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Bolshoi Confidential by Simon Morrison

Bolshoi Confidential by Simon Morrison
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One night in January 2013, Sergei Filin, the Bolshoi Ballet’s artistic director, had acid thrown in his face. A disgruntled dancer, it emerged, was behind the attack. He was duly sent to prison. The incident, said Debra Craine in The Times, reinforced the Bolshoi’s image as a “snake pit of intrigue and corruption” – an image that Simon Morrison “does nothing to dispel” in this “incredibly well-researched” history. Bolshoi Confidential teems with “terrible events” and “lethal backstage machinations” – from the dancer who, in 1847, died after being drugged and gang-raped by a group of nobles, to the prima ballerina who arranged to have a dead cat hurled at a rival on stage. Yet despite all the scandals, the Bolshoi has, deservedly, become a byword for excellence: it has been home to some of ballet’s “most illustrious names” (Maris Liepa, Maya Plisetskaya), and the launching place of such iconic works as Swan Lake and Cinderella. For those who want scholarship spiced with intrigue and gossip, Morrison’s book will “prove invaluable”.

It was an English “wide boy” who, in 1780, founded what would become the Bolshoi, said Lucy Ash in The Observer. Michael Maddox was a London-trained tightrope walker who “reinvented himself as an impresario”, putting on lavish shows for entertainment-hungry Muscovites. Though his rickety auditorium burnt down in 1805, the Bolshoi Petrovsky Theatre “rose phoenix-like from the smouldering ruins”, and became a “potent symbol of newfound Russian pride”. If in the 19th century the Bolshoi was used to project tsarist power, in the 20th it became a tool of Soviet political control, said Rupert Christiansen in the Literary Review. “Every step of the creative process was assessed and policed”; and while those who “signed the devil’s bargain” prospered, others were less fortunate. For example, director Vladimir Mutnykh, who championed Sergei Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet, was executed in one of Stalin’s purges.

In the post-Soviet era, the Bolshoi has become “less a political asset than an oligarch’s plaything”, said David Jays in The Sunday Times. Chelsea Football Club owner Roman Abramovich is a “trustee and devoted fan”, while Putin – perhaps fortunately – stays away. Bolshoi Confidential isn’t flawless: Morrison “skims over” the company’s overseas propaganda role after Stalin’s death, and “doesn’t quite nail” its role as a “national icon”. Still, he has a “smart turn of phrase” and marshals his material with “verve”: overall, this is a rewarding and entertaining history.

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