—You don’t look like Mangiafuoco at all, Sir!
And do you think I should?
— Well, how else can it be when there are so many Pinocchios, Blue-Haired Fairies and Harlequins around? A whip surely comes in handy…
I can be tough at times, I’m told. I’ll even concede that this is really so, since I cannot see myself through other people’s eyes. Nevertheless, in any situation, I prefer to talk to people, to persuade others, and not issue orders. Everybody who comes to my office must be sure that I will first listen to what I’m being told and present my own counterarguments only after that. The ideal situation is where the person in front of me not only agrees with my opinion, but also entirely shares it. That’s the easiest way of implementing any decisions that have been made. I’m the chief traffic controller, if you wish. I govern and direct, while it’s other people’s job to go and have things done.
In fairness, I must admit that I’m not personally acquainted with many of the Bolshoi’s employees. Not everyone here on our team are what you describe as Pinocchios, Blue-Haired Fairies and Harlequins. The Boris Pokrovsky Chamber Theater joined us starting from this season, so now I have 3,200 people under my command. I do know all leading opera and ballet performers, some of the musicians in the orchestra, some choir singers and extras, the heads of the engineering and other services, but I’m physically unable to remember all people by name.
Incidentally, my job does not imply this. I never get in touch with most staffers in my everyday work. Makhar Vaziyev is responsible for the ballet company. Tugan Sokhiyev – the chief conductor - takes care of everything concerning music. I completely trust this “Ossetian Mafia”, as I sometimes jokingly call them. I don’t meddle in their affairs unless there is an urgent need.
— And when is your personal participation definitely required?
What I’ve just said a minute ago does not contradict the hard fact that the realm of my responsibility encompasses everything related to the Bolshoi Theater. After all, I was the one who invited Vaziyev and Sokhiyev to the company. If they fail in some respect, their boss will be always to blame.
Do you have a ruling trio or a one-man command system?
We make decisions together, because this is the only way it works. Dictating is not the best means of administration, and it is utterly impermissible when it comes to the arts.
There are certain things that constitute a CEO’s exclusive purview. In global terms, my job is to create a comfortable setting for the company’s normal operation, inside the theater’s building and elsewhere. This includes a lot of things which are too numerous to count, even settling what might seem to be purely personal, domestic affairs.
— Including the housing question? Are you saying proper accommodation is not a headache for the Bolshoi’s artists anymore?
Right, everything is in perfect order. We have plans for putting up another apartment building for our employees on cooperative terms. The finishing touches are being put on a hostel for young artists. The theater’s old workshops are behind the Federation Council’s building. We’ll move our print shop there, too.
We provide corporate housing for some employees who work for us on contract. On Kuznetsky Most Street, we will open a four-storey apartment building for guest artists invited to participate in the Bolshoi’s productions, and the rooms will have all the essentials and conveniences, even kitchenware. You will agree that it is far more convenient to live in an apartment than in a hotel, given that the level of comfort is the same.
Some of our artists prefer to buy apartments that are ready for immediate occupancy, for which they take out commercial loans from a bank. In that case, the theater undertakes paying the interest on such loans, in full. Our sponsors reserve a certain sum for this purpose every year.
— And what if there are far more applicants than the theater can afford at the moment?
As soon as the annual allowance is spent, we put it on hold and say: “Dear all! You will be able to take out a loan next year!” So, everybody waits calmly for their turn. The waiting list is not very long. In fact, I would even say, it is short. In any case, all of the leading soloists have had a chance to use this opportunity already.
— Was the program launched while you were at the helm?
Yes, it all began several years ago.
— Is this benefit available to the boss?
Of course, not. I’ve never used such bonuses in my life. The director should not be entitled to any privileges in such matters. It is a matter of principle.
The three-room apartment we’ve earned over the decades is quite enough for my wife Irina and me. Our son, Andrei, lives separately in an apartment he inherited from his grandfather.
In a word, our housing issues were settled once and for all long ago. I did that on my own. I’m in the Bolshoi to do my job right. Nothing else should be allowed to intervene. Take a look at my colleagues. In ballet, for instance. Makhar Vaziyev works from early morning till late evening. Sometimes I invite him to keep me company to go to see the first showing in some other theater. It’s always interesting to see what your colleagues are up to. In reply, I always hear: “I’m busy giving a performance tonight.” I’ll say: “You give a performance every day.” But you can’t throw Makhar off course. “No, no. We have a new substitute this time. I’m obliged to see it myself.” This is his real attitude to his duties. He is certain that it cannot be otherwise. Tugan Sokhiyev is no different from the chief choreographer in this sense. The theater needs such devoted enthusiasts.
I’ve been very fortunate throughout my lifetime. Whatever theater company I joined, I found myself in a truly creative environment. It’s been this way since my work at the Young Spectator’s Theater in Kirov, when Alexei Borodin was in charge. Now he runs the Russian Academic Youth Theater (RAYT) in Moscow.
— You are neighbors, aren’t you?
We have been for many years. From time to time, we get together. Each time we can only grin at the thought we don’t have to go very far to see each other. The RAYT building is just a couple of hundred meters away from the Bolshoi on the same square. I’m very lucky to have such wonderful people around me, and the relationship within the company is excellent.
— But you prefer to keep the “Take care of me! Nobody can fill my shoes!” sign on your desk anyway. I saw it in the same place in the summer of 2013, when you’d just moved into the office of the Bolshoi’s CEO.
It’s a good luck charm. I brought this sign with me from the Stanislavski and Nemirovich-Danchenko Moscow Academic Music Theater. I had a habit of inspecting all of the theater’s rooms once every three months. I’d poke my nose into every corner, just to see for myself if everything was in perfect order. One day, when I visited the chief of the theater’s workshops, this sign caught my eye. I grinned: “Man, that’s what I call cheeky. Don’t you know that I’m your boss and that I’m still alive?” He waved his hands dismissively: “Please, have it as a token of remembrance.” So, I took it and picked out a prominent place for it so everybody could see it.
Everybody knows it is a joke. I think I have enough self-irony for an adequate opinion of my own personality. This sign is at least 15 years old.
— Is there anything else the Bolshoi’s boss is unable to afford?
