Interview with Simon Morrison, author of Pushkin Prize 2017 shortlisted book 'Bolshoi Ballet'

Interview by Andrew Jack (@AJack)

What interested you in Russia?

I began to love Russian music and ballet when I was at college. I became quite addicted to the sounds in my wannabe orchestral musician days. Once I got deeply involved with the music of Prokofiev, I was intrigued that so much of his life was unknown or inaccessible: one of the most popular composers of the twentieth century, the greatest tunesmith, yet not much was known about how and why he composed under Stalin. It became a real obsession of mine, with years of working and bonding with the Prokofiev heirs. From that point on I became a Russian music devotee. I learned some Russian in college, and in an exchange programme under Yeltsin in the 1990s. Since then I have been going back 2-3 times a year for various projects.

What inspired you to write about the Bolshoi?

I first saw the ballet in the 1990s, when the theatre really needed a top to bottom overhaul and the atmosphere was not the greatest. I noticed there did not exist a comprehensive history of the ballet or opera. After the terrible crime in 2013, I was encouraged by my agent to write something. My inclination as a historian was to avoid the present day, because you have no context for recent events and I’m an archival grub. But he landed me a contract and I wrote briefly about the present in the book. I was more fascinated by how the Bolshoi came into being. The tale is one in which the star character is the building, which has had many lives. The history of the ballet is one with very dark episodes: Napoleonic invasions, fires, Nazi invasion. I wanted to see the connection between the arts and the surrounding historical and political landscape.

What surprised you?

The early foreign dominance of the supposedly Russian ballet and opera. Catherine the Great patronised Italian. French, German and Italian music. Indigenous home-grown talent was not extensively privileged until Tsar Alexander III. The Bolshoi’s co-founder was the British entrepreneur Michael Maddox. Works we now nonchalantly consider permanent classics, like Swan Lake and Don Quixote, had rocky starts. Ballet was not considered as serious as opera, although it was included in Coronation pageants. It survived and increased in heft, and became a political tool.

What explains the symbolic importance of Swan Lake?

The Russian content in the plot is slight. It is in fact half German. The ballet had a rough start with Reisinger's choreography, a mediocre premiere in 1877. But after Tchaikovsky’s death, an imperial version was created which had the ideal components for troupes around the world. It is the ballet of ballets, offering love, suffering, mysticism, the sublime. In the Soviet era, Tchaikovsky and all things associated with him were revered as classics and performed endlessly. Every good choreographer in the Soviet sphere would cut his teeth on Swan Lake, so Grigorovich’s version was shown on TV a great deal. During times of political turmoil when TV was heavily censored, it would be put on the air, signalling that something was going on in the Kremlin.

How difficult was it to research the book?

It was hard to talk to the people involved in the theatre in 2013. They were alarmed -- worried, perhaps -- that the Bolshoi might not recover. But there have been much worse crises, and past pressures have been incubators. For instance, Romeo and Juliet was composed under Stalin and premiered during the Soviet-Finnish war. The music was censored. Prokofiev's original score was ironic, racy, fast and poked fun at aspects of ballet history. He was told to get rid of the fun, the happy ending, the exotic dancers. He did the changes gritting his teeth under the threat it would not be performed. Inadvertently it became this astonishing success. The original version would not have.

What person did you most like?

The figure I loved the most was Sankovskaya -- finding out there was a performer in Moscow on a par with Taglioni and Elssler, who in her dancing brought together different techniques, became a subject of cult fascination, and led to the first examples of the claqueurs [paid fans], of scalping [touting]. She was marvellous. She managed to have a fabulous career, but was not necessarily treated well by the administration despite, or because of, beating out her peers.

What makes the Bolshoi stand out?

It still has bravura features that harken back to its vaudevillian origins: the dancers are showier, the structures looser, you don’t know what will happen on the stage: the sheer visceral excitement, there’s nothing like it. St Petersburg style is more classical and French. The Bolshoi is also distinguished by an extraordinarily great corps de ballet. When on tour in Soviet times, the dancers were irresistibly open-hearted. They really wanted to connect.

What’s your next project?

I’m hopefully writing a book on Tchaikovsky’s ballets with Alastair Macaulay from the New York Times.