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Behind the curtain: those who help Bolshoi stars shine on stage

The details of how this giant backstage machinery of one of the world’s most well-known musical theatres on the globe works and what keeps it going - in this special project by TASS

The Moscow Bolshoi’s history started on March 28, 1776, when Prince Pyotr Urusov, an art devotee and sponsor, obtained kind permission from Her Majesty Empress Catherine II “to arrange for stage performances, masquerades, balls and other entertainments” for a period of ten years.

Before it became one of Moscow’s familiar landmarks the Bolshoi had moved from place to place and changed its image several times, travelling a long way from a private theater of Moscow’s prosecutor in Petrovka Street to the legendary building in what would eventually become Theatre Square.

Over the nearly two and a half centuries since it was established the Bolshoi has treated its audiences to more than 800 productions, which materialized through creative and concerted efforts by a galaxy of stage directors, choreographers, conductors, artists and actors.

The Bolshoi’s current director, Vladimir Urin, says “dates and anniversaries are no excuse for idle complacency.”

Whereas 240 years ago the Bolshoi company consisted of just 43 members. Now the theater’s staff numbers more than three thousand. Not just performing artists, Urin says, but “a whole army of skilled technical staff – stagehands, makeup artists, costume designers, and lighting technicians.”

The spectator does not see them, but without their efforts behind the scenes the miracle that the whole world knows by the name of The Bolshoi would’ve never been possible
Vladimir Urin
Bolshoi Director

The details of how this giant backstage machinery of one of the world’s most well-known musical theatres on the globe works and what keeps it going - in this special project by TASS.

Our stage productions brim with miracles

Sergey Godunov, the deputy head of the art and staging division of the Bolshoi’s main stage, is one of the company’s key figures. Godunov, a variety show director by profession, is a graduate of the Leningrad Institute of Culture. His previous jobs were at the concert hall Rossiya and the Moscow Variety Theater. He took his current position at the Moscow Bolshoi as soon as the building’s years-long fundamental upgrade was completed in 2011.

The art and staging division incorporates groups of stagehands, property masters and lighting technicians, an urgent repairs unit, a video broadcasting group and a radio workshop. “In a word, they are the people whose hands make the stage production what it is,” Godunov said.

Most of Bolshoi stagehands are fairy young people, 30 to 40 years of age. Their job requires much physical strength and endurance. Quite often then have to work in three shifts, including night hours. All scenery has to be delivered from the Bolshoi’s warehouse in a remote neighborhood in the east of Moscow. Heavy trucks are allowed into the center of Moscow only at night.

Godunov says the Bolshoi today is one of the most well-equipped theaters in the world. He is certain that his team is capable of matching the creative requirements and imagination of any most resourceful stage director.

“Our productions literally brim with miracles. One can see real water fountains and real animals – a horse and a donkey in the Don Quixote ballet, dogs in Der Rosenkavalier (The Knight of the Rose), and two dogs and a horse in La Traviata.

As an example of what his subordinates can accomplish as a team he mentioned the opera Boris Godunov.

“This is a rather long and effort-consuming production: four acts and three intervals. Scenes change many times. The curtain closes only for a moment, five minutes at the most. And when it reopens again, the scenery on stage is entirely different. More often than not the audience bursts into applause. They don’t even suspect what was going on behind the curtain just seconds ago: 50 people or so – property masters, lighting technicians and assembly workers – were quietly hurrying to do their job with utmost precision. By the way, that’s what spectators should never see.”

The better these “invisible people” do their job, the more comfortable the spectators feel

Safety is a crucial aspect of Godunov’s work at the Bolshoi.

“In one of the scenes in La Traviata a special pneumatic cork is ejected from a bottle of champagne. It pops out like a bullet. And it should by no means hit anyone on stage or in the audience. In some mise-en-scenes actors on stage climb stepladders. Safety precautions are a must. In some cases we have to use a special safety platform the size of the stage itself. Stagehands dressed as backstage characters bring on stage various safety gadgets and devices to protect the actors to ensure none of them slips and falls,” says Godunov.

Asked about the early days of the stagehand’s profession he speculated that Ancient Rome was probably its likely birthplace. “During gladiator fights somebody had to open the underground hatches to let the gladiators out and to unlock the gates for bringing in cages with lions. Possibly, those who did that job were the first stagehands. And the servants who lit up oil lamps can be rightly called the first lighting technicians.”