Let me think… Lots of things! If I begin to count them on my fingers, they would not suffice. The first thing that comes to mind is I have no spare time at all. Work devours it all. Fortunately, my wife works quite nearby.
— Oh, yes. Irina leads the Bolshoi’s strategic planning section. Do you come to work together?
Normally, I’m the first to arrive. In this respect, Irina’s schedule is far laxer. She is not obliged to stay in her office all day long. We seldom see each other during the day. We even have lunch separately, at different times. However, we share a common cause. This is extremely important.—
— Haven’t you been castigated for nepotism?
You bet! Is there a detractor who would pass up the chance to take a swipe at me? Our family ties are brought up at every available chance or for no reason at all. I can’t stop anyone from chattering. I just don’t pay attention. Irina is a top-notch professional. She led the international relations office at the Stanislavsky Theater. She is well-known around the world. When we met, she knew a whole lot more about the musical theater than I did. Irina is a self-made person and she certainly does not need my patronage or protection. Ours is certainly not the type of situation where a husband secures a lucrative spot for his spouse. It’s the other way around. I would’ve looked silly and strange, had I not used the potential of a specialist close at hand, and under the same roof. In the world of artistic, creative professions, family tandems and duos are a widespread phenomenon, not to mention dynasties.
It’s an entirely different matter that spouses should not be financially dependent on each other. In this respect, there can be no mutuality between them. Irina is responsible entirely for artistic matters. She plans future repertoires. Her proposals are then forwarded to the chiefs of the opera and ballet companies and they decide all the rest. She is accountable only for her business trips, so there isn’t anything to find fault with, even if you try real hard.
But let me finish the question about the things and liberties the Bolshoi’s director is unable to afford.
Quite often, I’m unable to speak my mind, to express my own opinion, because I exist in a very complex environment. I always dodge answering my colleagues’ questions of what I think about some artist or stage production. I have no such opportunity.
— And do you feel an urge to say something?
Of course, I do! I’m a human being. I can see and hear many things. I draw certain conclusions but just stay mum. I like some productions and dislike others. I might not share and accept certain things that happen in the Bolshoi, but the CEO is not in the position to speak about that in public. It’s the law of genre and professional ethics.
For the same reason I am unable to reply to critics. Even to those who attack me personally. Sometimes, I am seriously tempted to tell them: “What you write and say is not true.” Nonetheless, I keep my emotions under control and restrain from entering into arguments, even though I can strike back very hard. Don’t you worry.
— Why hold your emotions back when you feel you are right?
Let me tell you this. Usually, it is worth arguing with such people about what you do, and not what you say. No discussion about the arts has ever resolved artistic issues. For me it is far more important to prove my point in actual practice instead of trying to settle scores verbally.
Incidentally, when disinformation does not concern me personally, but is aimed at the theater and inflicts moral damage to it, then I always respond with strong comments and demand apologies. If a mass media outlet acknowledges one’s mistake and puts forward its apologies, then I regard the incident as settled. Occasionally, some people prefer to insist. In this case, I am prepared to take any retaliatory steps, even as far as going to court, because, let me say it again, there is the honor of the Bolshoi Theater at stake and nobody will ever get away with harming it.
— Have there been any precedents of such lawsuits?
Our opponents were smart enough not to go too far. They knew very well they would lose and at the very last minute, they backtracked…
—Have you ever felt like giving an opponent a good punch, I mean literally?
Sure! The Bolshoi Theater is an excellent brand name for self-promotion, and some people sometimes get really mean, if you don’t mind my saying so. There are also those who may try to achieve self-acclaim at our expense using some nasty tricks, marring our productions and spreading rumors and gossip… If they are to be believed, it might seem that everything here is terrible, even disastrous!
Regrettably, a great many people are stricken with jealousy. Some of them worked here before, but at a certain point, they had to leave, yet they did not find any good fortune elsewhere. It is always far easier to blame one’s own failures and problems on others and to settle scores with the self-sufficient and the successful. God will judge them.
But it’s an open secret that sometimes I have the strongest wish to retaliate.
— When was the last time you had to fight?
Your question made me pause to think and I suddenly realized I’ve never had a fist fight at all. Never ever! Even when I was a boy. I never had this type of experience in my life.
— Nevertheless, the town of Kirov in the initial postwar years was certainly not Heaven on Earth.
You’ve got it all wrong. It was paradise for me. I left it many, many years ago, but my hometown will always remain within me. In Kirov, I felt warm and comfortable. The people there are kind and considerate. In remote Russian provinces, it’s normal.
I’m still on friendly terms with my old buddies from my hometown. We have so much to share in the past, although our lives have long drifted way apart. When I was a boy, I had three friends. One would end up becoming a habitual criminal to spend most of his life in jail. While walking along a Kirov street one day I heard somebody call out my name. I turned around to see a hobo in shabby clothes. I did not recognize this individual. I thought that he must’ve mistaken me for somebody else and kept on walking. Then he called me again: “Hey, old buddy, don’t you remember me? It’s me, Mike!” I took a closer look at him, with his swollen face common among heavy drinkers and was stunned. Life was certainly tough on him, but this time I had no doubt who it was, he was an old friend of mine who went astray when he was 14. He was foolish enough to agree to act as a lookout for the older boys while they were stealing something. He was caught, tried, and sent to jail. From that moment on, his life went downhill.
— And the two other friends?
One became a truck driver and I lost contact with him. Russia is a vast country. While a third friend of mine, who is also named Vladimir, was my neighbor in a communal apartment. He’d always dreamed of becoming a police detective and he achieved his goal in life. He had moved up the career ladder attaining the rank of major, but he was not destined to live long. He died long ago. His younger sister broke the tragic news to me in a letter.
— You were the fourth and youngest child in the family, weren’t you?
That’s true, I had two sisters and a brother. Svetlana, the elder sister, is now 86. She is a medic by profession. Margarita worked in the construction industry. Both are now retired. And my brother Lev is no longer with us.
— Whenever an interviewer asks you about your family, you always speak about your mother, who had to bring up her children on her own, but you never mention your father.
I don’t remember him at all. He died when I was 18 months old.
— Did you experience an inferiority complex as a fatherless child?
