Even on a Friday morning in the midst of a three-week tour to London, the atmosphere in a Bolshoi company class is reverential. There’s no chatting or laughing at the barre. The soft-spoken coach, Marina Kondratieva, enumerates steps calmly and thoughtfully. Each dancer respectfully thanks her and the pianist before leaving the room. Their dedication is a reminder of the company’s illustrious history.
Founded in 1776, Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre has long boasted one of Russia’s preeminent ballet companies. Swan Lake received its première there, and Alexander Gorsky and Leonid Lavrovsky, among others, contributed to its distinctive bold, fearless style. After the Russian Revolution, the company grew close to the Soviet establishment, and produced stars such as Ekaterina Maximova and Vladimir Vasiliev under the 30-year directorship of Yuri Grigorovitch. “Bolshoi” means “big” in Russian, and any artistic director today has to cope with the challenge of bringing a weighty institution, reluctant to change its ways, into the 21st century.
Yuri Burlaka had every reason to be a little intimidated when he was offered the job. “When former director Alexei Ratmansky first mentioned it,” he recalls, “I didn’t take him seriously. It’s a huge company, with so many talented people.” Burlaka and Ratmansky both graduated from the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in 1986, and the two remained close friends. When Ratmansky took the helm of the Bolshoi in 2004, he invited Burlaka, a specialist in historical reconstructions, to stage fragments of forgotten Petipa ballets. Burlaka was appointed ballet master in 2008, and by 2009, he found himself at the head of the entire company.
During Ratmansky’s four years as director, he had instilled a new confidence in the Bolshoi after a decade of turmoil. The ballet world feared the worst for the company when he announced his departure. But his pragmatic successor has patiently followed in his footsteps.
Since his appointment, Burlaka has strived to maintain a delicate but essential balance between the company’s history and its current influences. Grigorovitch’s Soviet-era productions, which include Spartacus and many classics, remain at the heart of the repertoire, but Burlaka has been careful to showcase the other styles in the company’s heritage. Premières have ranged from Burlaka’s re-creation of Esmeralda to Balanchine’s “Rubies” to a new work by Angelin Preljocaj. “There are so many historical layers to the Bolshoi,” he explains, “that as artistic director it would be strange for me to focus on just one.”
Burlaka has planned a number of contemporary premières until 2012. The company will be incorporating the work of such modern Western ballet choreographers as Kenneth MacMillan, William Forsythe, Wayne McGregor and Jirí Kylián into its repertoire for the first time. Burlaka sees this as a gift to “the current core of the company,” the Bolshoi’s celebrated young generation, which includes the likes of Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev. “The company should learn a new language, a new plasticity,” says Burlaka. “It’s missing from the contemporary Russian ballet education.”
However, throughout both new and old repertoire, Burlaka’s main goal is to preserve the long-standing identity of the Bolshoi. “It’s important not to get lost in the sheer variety of styles one sees now, to take only the best and still stick to one’s traditions. The Moscow school remains defined by its boldness, by its vivid expressiveness,” he says. To keep those traditions alive, Burlaka works hand in hand with the Bolshoi’s many pedagogues (coaches), most of them former company dancers who have devoted their lives to the Bolshoi. Burlaka also depends on Grigorovitch, who has returned to the company as ballet master. Burlaka says humbly, “My childhood was marked by his best productions—I can only feel respect for him.”
Burlaka is careful in building up new talent, with young dancers like Ekaterina Krysanova or Anastasia Stashkevitch currently blossoming in the shadow of the company’s more explosive stars. “I always let dancers test themselves,” he says, “but gradually, without skipping steps: first a variation, then a pas de deux, a small part. Some can make it up to the top, others will stop at a certain stage. Every time it’s an individual story.”
And the dancers’ pride in dancing for the Bolshoi is obvious on stage as well as in class. “I’m pretty sure that every dancer who becomes a part of the company is happy to be here, because they understand what a significant place it is,” Burlaka says. “What matters is for them to find their place within the company, to be comfortable. I try to be honest with them, and can only hope they realize that I love them.”
At A Glance
Number of Dancers: 216
Performances: 151 in Moscow, plus 7 tours in 2010
Contract Length: Year-round
The Bolshoi does not hold auditions, but only hires students from their own school. (A few foreigners are admitted to the Bolshoi Ballet Academy every year, but they face prohibitive fees, whereas education is free for native Russians.) “When students graduate, a professional can always tell how well they studied, if only by the form of their muscles,” Burlaka says. “And then there are the needs of the theater; we could be looking for a certain height, a good actor or a contemporary-oriented dancer. In the end, our decision is always based on a combination of qualities: whether the dancer studied well, his work ethic, his physical appearance and an extra something that attracts one’s attention.”
Translation by Julia Nikolaeva.