Installation of the opera scenery Don Carlos Vyacheslav Prokofiev/TASS
Installation of the opera scenery Don Carlos
© Vyacheslav Prokofiev/TASS

Guarantor of visual security

Damir Ismagilov is the Bolshoi’s chief lighting designer. The position was introduced especially for him back in 2002, with the opening of the Bolshoi’s new stage. At that moment the theater already had eight lighting designers. Somebody had to be appointed to lead the group. The best was one selected.

“I must’ve achieved something, I guess,” Damir says with a smile. His office room is crammed with awards, including four Golden Masks – Russia’s top national theatrical award.

“This one is the Musical Heart of Russia. This is an Italian prize. And next to it is one more award – The 1989 Best Lighting Designer,” says Damir. “Usually I work on quite a few stage productions: 15-16 each season. I also cooperate with many theaters in Moscow – Helicon-Opera, the Chekov Moscow Art Theater, and the Sergey Zhenovach Studio of heater Art.

When he is not very busy at the Bolshoi, Ismagilov goes to do some projects in St. Petersburg – at the Maly Drama Theater for Lev Dodin, at the Aleksandrinsky Theatre for Valery Fokin, and at Mariinsky theater for Valery Gergiyev.

He has done two special courses of instruction: the Lighting and Electrical Equipment Department at the Moscow Art Theater School and the staging department of the Moscow Art Theater School.

“I started working back in my student years. And after the 450th production I stopped counting them, Ismagilov recalls. The list of his works keeps growing. This season, which is the Bolshoi’s 240th, he participated in staging Iolanta, Katerina Izmailova, and Don Quixote. Manon and The Idiot are on his plans for next season.

“We are already in the process of devising a lighting solution for The Idiot,” Ismagilov says. “This opera by Weinberg has never been staged in Russia. Yevgeny Arie, an experienced director will present his version of the opera. And Semion Pastukh will design the scenery.

The performance's authors are the director and the stage designer, and we are their hands. The most important is to understand what they want from you

Ismagilov believes the modern technologies allow for any lighting effects: illusory, spatial, spotlight and general.

“I like to use household sources of light, such as table lamps, floor lamps, etc. Everything depends on the desired artistic effect,” he explains. About the lighting equipment-related risk of fires Ismagilov said that no emergencies of the sort were possible at Bolshoi. “I am the safeguard of visual security,” he says.

A scene from Vasily Barkhatov's operetta production of Johann Strauss's The Bat's Revenge (Die Fledermaus), 2010 Alexander Kurov/ITAR-TASS
A scene from Vasily Barkhatov's operetta production of Johann Strauss's The Bat's Revenge (Die Fledermaus), 2010
© Alexander Kurov/ITAR-TASS

Workshop under the Bolshoi’s roof

“This is the toreador’s costume for Denis Rodkin. He will be wearing it in Don Quixote. And this one is for Vladisav Lantratov, engaged in Raymonda, says the head of the stage costumes division, Yelena Zaitseva. The men’s costumes cloth cutting room is under the Bolshoi’s roof, at the level of Apollo’s chariot.

“My father told me once that when the sculpture was undergoing restoration, a message to future generations was planted inside,” Zaitseva recalls. She was born into an artistic family. Both parents were artists. First she was going to become a ballerina and even spent more than a year at the Vaganova School in St. Petersburg. In her second year she quit, though. Apparently, the family tradition gained the upper hand.

“In St. Petersburg, my home city, I graduated from the Theater, Music and Cinematography Institute. I worked at the Lenfilm studios on a number of high-profile features, including Khrustalyov, My Car! by Aleksey German. All the time I worked for Boris Eifman’s projects in the Mariinsky Theater. Later I moved with the whole family to Moscow, where for two years I served at New Opera. And in 2003 I was invited to the Bolshoi,” Zaitseva recalls.

Zaitseva believes that creation of a combined artistic and costume division is one of the Bolshoi’s greatest achievements. In European theaters this is standard practice, while in Russia at the moment it exists only at the Bolshoi.

It is only logical stage costumes are tailored and worn under the same roof

Under Zaitseva’s command there is a staff of 130 workshop employees and 180 costume designers and make-up artists. She is not just the manager giving orders to others. She invents costumes herself, too. Zaitseva has to her credit the costumes for the characters of The Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District as staged by Temur Chkheidze, operas Ruslan and Lyudmila, Wozzeck, and Don Juan, staged by Dmitry Chernyakov and the ballet A Hero of Our Time, which director Kirill Serebrennikov and choreographer Yuri Posokhov staged at the Bolshoi last season.