I had nothing to compare my life to. During the postwar years, many kids grew up in single-parent families. Someone might have developed an inferiority complex if everybody around had been in a better position. However, all of us were raised in approximately the same environment, which can by no means be called comfortable. I only know that our mother did almost nothing in terms of our education. She had no time for that. She was an extremely reserved person, and never bothered to talk with us about life one on one. No baby talk, no wiping our nose, and no hugging. She was a very strict woman.
I always remember her working. My mother could afford the luxury of taking her time only after going into retirement. She often said she felt very happy in her old age, while the rest of her life was very hard.
I did my best to help her. After eighth grade, I dropped out of regular secondary school to earn a living. I went to night school. My mother, elder sisters and brother were examples to follow. I never saw them sitting idle doing nothing. So, I couldn’t stay idle, either.
— How long did you live in the communal apartment?
All throughout my childhood years, the five of us lived in 16 square meters. We managed somehow, you know.
I visited Kirov just recently and while going past our old house I decided to pop in.
I walked up the stairway to our floor and rang the doorbell. I explained to the current tenants that I’d lived in that apartment many years ago and asked them for permission to see our room. In those days, our apartment looked enormous to me, with a vast kitchen and a long corridor.
This time, I saw a tiny stairway landing and a very small room. I stood there for some time looking around in amazement, unable to comprehend how we’d managed to live there, eat meals, get ready for school or even sleep…
— Yesterday, when I was young…
Precisely! This is what I’m telling you. My childhood in Kirov was like paradise to me. Besides, I was a very popular personality in my hometown. A local celebrity. The era of television had just begun. Programs from Moscow had not begun to be rebroadcast yet, so all the residents watched only the local channel. I was invited to participate in some TV features to play children’s roles. Among them, I played a teenage anti-Nazi resistance activist, being interrogated by police, to a school hooligan and loser in a comedy show.
In a word, my popularity in Kirov in those days was hard to underestimate. I was a real TV star!
— How did you do in school?
Well it varied. Up to a certain point, I’d remained an ordinary middle-of-the-road student, with both excellent and bad marks. The bad marks made my mother very upset. Each time I got one she’d say: “You are a man. You’ll have to earn a living. Why don’t you study well enough?”
— Would she give you spanking from time to time?
Never. A slight tap upside the head at the most.
I recall the moment when something totally unexpected happened to me. In sixth grade, I was sent to Artek, the children’s recreation camp in Crimea on the Black Sea. Not because I was a bright student, but because I was fatherless and from a family with many children. The spring term at the health resort lasted for two months. We were obliged to attend classes but never asked to do homework. Secondly, the curriculum was ahead of all other schools, so I returned to Kirov in May with all my annual progress marks stated in my report card. It was at that point that something happened to me and I totally changed my attitude to studying. I finished eighth grade (then called incomplete secondary education) with quite decent marks.
After spending two more years at night school and getting my secondary education certificate, I was enrolled in the Kirov Theatrical School, the one and only group of future actors. My teachers liked me and I always got excellent marks when it came to acting skills. I had no problems with studying, but at the same time I knew perfectly well that I lacked the talent of a real actor and impersonator. With a high degree of probability, I was doomed to the career of a second-rate actor in a provincial theater. The prospects did not look very encouraging, to say the least.
At the end of the second year I went to Leningrad to apply for a stage director’s department. To my own surprise I easily coped with the entrance exam at the Institute of Theatrical Art and Cinematography. That year, the legendary artistic director of the Bolshoi Drama Theater BDT, Georgy Tovstonogov, and co-instructor Arkady Katsman were selecting trainees for their class.
— Were you aware of who Georgy Tovstonogov was?
Are you kidding? In Kirov, I had no chance of going to see his works, of course, but I kept a close watch on what was happening in the world of theater in general.
— Was Tovstonogov condescending enough to train his students personally?
He was. Moreover, we were allowed to attend rehearsals and see the grand master at work. It is hard for me to judge his teaching talents, but he certainly shared with us the basics of the profession. He used to say: “I’m unable to share my talent, but I will certainly teach you the craft. The rest is up to you.”
I dove into the studying process head on. Incidentally, this explains why I had to leave the student dormitory. After six weeks there I suddenly realized that I was not at all prepared to exist amid the never-ending get-togethers and partying. I’m like a lonely tree, and not any of those that grow in a dense forest. I don’t like shindigs. I need my private space.
I rented rooms in different parts of the city. One year, I was extremely fortunate to rent a great three-room apartment in the city center overlooking the Peter and Paul Fortress for next to nothing. The owners moved to Yalta for the autumn, winter and spring. To earn enough to pay the housing rent I worked as a part-time postman. I had to get up at five in the morning, which was real torture, and then spent two hours delivering dailies and mail for which I was paid 15 rubles a month, which was just enough to pay for the apartment.
—Once you said that at the first opportunity you hopped on a train to Moscow to roam city theaters.
It was of great help in terms of learning the ABCs of my profession. It was a rule to make such trips a couple of weekends every month. I never bought tickets, I’d just give the third-class carriage attendant a three-ruble note and she would let me take a free ride on the luggage shelf. I used to leave on Friday evening and catch a return train late Sunday evening after seeing a couple of stage productions. In Moscow, I stopped for the night at a student hostel or at a friend’s place.
To get into the theater I showed my student ID. They would always let me in for free as one of Tovstonogov’s disciples. His name opened doors, it was like saying “Open Sesame”. Never failed. Yuri Lyubimov’s Taganka Theater was possibly the sole exception. It had to be stormed, because the crowd of those eager to get in was always larger than the number of seats. I cannot say I was always lucky, but I did manage to see all of Taganka’s hits of those days.
In the Sovremennik Theater, I had the chance to see The Naked King, Forever Alive, and Ordinary Story. I was instantly amazed at how untheatrical that theater was. Everything was extremely simple and intentionally casual. No trace of academism.
I loved Anatoly Efros’s stage versions of My Poor Marat, Don Juan, Three Sisters, and On the Wedding Day. Those were fantastic works!
Just as Andrei Goncharov’s The Visit of the Old Lady and Physicists and Lyricists. And in Valentin Pluchek’s Satire Theater, I adored Andrei Mironov, Anatoly Papanov and Tatiana Peltser, all of them brilliant actors …
— Were you acquainted with any of them then?
