent step, in addition to creating new ballets, will be reviving Jiri Kylian’s Symphony of Psalms and Ratmansky’s Russian Seasons.  And not only his Russian Seasons - I hope we will have a new creation from him for the 2016-17 season.

But Symphony of Psalms is only one of the Bolshoi’s failures to fulfil its intentions. There’s also McGregor’s ballet.

I wouldn’t want to get into debate with you on the artistic merits of these ballets... Symphony of Psalms is going to be done on the New Stage and on the Historic Stage. This is my position. The best modern ballets need to be done not just on the New Stage - they are worthy of the main stage too.

Will the audience buy tickets for contemporary repertoire? After all, the price of Historic Stage productions is very much higher.

It is a matter of positioning. The theatre needs to keep the audience informed of what they’ll be seeing. Even today tickets for contemporary ballets can at times cost less than classics. We will respond calmly to the fact that the hall may be only 80 percent filled, but it’s a public that is engaged by that ballet. Of course an interest in classical ballet prevails here. But still, over the past 20 to 25 years the situation has changed, many people do want to see contemporary choreography. In international festivals, on tours, the tickets sell out instantly. And we want the historic Bolshoi Theatre to be more than just about looking at the chandeliers.

Of course the conservatism of Bolshoi audiences is greater than at any other theatre, and revolution isn’t needed; however a decision about what to perform on which stage needs to be taken for artistic integrity, rather than the comfort of the audience.

At the Stanislavsky you contrived to make it so that tickets for Nacho Duato and Jiri Kylian ballets were snapped up quicker than for the classics. But then, in the Stasik tickets are cheaper than at the Bolshoi.

We will continue to take this into account in setting prices for contemporary repertoire.

The main classics, in fact, have also suffered under you - Corsaire isn’t being done, Esmeralda, Pharaoh's Daughter. Though actually all of them are the pride of the Bolshoi Theatre, its exclusive productions, something that is especially appreciated in the outside world. The renowned Frenchman Pierre Lacotte staged Pharaoh's Daughter in 2000, created specially for the Bolshoi Theatre on the basis of Marius Petipa’s first independent ballet. This isn’t danced anywhere in the world and the Bolshoi’s artists were remarkable in it at all ranks. Actually one could even say that a new era for the Bolshoi Ballet began with Pharaoh's Daughter.

That’s a subjective view. To some extent I agree with you, but then to some extent I’d disagree. We do have Marco Spada by the very same Lacotte, and next year we will revive Le Corsaire. We can’t do everything. If a production is to have any life, it needs to be done at least eight or ten times in a season. This means that - just talking about the ballet - we can stage just 10-12 titles on each stage. We only just cope, considering that we have to keep room for creations as well. The revival of Pharaoh’s Daughter is under discussion. It’s just one of the productions that I’m discussing with Sergei Filin. From the point of view of the dance, the production is undoubtedly interesting; from the angle of other issues, there are some very serious problems. But if we bring back Daughter we have to take out something else.

Of course, you inevitably have to make choices. It’s just that right now they are not presently favouring the achievements of the Bolshoi over the past 15 years. When it comes to the volume of repertoire, let’s look at the Mariinsky Theatre which works with a superhuman, inhuman load. Over there this season they have 85 operas - that’s titles, not performances. And 36 ballets, 22 full-length and 14 one-act. The Bolshoi, although it overtakes average world production numbers, is not comparable with the Mariinsky. So here’s the question: is it that you are not being forced to work to similarly Stakhanovite requirements?

No, we’re not being forced. It must be said that when I came into the Bolshoi, there were rather more performances. We’ve cut back their numbers, which is firmly inscribed in the state charter. We give 470 performances a year, including musical programmes in the Beethoven Hall. This is only in Moscow, not counting the tours. In my view, in order to produce quality work, considering the rehearsal process and the preparation of new creations, this is more than enough. It’s better that we work a little less - in fact we’ve even reduced the number of seats in the auditorium, taking out the stools where the view was poor - but strive never to lower the standard of the work.

Casting control

On which point - quality. You have approved a condition that the musical director will personally confirm the casting for all opera premieres. But the directors and stagers of works usually insist on their choice of performers, and the more authorative and talented they are, the more resolutely they insist on that point.  So won’t it mean that productions in the Bolshoi will be staged only in middling fashion, the stagers having to agree to waive their principles in order to do the staging?