As far as the stage costume is concerned, Zaitseva knows everything about it and even more.

“Each one is precious in terms of the invested creativity and effort,” she says. “As for gems and precious metals, we never use genuine stuff - only imitations. Besides, ballet costumes don’t last long - ten performances on the average. When the Cinderella ballet was on our billboards, the dress for the title character was made of the finest chiffon. It was the designer’s firm demand. It would start tearing on the second day.”

Asked about rare costumes in which the great actors appeared on stage, Zaitseva said: “These are invaluable items. Most are handed over to the Bolshoi Museum. They make history.”

Tailoring of women's costumes Vyacheslav Prokofiev/TASS
Tailoring of women's costumes
© Vyacheslav Prokofiev/TASS

The Bolshoi’s Treasury

“The whole history of the Moscow Bolshoi can be seen in its museum,” says the museum’s director, Lidiya Kharina. “Of all of the theater-based museums, created in the Soviet era alone, ours is the oldest. It emerged back in the 18th century. Among the first exhibits were billboards, playbills, photographs and books collected at the Imperial Theaters’ Office.”

Kharina says the museum has a great deal to be proud of. Its collection contains about 200,000 items and keeps growing.

“These riches are certainly worth seeing, but regrettably we don’t have a permanent display,” Kharina says. “We arrange for temporary exhibitions on the regular basis, though. Not only at the theater, but around the world.”

Drawings of costumes for the Bolshoi production of Tchaikovsky's opera Iolanta Artyom Geodakyan/TASS
Drawings of costumes for the Bolshoi production of Tchaikovsky's opera Iolanta
© Artyom Geodakyan/TASS

For the first time the Moscow Bolshoi took its museum exhibits outside Russia in 2003.

“We were invited to participate in an exhibition in Switzerland,” Kharina said. “At the organizers’ requests we brought there the schemes and diagrams authored by architect Joseph Bove, one of the designers of the Bolshoi’s building. They were a real hit. Then the Bolshoi Museum went to New York for an exhibition timed for the 50th anniversary of Sergey Prokofiev’s death. Among the selections on display was Galina Ulanova’s costume from the legendary production of Romeo and Juliet.

“We’ve toured many countries since. We’ve not been to Japan yet, though. Possibly we will fill in this blank spot in 2018. In any case, work on the project is already in progress,” Kharina said. She described as noteworthy the exhibition October, Lenin and Stalin, in which the museum participated in 2008.

Soviet leader Joseph Stalin was the Bolshoi’s great enthusiast and devotee. He was less than medium height and in his box he had a personal chair equipped with a special rack he used to put his feet on

Kharina says five 18th century costumes are the museum’s oldest exhibits.

“As many know, the Bolshoi suffered two fires – in 1805 and 1853. The second destroyed stage costumes, scenery, the archive, music library and rare instruments. Only eight columns were left of the whole building,” Kharina recalls. “When the theatre was restored in 1856, the collection of stage costumes was to be urgently recreated anew. It was then that some Moscow residents brought those unique 18th century items – four male jackets and the full set of a woman’s folk costume.

On the list of the latest acquisitions Kharina mentioned the designs of scenery and costumes by the Bolshoi’s former chief artist, holder of the USSR People’s Artist title Valery Levental (died in June 2015).

A sculptural portrait of Russian ballet dancer Maya Plisetskaya Sergei Fadeichev/TASS
A sculptural portrait of Russian ballet dancer Maya Plisetskaya
© Sergei Fadeichev/TASS

“Also, we’ve acquired an excellent sculpture of Maya Plisetskaya, by Oleg Ikonnikov. It could be seen at the theater when the 90th anniversary of the great ballerina’s birth was marked,” Kharina said, adding that the museum itself would soon turn 100.

As for the age of the Bolshoi itself, Kharina believes that it may soon be adjusted somewhat.

“Last year Professor Lyudmila Starikova discovered a unique document – a billboard of the Bolshoi’s first-ever performance, which took place on February 21, 1766. One can say that the Bolshoi will celebrate its 250th year,” Kharina said.


Project authors:

Writing by: Olga Svistunova

Photo editor: Ilona Gribovskaya

Editor: Kristina: Nedkova