By no means! I was a student, and they were stars. They were infinitely far away. Getting into the theater to see them on stage was all I could dream of.
— I know you keep old theater programs.
They are not just tokens that help turn the pages of time. They were my notepads as well. I often used them to jot down thoughts. When I retire and start writing my memoirs, those programs will be of great help. So, I still keep them at home on a remote shelf.
— Are you serious? Not about memoirs, of course, but about your retirement plans?
I’ll have to go some day. I won’t be here forever… As for other people’s memoirs, I like to read them, but I always feel awkward when I come across such parallels as “Yours truly and the greats”, or “Yours truly and the arts.” It’s very hard to remain balanced when writing about one’s own accomplishments. Very few have been successful in this respect. The way I see it, it is always worth telling people not so much about oneself, but about the happiness and joy you experienced in life, and at the thought you were a contemporary and an acquaintance of other outstanding personalities. That’s what is really worth sharing with your readership. That’s theory, though. I’m not writing anything yet or even making plans to write something. I’m too pressed for time. But I won’t throw the old theater programs away, either. I prefer to keep them just in case.
— I wonder if you went to the Bolshoi often in your student years.
Very seldom. Honestly, in those days I did not quite understand the opera or ballet. One morning I went to see Don Quixote. The only place I could find was on the top gallery. I had to literally stand on one foot. The ballet had looked dull and boring up until Maya Plisetskaya appeared on stage. Everything instantly sprang to life!
A short while before her death, I told Plisetskaya that my sole memory of that ballet was when she played Kitri. We were having dinner at the Bolshoi restaurant and discussing preparations for her 90th anniversary.
I came to love the opera and ballet much later, when I was no longer a student. My fondness of certain artists played a certain role. I often went to see Vladimir Vasiliev and Yekaterina Maksimova. I also enjoyed the voices of outstanding opera singers – disciples of the great stage director Boris Pokrovsky.
— But another great stage director – Tovstonogov – did not let you finish your studies. In fact, he dismissed you. Why?
I lacked experience in life. Staging a play is a job for mature people, and I was a youngster from a provincial town. When the profession began to be studied in depth, it turned out that my knowledge of the basics left much to be desired. I flunked an exam and had to leave. I felt awfully upset. It seemed that the whole world had turned upside down in an instant. In due time, life would put me back on track.
— You finished your education at the Saint-Petersburg State University of Culture and Arts, right?
Quite right. I applied to the stage directors’ department and was admitted. Naturally, it was an educational establishment with a lesser status. It trained stage directors for amateur theaters, not professionals.
— Was it possible for you to avoid military service?
I did not want to. I served one year in the Soviet military contingent in East Germany. It was a classified military unit in the woods. Strangers were not allowed to approach it closer than five kilometers. I served as a nurse. There I gained some very useful experience, by the way.
— So you can provide first aid, if necessary?
I think I’ve lost the knack, but I still can tell between aspirin and analgin…
— Did you return to Kirov after you were discharged from the army?
I went to the local Young Spectators Theater to introduce myself to its chief stage director Alexei Borodin, whom I’d never met before. I told him I was looking for a stage director’s job. He replied the theater had enough competent stage directors, but he was ready to offer me a managerial position. At first, I felt disappointed, but then I gave the proposal a second thought and agreed to become company manager. A year later, the theater’s previous CEO received a promotion. Borodin persuaded me into taking the vacancy. At 26 years of age, I became the Soviet Union’s youngest theater boss. In 1981, I moved to Moscow. For some time, I held the post of secretary in the Theatrical Workers’ Union and then of Mikhail Ulyanov’s first deputy. I was one of those who founded the Golden Mask theater festival.
Then I was invited into the Stanislavsky Theater, although I was not looking for a job at that time. My career proceeded steadily and along a logical course. The Bolshoi Theater is in fact the fourth employer in my 45-year-long career. Nobody will dare call me a drifter.
— Don’t you experience any phantom pains at the thought that you haven’t become a stage director?
Now I take it easy. I did feel something like that in the past. I’m certain that I might have been successful in this profession. However, there’s no use deliberating over it now.
— But there were no obstacles to trying yourself out as a stage director in the Stanislavsky Theater or in the Bolshoi, were they?
Attempts to kill two birds with one stone never bring about anything good. I do know that some CEOs who have experimented as stage directors. My impression is none of them were very professional. I cannot afford this.
And I can think of no positive examples of such job combinations. You’ve got to dedicate yourself entirely to the work you are commissioned to do. A stage director is to start each rehearsal with a clear mind. For that reason, he has to be relieved of all other chores.
On the other hand, being a CEO is not just an administrative and financial position. I’m responsible not for the sewage pipes and electric bulbs, but for what is happening on stage. What material is to be selected for any sort of stage production, who to entrust this duty to. How to organize the work to achieve the desired effect. These are the producer’s responsibilities.
— Do you take the liberty of attending run-throughs or dress rehearsals to have a say?
I never dictate or impose anything on others. If something has to be corrected, I invite the stage director into my office for a one-on-one meeting to tell him what I think of any decision.
— And what if the stage director is reluctant to listen to or agree with what you are saying?
It’s up to him. He pays for the end product with his name on the billboard. If I realize that professionally an utter failure is looming on the horizon, then I do intervene, of course, and not just watch and wait.
— Have you ever canceled productions before the first showing?
Never ever. I did remove certain scenes from some stage productions, though. In the early 2000s, French directors had been invited to stage Charles Gounod’s Faust in the
Theater. It turned out that they wished to transform the Walpurgis Night into a peepshow. I’m not saying that this genre is cheap as such. A situation comedy requires great skill, too. In the 1970s, a group of friends in Paris took me to a night club with a striptease show. I was amazed to see a well-staged piece and excellent light. The accuracy of the mise-en-scenes was wonderful. It was a great show, with the tiniest detail taken care of!
The French partners’ vision of that scene in Faust looked disgusting. Poor actors made some awkward movements and gestures with sex toys, trying to perform something. They felt shy and ashamed of themselves, their appearance and the audience in the hall. I did my best trying to persuade the French stage director to rework the scene. He replied with a stubborn NO.