Not in the least. Let’s start with the fact that directors and conductors are invited to the theatre with the musical director’s consent. We know who we’re calling in and what level they operate at. And we understand that the more high in their profession they are, the more talented a person, the more his independence. If a director or conductor of a production wants to insist on this or that performer and we can’t persuade them out of it, they their wishes will be taken on board. Another thing is that director who come here often want to get in a world elite for the show. On the one hand this is a good thing, but from the point of view of the renting and further continuity of the work it becomes a problem: the theatre becomes completely dependent on inviting celebrities. Whereas we, naturally, are very interested that productions should primarily involve Bolshoi artists. All the more so because a very talented young generation has emerged, from some while back before I came in, for which we must give credit to the youth programme project put in place by Anatoly Iksanov and which is now producing results.  Which is why when we are negotiating with directors and stagers, we do insist on the theatre’s own interests - but this is a dialogue, not an ultimatum.

People have said that those who have been taken onto the theatre staff from the youth programme find they’re serfs in a way. The theatre doesn’t let them sing leading roles elsewhere, but uses them at the Bolshoi only in bit parts.

We don’t take artists onto the staff in order to do bit parts, we take on people who we hope tomorrow will be singing major roles. And each person has a choice. If you decide to become a staff Bolshoi singer you have to understand that your job is to help the theatre succeed in its work. Well, if you chose the path of a freelance, if you say, “I’m prepared to cooperate with you but I don’t intend to join your theatre,” then we sign a contract for certain definite dates and roles. We have a lot of talented singers working here like that, who aren’t staff soloists at the Bolshoi.

But on the other hand, neither I nor the musical director will prevent young Bolshoi soloists from going to other theatres and countries. I am sure that the more interesting the work is that they’re doing on the side, the higher quality their work will be here at the Bolshoi. But it should be done in a civilised fashion, with advance agreement between personal plans and theatre plans. And if a young artist is being marked down for a leading role then we ask that for two and half months after the show they take no outside contracts.

What if it isn’t a major role?

Whether it’s a leading role or just a smaller one it’s important for the theatre. It’s important for the singer, for their development as an artist.

The Bolshoi’s opera repertoire is quite one-dimensional. You have Russian operas, Italian, one Wagner, two Mozarts, absolutely no Western operas from the 20th century. Even given that you’ve got such gaps in the theatre’s new plans, you’re just swopping like for like - one Queen of Spades for another, one Carmen for another.

It’s a reasonable question. Problems arose with Valery Fokin’s staging of Queen of Spades, both with the conducting of it and the director, as well as the casting. It needed topdown renovation. So we decided instead to produce at the Bolshoi the famous staging by Dodin which we think is an important one. First of all, it was because it pays very great attention to the psychological motivation of the acts and deeds of the leading characters. It is a truly theatrical production.

I think one might make a fairer criticism of the Carmen decision. We’re disposing of the production that was going on stage and we’re doing a new one. This is the artistic wish of the musical director. Carmen will now be shown on the New Stage, and then go onto the Historic Stage. This is quite a popular title, and those sorts of shows should be seen on the main stage. But in future we’ll be trying not to change one production for another, and put on only operas that either haven’t been in Bolshoi rep before or not for a long time.

From this year, Makvala Kasrashvili is no longer heading the opera company. She’s now “assistant to the musical director and chief director”. What is this - honorary retirement? Is it a sinecure?

The fact is that with the arrival of your humble servant, the structure of management has been fundamentally remade. All artistic matters - repertoire, casting, the composition of production teams, the company formation - all of those have been transferred to the musical director’s aegis. While the opera company manager has been assigned very different functions - he will deal with organization and administration issues, facilitating the company’s artistic output. Rehearsals, the scheduling of new productions, the rolling out of existing repertoire.

Usually the opera is managed by an experienced and respected soloist of considerable work service. Now this position is occupied by a person from outside, Lyudmila Talikova, whose record is from Astrakhan conservatoire, a children’s cathedral choir, and a specialism as “manager in culture and arts” from the state university of Versailles. Did someone lobby for this candidate?

Why should I give up all our secrets? Well, all right, it was Dmitriy Vdovin, head of the youth programme. I discussed several candidates with him, including this one. Well, yes, I may say that there were some objections to it. But we spent a great deal of time on preliminary talks with Lyudmila Vitalievna, and she gradually got into the swing of it, began to understand various things about the complexity of life in the Bolshoi Theatre. And at least to date I am fully satisfied with her work. While Makvala Filimonovna is a highly experienced person who has given her whole life to this theatre. She is hugely helping Tugan Sokhiev, she’s attending all the auditions, she’s there at practically every show. Fact is, she has retained the artistic side of her former responsibilities, while relinquishing administrative matters.