A culture attache from the embassy came to look into the dispute. I explained to that lady what it was all about and warned that I had enough power to ban the scene and would not hesitate to use it. The stage director’s group got angry and left for France. The French ambassador, who had promised to attend the first performance, failed to show up. A slight international squabble followed.
— Was there any risk it might hurt you on the rebound?
By no means. It’s not what one might call censorship or a ban prompted by ideological reasons. The scene looked awful from an artistic viewpoint.
— The time is ripe to ask you about Nureyev.
This question has haunted me for the past 18 months… At the beginning of the season, we held a news conference devoted to the theater’s plans. A reporter from the television channel Dozhd approached me to shower me with questions about the Nureyev ballet. I felt compelled to jab back and ask: “Don’t you have some other subject to discuss?”
— And still…
The ballet is all right. It has materialized and remains on our billboards.
I’m far more concerned about the future of Kirill Serebrennikov, Sofia Apfelbaum, Yuri Itin and Alexei Malobrodsky. All of them are my good friends. Regrettably, we can no longer separate the legal proceedings from the Nureyev ballet affair.
You know, I try to never tell lies. Sometimes it is hard to resist the temptation, but I do my best. Any lie will be exposed sooner or later. I can tell you how it all happened.
Makhar Vaziyev and I were unanimous that the ballet was half-baked and it was too early to present it to the public at large. One of the run-throughs in the summer of 2017 was disastrous. Everything was falling apart. It is not an ordinary ballet after all. It features a choir, opera soloists, a large group of guest extras and drama actors. The show involved 300 performers, numerous changes of scenery and colossal preparatory work. It was pretty clear to Vaziyev and myself that the ballet was not ripe yet. In the meantime, I was strongly advised not to postpone the first showing so as to avoid coming under a firestorm of criticism. I realized how difficult the situation was but I could not afford to let a semi-finished product appear on stage.
I summoned Kirill Serebrennikov and Yuri Posokhov, the choreographer, and asked them not to go off the deep end and to proceed with rehearsals as usual with the aim of treating the audience to a finished show. Clearly, both guys were not very happy about my idea. They looked dismayed, but Posokhov eventually said: “I agree, the ballet is not ready yet.” Serebrennikov sounded less articulate: “If that is the theater’s opinion, I’ll obey.” I put a bottle of good cognac on the table and we clinched a deal.
Everything seemed to have been settled, but some strange things began to happen virtually in no time. Yuri refused to go and meet the actors. Kirill pretended that there had been no verbal arrangement between us. It did not last long, but the wheels had already started turning and the news soon broke across all media outlets before long.
I’d had no doubts the ballet would be finalized. Nobody had the intention of cancelling it. We called a special news conference. Kirill was absent again. I tried to answer all questions myself. Naturally, most of those present did not believe me. Various conspiracy theories popped up. Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky and church bans were rumored to have been involved. Denying that was useless. Staying patient was all that we could do. I read so many interesting things about myself then!
— Like what?
Don’t make me retell that nonsense, please… Just believe me, I learned many interesting things about myself that I’d never known.
At our last meeting with Kirill and Yuri we agreed that we would videotape the ballet’s run-through from beginning to end. Which we did.
— Was that recording eventually uploaded to YouTube?
No, no. Somebody uploaded part of a technical rehearsal. The actor was dancing in flesh-colored tights. Somebody thought he was naked but there is no such scene in the ballet. And the full-length photo of naked Nureyev was made the moment the projector was being tuned up. In reality the picture appears for a tiny fraction of a second.
In a word, a massive attack followed. On top of it all, Kirill was detained and then put under house arrest… I’d requested to let him conduct rehearsals. They refused. Then we met in the building of the Investigative Committee and I obtained Serebrennikov’s permission to release the ballet without the stage director’s supervision…
In the meantime, the public remained suspicious I’d censor Nureyev and cut out the most important scenes. I advised the critics to go and talk to Posokhov, the choreographer, his assistants and also the artists and ask what exactly I’d cut out. It turned out that everything remained the way it had been during the run-through that Serebrennikov had conducted himself. The video of that rehearsal is the best proof of that.
After the opening night, more suspicion cropped up. The ballet was shown once to let the pandemonium die down, but it will be canceled inconspicuously with one hundred percent certainty!
In the meantime, the ballet is still running. So that’s the end of the story.
— Advertising is the engine of commerce. Now it is a hit and its success is more than guaranteed.
The price that was paid was too high and heavy. The ballet Nureyev was a hard-earned success for all. Rolls of thunder can still be heard. The media in the West keeps claiming with persistency worthy of a better cause that the ballet was released under public pressure, and that the Bolshoi’s management panicked and caved in. Nobody takes the trouble to explain, though, who made us feel so scared.
Of course, these are major reputational losses for a theater that is one of the country’s top brand names. And for me as its CEO.
— You must’ve felt greatly upset.
It couldn’t be otherwise. Who likes being gossiped about? I think I’ve never done anything reprehensible. I’ve been certain all along that I stayed on the right side of life and I did what I thought to be right and proper only to begin to be accused of something indecent. Of course, it was unpleasant and made me feel hurt. But that’s the cost of my job at the Bolshoi Theater. Everything that happens here draws special attention. Should the same thing occur some other place, people would forget it in a week’s time at the most. But here, everyone has a longer memory.
— In fact, that was the only scandal that unfolded in the open. As for all other disputes, you managed to settle them somehow and keep them in the family.
Many sore points had been eliminated before I took over.
— Really? Wasn’t it you who had to deal with the Sergei Filin affair?
Certain tensions around Filin remained but the scandal was already subsiding.
Finding a common language with a team of coworkers requires great skill. It is very wrong to lock yourself in your office and think that your decisions will be clear to all. You’ve got to explain your moves. We have no chance to gather 3,200 people in one room. We’ll need the Kremlin Palace for that. Therefore, I held many meetings with different groups, one by one, and answered their questions. The questions were different. Some asked me about the canteen and others, about purchasing new musical instruments, vacations, wages and so on and so forth.
— But in the end, you signed a collective bargaining agreement that incorporates all aspects of labor relations, didn’t you?
The first one expired in 2017. The agreement was then prolonged for another three years.
Media relations is another important aspect of my job. Questions are to be answered, and not shirked. When information is scarce, speculations and rumors instantly take its place.
— I really like the way you skipped the Filin question.
Nothing of the sort. What is it you would like to know? Sergei remains with us. He is in charge of the youth choreographic team. When his contract as the ballet company’s chief was about to expire, I called him up to explain frankly why he would not retain his position.
That vicious attack changed him greatly. Something had happened to him. He was no longer in command of the ballet company. I felt terrified at the sight of what was happening on stage. The absence of a leader, control and discipline was breeding chaos. I knew perfectly well that the problem had to be addressed, because otherwise one of the world’s best ballet companies would be lost. This is precisely what I told Sergei then. He had to agree with my arguments, because a large portion of the blame rests squarely on him. Just as on any administrator.
I agree, it was a very harsh decision, but in that situation it was crucial.
— Nothing personal, you say? In March 2011, Filin defected from the Stanislavsky Theater to the Bolshoi, thus letting you down.
It’s a matter of personal qualities. It is true that Filin’s decision to quit added a lot to our problems, but for me it is surely not a reason to avenge and settle scores many years later. That’s out of the question! All sorts of problems can occur in life. I never mix my job with anything else. True, emotions will be emotions, there is no way of getting away from them, but they should not be allowed to gain the upper hand over reason. As soon as people begin to find out who said what then you’ve got to brace for major trouble.
Let me say once again that I’ve never had a grudge against Filin for his decision to leave the Stanislavsky Theater. What was really regrettable is that first he worked hard to create the theater and its ballet company and then started ruining it by enticing its artists to defect to the Bolshoi, although we’d agreed that he would never do that.
You will agree that this is a very different sort of grievance.
This is how someone displayed his real worth. It was unpleasant, there’s no denying that, but what can I do? We managed. The Stanislavsky Theater kept working as normal. Everything was well.
— How often do you have to resort to the “God will judge him” saying?
Regularly. I believe this is the best alternative. It’s wrong to try to demand explanations or put forward grievances. This is a very unproductive pursuit. It’s far better to do one’s job. I’m prepared to make peace with the most controversial personalities provided they are professional and effective.
— Who have you learned that rule from?
From all people I’ve met in life. Some here and some there. First, from my mother, and then from my brother and sisters. I was lucky to have so many good teachers. I cannot complain. Alexei Borodin shared a great deal with me. That being said, take the invaluable experience I gained while working side by side with Mikhail Ulyanov in the Theatrical Workers’ Union. A wonderful Siberian chap he was, a real man and a born intellectual. The theatrical world tremendously respected him. Perhaps, Kirill Lavrov was the only other actor who was so greatly revered. In the acting community this sort of attitude is very rare.
— Incidentally, what do you think of the possibility that the Golden Mask festival may soon have a rival?
I believe it is a bad idea, and not just because two awards will compete with each other. In the film industry, for instance, there can be a dozen awards like the Nike, Eagle or Oscar. First, film copies are distributed among the Academy members. Then they watch the videos in the privacy of their homes and later formulate their opinions.
The world of theater is very different. First, a large organizational infrastructure must be created. Somebody is expected to tour Russia, select worthy stage productions and then bring them to Moscow for a highly respectable jury to see. It is a far more expensive affair involving a colossal number of people! Those who think that it will be very easy get the system of a new theatrical award going are very wrong. It is a daunting task!
A quarter of a century ago, I was among the Golden Mask’s co-founders and arranged the first two ceremonies. I know very well what I’m talking about. It takes tremendous preparatory work.
Any award’s chief mission is not to distribute benefits, but to hold an annual theatrical festival featuring dozens of performing companies from different parts of the nation. Such an event is unparalleled elsewhere in the world. It’s unique.
Instead of wasting money on another award in our line of business, it would be far better to increase the funding of provincial theaters, which suffer from chronic underfunding. This kind of assistance would be tangible, indeed.
— Are you alarmed by the Ministry of Culture’s exit from the list of Golden Mask organizers?
I see no problems here. At first, when we established the award, the Ministry of Culture had nothing to do with it. It was a professional prize of the Theatrical Workers’ Union. Financial turmoil soon followed and the Union required government support. Under Culture Minister Mikhail Shvydkoi a decision was made to help the Golden Mask with financial infusions. Now, under Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky it was decided to leave the list of co-founders. We’ve been promised, though, that funding will continue. So, in this respect everything looks OK.
It is a totally different question that an alternative award may drive a wedge into the fragile world of theater. An either-or dilemma should be avoided by all means. If there is something about the Golden Mask you don’t like, then start an open debate, but don’t put spokes stealthily in the wheel. Whatever problems and drawbacks the Golden Mask may have, it is one of the few institutions that cement Russia’s theatrical world today…
— What expectations do you have for the Year of Theater?
I would like to see far less pompous and glamorous events. We need concrete steps and the authorities’ attention. And, of course, our spectators must have a festive feeling. Otherwise this $22.5 million affair won’t be worth a dime.
— Do you have time to keep track of what your colleagues across the nation have been doing?
I seldom find the time even for foreign trips. My contacts with theaters are confined to Moscow and St. Petersburg.
— But you surely accompany the Bolshoi on its key tours, don’t you?
I do my best not to miss the opening ceremonies.
— Do you see any changes in attitudes to everything Russian?
For the worse? I would not say so. It is true that in the United States two years ago a group of picketers was waving Ukrainian flags and chanting slogans, but this did us no harm.
Just recently we went to Italy. No excesses whatsoever. Everything turned out fine.
In recent years, only a couple of stage directors refused to work for us for political reasons.
— Such as?
Alvis Hermanis and the La Monnaie theater of Brussels were to stage Jenufa. Hermanis eventually changed his mind and we aborted the project altogether.
It was rather an exception, though. Requests for Bolshoi tours keep pouring in. Quite often we have to turn them down, because we are unable to do so many tours a year. Otherwise, the theater will be absent from Moscow and Russia all the time.
— What are your principles in selecting tour routes?