From progressive to conservative

When you were general director at the Stanislavsky Theatre, you were seen as decidedly progressive. Which was evident in your battle for Britten’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, when even before its opening some specially vigilant members of the state Duma accused the production of being paedophiliac. But here you’re now defining yourself as a strict conservative. Is this because of pressure on you in this job, or have your own convictions altered?

My convictions have not changed, but to some extent you are right. The Bolshoi Theatre does carry a heavy weight of tradition, a great conservatism in its auditorium. You have to understand that much of what’s happened is not simply because of internal conflicts, but also because of certain sharp moves taken in repertoire. That is, Dmitri Chernyakov’s Ruslan and Lyudmila and Desyatnikov’s Rosenthal’s Children.

But in fact that was all to the great credit of the Bolshoi - it was shown as being not just a theatre museum but an active player in world art.

Of course, I agree with you. But still from my point of view it did spawn a whole range of conflicts, quite serious ones.

Between the government and the theatre?

Not only there. Between our audience and the theatre.

So, you mean, the theatre should cater to audiences?

Look, like all journalists you’re just wanting it either white or black.

Well, that’s better than grey.

Can I answer? Only the actual life of the theatre can be proof of the rightness of this or that artistic approach. There aren’t any rules whatever for it, the issue is entirely about the internal professional gifts of people who lead the theatre. We calculate whom to invite, what to put on, who to put on the podium, how to balance out the repertoire. In our theatre we must have both the older generation with its topmost class, and also the Chernyakov, and very young people.

And then you get a young person who puts on a show that your public doesn’t like. Such as Tatiana Baganova’s Rite of Spring.

My position on that question is absolutely clear. We are not an experimental laboratory to which the state gives money to carry out experiments, whether the public comes to the show or not. A live theatre production isn’t a film that can be taken off, stuck on a shelf, and then 10 years later rediscovered as a work of genius. It’s not a painting or a sculpture that can be reevaluated 100 years later. Theatre is something that can’t exist without the audience understanding it. And if more than half the audience gets up and walks out, a show didn’t succeed, no matter how well critic Kuznetsova appreciated the production from the perspective of the development of contemporary dance in Russia. It’s not been understood - so that means it can’t go on.

The fact is, people will want Swan Lake forever.  But there are young people who want art that feels fresh and real to them. And how then in general can you do any new work, if it’s always going to be a risk?

The theatre basically can’t move on if it won’t look for new things. That search is down to professional nose, instincts. All the same it’s important that what goes on stage resonates with the majority of the audience. If it doesn’t the public won’t come. Which would mean we lost.

Well, if, let’s say, your next premiere - the ballet Hamlet created by Declan Donnellan and Radu Poklitaru - isn’t liked by the public, what then? Will the theatre continue to experiment?

Yes, next season we’ll be doing a full-length ballet by Vyacheslav Samodurov.

He’s a St Petersburger who has worked in Amsterdam and London, and is now artistic director of Ballet of Ekaterinburg. Radu Poklitaru comes from the former Soviet regions. Yuri Possokhov whose Hero of Our Time you’ll be showing in June is a Muscovite now settled in San Francisco. You’re basically using native creators.

Not only. But don’t push me about the plans - everything will be announced in time, at a press conference on May 26.

On Hallberg, Osipova, Lunkina

Then tell us about the dancers. Is the American David Hallberg still on the roll? Now that relations with the US are tense, will Hallberg remain a principal at the Bolshoi?

Everything will depend not on politics, but on his state of health. He’s currently being treated in America. He and I exchanged New Year greetings, and he’s very much hoping to be back in March-April.

On the theatre website Ivan Vasiliev is named as a guest soloist, he is actually sometimes seen dancing here. But what about Natalia Osipova, who left the Bolshoi with him and is now a prima at the London Royal Ballet - will we see her appearing at the Bolshoi ever again?

We offered her the opportunity to choose any date to give some performances in Moscow, as she is very busy in London. But unfortunately all her proposed dates fell while the company’s on tour. We found a single date at the end of February - she will dance Giselle on the historic stage. But if her free dates in the coming year coincide with our own, we will have much pleasure in inviting her again. She is an outstanding ballerina, and we would like indeed to have her dance at the Bolshoi.

Another ballerina, Svetlana Lunkina, has been living in Canada for a long time and works in Toronto on the staff o the National Ballet of Canada as a principal ballerina. However she is also listed on the Bolshoi website as a prima here. How are we to understand this?