Artistic interests come first. It is prestigious to perform in London’s Covent Garden, Milan’s La Scala and the Philharmonie de Paris, where our company will go in March this year. We attach priority to world cultural centers, where the Bolshoi is loved and expected. We did excellent tours of China, South Korea and Japan…
Also, we’ve begun to tour Russia at last. The shortage of auditoriums capable of accommodating us with our scenery are a real problem. We are very sorry, but we will not go to Nizhniy Novgorod in the foreseeable future, because no suitable building is available there. The same applies to many other places. We’ve just got an invitation to Yakutia. We’d like to accept, but there is no place for us to act. In Chelyabinsk, we managed to perform La Boheme.
— What if you follow in the Mariinsky Theater’s footsteps and split the company in two? One will be performing here and the other elsewhere simultaneously?
The Bolshoi Theater will not do that. When we go on a tour, it is an obligation for us to show a production of the same quality that can be seen in Moscow. It is a matter of principle. Our ballet never dances to soundtracks. It invariably performs to the accompaniment of the Bolshoi Orchestra playing live. It is also a matter of artistic and human ethics. It is impermissible to do things for which we might feel ashamed.
Svetlana Zakharova cannot be cloned or replicated. And we have no other ballerina like her.
Once we are aware of how important the tours are, we are obliged to engage top stars, because the Bolshoi is associated with their names. True, some novice may go on a tour instead of Artyom Ovcharenko or Vladislav Lantarov, but such a compromise would spell the loss of quality, which we find utterly unacceptable. It is impossible to breed clones in a theater like ours. The name will be still there, but the essence that makes the theater what it is will be gone.
That’s my personal viewpoint, though, and nobody is obliged to agree with it, of course.
— As far as I understand, you are not a great enthusiast of live broadcasts of theatrical productions, although for some theaters, such as the Metropolitan Opera, it is widely spread practice.
I wouldn’t say that I’m strongly against it. My attitude is rather delicate and cautious. I guess that this is not about the art of theater as such. It is something else. The chemistry that develops between the audience and the artists on stage cannot be conveyed by means of a flat screen.
You’ve mentioned the Met. Several years ago, its seat occupancy rate was close to 90%. Now it’s been down to 60%. Our counterparts at one of the world’s leading musical centers are aware of the existing problems better than I am. Should you ask me, though, I would say that live broadcasts are to blame for this decline to a certain degree.
It is very wrong to make one branch of artistic endeavor subordinate to another. Losses will be imminent.
I am not calling in question culture promotion campaigns. It will be just wonderful, if a Bolshoi production is shown on cinema screens in provincial towns in Siberia or the Urals. But let us be frank and say outright: this is not theater…
— But going to the Bolshoi in Moscow is still a problem, as before. Tickets are hard to come by and the prices are expensive.
We’ve refrained from raising ticket prices for a long time now. The best ticket to our best productions, costs 15,000 rubles ($225) at the most. You can compare this with 2016 or 2015 prices. No increase at all. I’m talking about tickets to the Nutcracker, Swan Lake, Giselle, and Nureyev. Several operas as well.
Our pricing policy is very flexible. For some productions, tickets cost 3,000 rubles at the most.
— And yet ticket scalpers have found ingenious ways to fish in muddy waters. Are the latest amendments to the law on culture capable of contributing to fighting such swindlers?
It goes without saying that the resale of tickets will be outlawed. The sole exception will be made for our counteragents, with whom we make a deal that they have the right to sell, but without exceeding the maximum sum. When the amendments take effect, we will be able to demand all unauthorized sites that ticket profiteers are in the habit of using be closed down without court orders. This will be of great help.
Also, it will be far easier to deal with those who sell tickets for cash on the streets. Currently, there is no way of calling such ticket scalpers to order. If questioned by police, they reply calmly that their plans for the evening had changed, so they are selling the tickets at their real value. It takes a witness to prove that the real price charged is above the one stated on the ticket. We are looking forward to the adoption of the new law.
— How often do you see Bolshoi productions yourself?
Practically every day. But not from beginning to end. I may pop in for ten minutes or for one act. Yesterday, I was to a concert at the Beethoven Hall and then went to listen to the finale of the Barber of Seville. Premier showings continue. It was important for me to congratulate the standbys and to see the audience’s reaction to the alternative performers.
— The Bolshoi’s Board of Trustees was revamped in 2018. Civil servants have been replaced by businessmen. Who is easier to work with?
My personal convenience does not matter. Different ideas were discussed of how to better the Board’s operation. In the end a decision was made to cut the list by half and to leave only those who really give money to the theater, thus enabling them to use the funds the way they deem right and to distribute funds among the projects we propose.
— I hear people say admission to the Board of Trustees costs 350,000 euro.
It’s a secret. The trustees decided to classify this information. Naturally, I cannot make comments. In one instance, I disclosed information about sponsors’ contributions to the media. I’d meant well, and I did that despite the special clause on confidentiality in my contract. I was strongly reprimanded and from that moment on I prefer to toe the line. If some people wish to disclose how much they donate to the theater – they are free to do so, it’s there right. As for me, I keep quiet.
I can disclose the total sum, if you wish. We get a little more than four billion rubles (roughly $60 million) in government subsidies. Another 500 million rubles ($7.5 million) comes from the sponsors. It’s a lot!
— The one who pays runs the show. What are the sponsors’ privileges?
It is strictly described in the contract. Including the right to get invitations to first night performances and to all the theater’s major events.
— One box each?
No, the boxes have to be paid for separately. All rules are very strict and compliance with them is closely monitored. Once you have used the agreed quota, you may ask for something else. The situation permitting, we agree to meet such requests, if not, we cannot help. It’s very strict.
— And how about promoting a soloist to the position of prima ballerina? Putting in a word for someone with important connections?
Ha-ha! I’d like to look at the one who might dare approach me with such a question!
— I can’t believe there’ve been no such attempts.
Not a single one, believe me. It’s absolutely out of the question.
- Does the name Shuvalov ring a bell with you?
Naturally. So what?
— Igor Shuvalov’s daughter is in the Bolshoi company.
Yes, that young lady graduated from a choreographic school. Does she have any title roles?
— Not yet.
Then there is nothing to talk about. We’ll discuss this when she proves she is worthy of a prominent role. Being a relative of a high-ranking official is certainly not a crime.
— It is hard to say NO to such people.
Shuvalov is not my boss. And he has never asked me for anything.
— For some reason, Valery Todorovsky’s film The Bolshoi comes to mind…
I’ll try to drive the point home. We don’t live in a vacuum… I can tell you frankly that at first some people did make phone calls to address me with … Not requests, but with questions. Say, wouldn’t you take a look at this or that female vocalist? Would she suit you as a soloist? I always replied that arranging an audition would be no problem, but if we don’t like what we see, we’ll say so right away. Nothing is worse than a person who got hired using connections and who tries to do something, which this individual has no talent for. This may damage the person’s life beyond repair. If they lack the talent to sing and dance, it will never pop up on command. And then everybody around will see that the ambitious hopeful is occupying somebody else’s place.
I cannot let such things happen, because I’m responsible for quality. It is far better to turn someone down right away so as not to create problems for anybody and not to ruin other people’s lives.
— Incidentally, did you like that film by Todorovsky Jr.? It is not a ballet or opera, so you don’t have to hide your personal attitude.
The Bolshoi, just as all other films by Valery Todorovsky, contains very accurate realities of that time and spicy details, but… I liked the story he presented to us on screen in all respects but one. And it is a problem of the film director, not the scriptwriter. The way I see it, he made one fundamental professional mistake. The ballet talent of the main character was not obvious. I cannot feel it. At a certain point, the backbone of the whole plot begins to collapse. I told Valery so. He should’ve found the right actress first and begin to make the film only after that. Or drop the idea altogether…
— Were you paid for letting the filmmakers use the Bolshoi brand?
Yes, we were, but money isn’t everything. Many are eager to film episodes on site. I find piles of requests from film directors on my desk nearly every day. We reject most of them.
We have our own work to do. Rehearsals and other preparations. Our scenery has to be assembled properly. Strangers are a great hindrance. We cannot afford to turn the Bolshoi into somebody else’s film set. You’ve got to be able to say no.
— Have you mastered the skill of refusal?
Long ago. I still get phone calls with the standard question if I can arrange a spare ticket. One needs an invitation to the Nutcracker, and another, to Giselle. I have to explain to them that there are strict rules indicating who is entitled to free seats. As for all others, please turn to the box office. The CEO’s box can accommodate no more than eight guests at a time. I always decide myself who is to be invited there.
Even Bolshoi employees are sometimes denied a chance to see some production or other.
— Did you arrange a New Year’s Eve party for the Bolshoi personnel?
It’s our custom to make a funny clip to look back on the results of each season with a pinch of irony. It opens each general meeting of the company before the new season. This happens in the autumn, though, not in December. We never arrange anything special on New Year’s Eve. The last days of each year are a high season for us. Four performances a day. In the old building and on the new stage. The Nutcracker is number one treat.
— So, your subordinates never see you in Grandfather Frost’s disguise?
Why don’t you make up your mind at last whose image suits me better - that of Mangafuoco or Grandfather Frost?
The last time I wore Grandfather Frost’s red-colored coat and a fur hat was in my student years. The garment was hanging on me as if I were a slender mannequin. I was terribly thin then. A fleshless phantom. I had to go from one New Year party to another to earn a living.
You know, I like to clown around, make gags and listen to and tell funny jokes. It’s not the ability to puff yourself up that determines one’s status. My job implies great responsibility. It is of national importance, if you wish.
— Do you ever feel like the Sword of Damocles is hanging over you?
My answer is this. It is very bad when important decisions concerning the theater’s future begin to be made at some high offices on the basis of somebody’s subjective opinion. Personal likes and dislikes are a very dangerous thing. In this respect, the Bolshoi is in the forefront. It is visited not just by senior officials, but also by their wives, who are not very familiar with how it all works inside. Moreover, many actors are on friendly terms with many of the world’s movers and shakers and occasionally they may try to use this resource to build careers. Nothing can be more harmful that insistent recommendations and orders from on high.
I’m not talking about myself in this particular case. I’m in the 72nd year of my life. I’ve lived long enough and I dare hope I’ve been useful to the Russian theater. I think I’ve achieved something. In particular, in the Stanislavsky company. I’d keep quiet about the Bolshoi for now. The time is not ripe yet. In this respect, I don’t care at all about my own future.
You can have my word for it. What I mean is this when I joined the Bolshoi, I asked many people to follow me. That’s where my responsibility begins. I persuaded those people to move. Tugan Sokhiyev left the Berlin Philharmonic Orchestra, and Makhar Vaziyev parted with La Scala’s ballet company. My friend and current deputy, Dmitry Kiyanenko, has to shuttle between Moscow and London, where his family lives. I’ve put together a whole team. Some of its members have persuaded other people to follow them, too, you see? There has emerged a company of close associates who think alike and who have agreed to do all they can for the Bolshoi’s sake. Each time some clouds appear on the horizon, my first thought is not about myself but about those whom I’ve invited.
I’m utterly indifferent about my own fate. I’ll surely find some occupation for myself so as not to idle my days away after retirement. We’ve drafted the Bolshoi’s plans for the coming three years. I’ve signed contracts and assumed certain obligations. I must keep my word. And if everything is suddenly changed in an administrative way, then…
My contract expires in August 2022. I will turn 75 by then. My proposal is this: let’s make a decision on my successor’s candidacy in a year – year and a half from now...
— Do you have any likely candidates to propose?
Certainly. And not just one, but two or three. I will disclose them to those who are responsible for making decisions. It is not a successor, but the question of continuity at stake. It’s quite common practice throughout the world! A new director will take over Vienna’s Staatsoper in 2021. There are two more seasons ahead, but the selected successor is already working, looking into the details of his job, shaping the repertoire and holding talks with me! He has brought with him a team of aides, although formally he has no position in the opera theater yet.
This is the civilized way, in which I invite everybody to follow. It took me nearly two years to settle in at the Bolshoi. Any successor should not be forced to waste time on getting settled in, but rather be allowed to get ready beforehand. I won’t be clinging to my chair. When I feel it’s time for me to leave, I’ll get up and go.
— Will you take the “Nobody can fill my shoes!” sign with you?
Surely. But my greatest concern is what I’ll leave behind for posterity.