I can only regret that Svetlana left - she is a wonderful dancer. I've already signed for her twice to take leave without pay. But at the end of this season if Svetlana does not take the opportunity to choose Moscow, I won’t be able to do this again. Last summer I corresponded with her, I gave her all my contact addresses and numbers, I asked her to come and take part in the current repertoire and in new project. But since then - silence.

If she is taking the place of a principal ballerina, it means no one else among the soloists in the Bolshoi can apply for that position in the hierarchy?

Why not? It in no way affects the career of soloists.  Promotion up the ladder is made once a year, and these questions are discussed in the artistic council. The decision is taken by the artistic director and myself.

Your predecessor Anatoly Iksanov lamented that in our country there was no legal basis to retire an older dancer. The law said that they have the right to “arts pension” after 15 years’ service for soloists and 20 years’ service for corps de ballet.  The right to retire, but not any obligation. And this is a problem.

There’s no problem. We have practically all our artistic workers on fixed-term contracts now.

Government influence

The Bolshoi has taken onto its Board of Trustees two public officials of highest rank, [Culture Minister] Vladimir Medinsky and [deputy prime minister] Olga Golodets.  So the government wants to control its theatre?

It was my idea. I want you to understand that most of the budget of the Bolshoi Theatre is state money. And it is extremely important, at least for me as the theatre’s general director, that the Minister of Culture of the Russian Federation, and the Deputy Prime Minister in charge of culture,  should be on the Board of Trustees. They should be aware of what goes on in the Bolshoi as it develops, and what projects it is working on. And my proposal was supported by members of the Board of Trustees. We have brought in not particular individuals but posts. The Board of Trustees meets twice a year. We discuss how we have used the past period, how we plan the next period, and what we are intending to spend some considerable sums of money on, that the trustees have provided. The Trustees discuss issues relating only to this money, in its way a membership fee, which they regularly pay up.

But previously the Trustees have had the right to choose their own projects to subsidise.

The trust incomes are put into the theatre fund and spent in strict accordance with the programme of expenditure for that year, as approved by the Board of Trustees. But a sponsor may give money for a specific project as well as the theatre’s overall creative activity.

Have you managed to fall in love with the Bolshoi Theatre?

I’ll answer that question extremely diplomatically. I have always loved the Bolshoi Theatre as a spectator, it’s given me great pleasure when I liked this or that production. Has the present-day Bolshoi Theatre begun to feel like my own yet? In the same that the Stanislavsky Theatre became home to me, especially in the past 10 years? Not yet. Not until I actually arrive in the office.

You brought your wife, Irina Chernomurova, with you from her job at the Stanislavsky Theatre to the position of head of the planning and special projects department, which was the job done by Mikhail Fikhtengolts whom you sacked.

No. Fikhtengolts, by the way, was not fired. His contract was just not renewed. As regards the department for strategic planning, its function was partly changed. Irina Aleksandrovna discusses with the theatre’s artistic direction ideas for future new stagings, the titles and production teams. She is there to generate these ideas, but not to bring them into reality. After decisions are made, others take on the artistic leadership of projects. Questions of casting don’t go to this department. Besides which, she’ll be busy with special projects, as she was at the Stanislavsky Theatre. At the moment she and a Stanislavsky Theatre team are preparing an autumn festival of contemporary dance. It will now be held at both venues, at the Bolshoi and the Stasik.

What have you found easier at the Bolshoi than you expected, and what has been harder, even intractable?

What was easier than I anticipated was the personnel situation. Here you have a mass of highly talented, professional people working. It can’t be denied that there are conflicts, internal intrigues, disagreements - they exist here, as in any theatre, no worse.

What’s been much harder is the rehearsal process. Do you know [the late theatre director] Anatoly Efros’s book Rehearsal is what I love? You know, the chief aim in live theatre is putting on productions. Regrettably, that’s not always how it is in the Bolshoi, and as yet we haven’t managed to get this fully taken on board. All my changes and adjustments, and the decisions about structure - all of these are attempts to alter this. I have no illusions. I realise that this is a serious, long-drawn-out process. It depends on team atmosphere, and on the talents of the people we invite, and how they motivate the performers in this rehearsal period.

But the main difficulty is the theatre itself. You can’t really have a theatre where more than 3,000 people are working. It’s not a theatre any more. It’s practically uncontrollable. I’m not talking about the artistic teams, it’s about other structural components. How to get the system to enable coordination between decisions being made and their implementation.

And what do you see as the solution?

I’ve given a diagnosis. The solution is for another interview.

The original article in Russian:

Urin admits he's become conservative at the Bolshoi

Vladimir Urin (photo Dmitry Lekay/ Kommersant)