Big, Bold, Bolshoi: More Than 200 Years of Dramatic History

by | Apr 17, 2013 | Dance | 0 comments

By Liesl Ferreira

The Bolshoi Ballet, unquestionably one of the most famous dance companies in the world, is  the crown jewel of the Russian arts, and the great pride of the Russian people. Since its birth 237 years ago, the company has survived (among other things), revolutions, wars, government collapse, and yes, acid attacks. Throughout all of it however, it has proven resilient, and continues to produce the world class ballets for which it is famous.

Often contrasted with the Mariinsky Ballet of St. Petersburg, which has a more artistocratic and classical approach, the Bolshoi is known for its flashier style that blends drama and spectacle. The Bolshoi’s dancers are characterized by power, athleticism, and remarkable technique.


The Bolshoi on opening night.

Bolshoi means “big” in Russian and there’s definitely nothing small about it. Its theater has been the backdrop to Russia’s most historical moments. From its stage, the foundation of the Soviet Union was announced, and Lenin’s death declared. The Bolshoi with its colorful characters and sensational history, could have been the subject of an epic Russian novel, or today, a riveting reality TV show. It’s undeniable: the Bolshoi makes ballet exciting, both on and off the stage.

 Instances of a Theatrical History

1776: The first Bolshoi theater was founded by the Russian art Patron, Prince Urusov, and an English tightrope walker and entrepreneur, Michael Maddox. The ballet school drew its dancers from the Moscow orphanage. From its beginning, the company had a theatrical style that included Russian folk dancing, melodrama, and comedy.

1825: After a series of fires (fires caused by gas lighting frequently destroyed old theaters), the current Bolshoi theater was constructed in Theater Square. Opening night was January 18, and Fernando Sor’s ballet Cendrillon (Cinderella) premiered.  The theater was called Bolshoi (the Russian word for big or grand) because it housed the most noble of arts, ballet and opera. The nearby Maly (small or lesser) theater housed dramas.

1848:  A portent of scandals to come: Instead of flowers, the audience at the Bolshi threw a dead cat on stage at ballerina Yelena Andreyanova who was sent from the Mariinsky by her boyfriend, the director of the Imperial Theaters. She fainted, the crowd gave her a standing ovation, and she stayed at the Bolshoi for another 15 years.


Sofia Fedorova joined Bolshoi Ballet in 1899. She had her first great success replacing Ekaterina Geltser in Don Quixote in 1900.

1900: Aleksandr Gorksy was appointed Mâitre de Ballet. He was an enthusiastic artistic reformer who was influenced by Stanislavsky’s theories of drama, and the work of Isadora Duncan–considered by many to be the creator of modern dance.  Gorksy shaped the Bolshoi into a first rate company and incorporated more naturalism, realism, and characterization into their work. Although he created many of his own ballets, he is most known for restaging the ballets of Marius Pepita.

1917:  After the revolution, the Bolsheviks took power and renounced the Bolshoi as a symbol of Tsarist decadency. They considered destroying the theater, but luckily held off until the USSR was formed, at which point the Bolshoi fell under Communist party control. The Communists promoted a new balletic genre, Social Realism, of which the The Red Poppy is the most famous example. Set in China, it is considered the first Soviet ballet and has a modern revolutionary theme.

Stalin was a reported balletomane and made regular use of his box at the Bolshoi theater while promoting ballet as a “people’s art”.

1941:  The Germans bombed Moscow during WWII, and a thousand pound bomb destroyed the foyer of the Bolshoi theater. The entire company was evacuated to Samara, (then Kuibyshev), a city in Southern Russia on the Volga river, along with the governmental organizations and the entire Communist party.


Soviet leader Nikita S. Khrushchev and Gamal Abdul Nasser Attending Bolshoi Ballet Performance. From Life Magazine.

1950: After Stalin’s death, the Bolshoi began  to travel and perform outside of the Soviet Union, astounding audiences worldwide. The Bolshoi soon became Russia’s most significant cultural export.

1990: Following the collapse of the Soviet Union, the Bolshoi, although still funded by the state, was forced to compete in global market place. It fell into financial trouble, and standards declined.


Prima ballerina Anastasia Volochkova, fired by the Bolshoi for being “too fat.”

2003: The Bolshoi fired beautiful prima ballerina Anastasia Volochkova for being “too fat”, claiming she was too heavy for male dancers to lift. Volochkova sued the Bolshoi and was awarded financial compensation by a Moscow court, but was never given another role with the Bolshoi again. Instead she went on to pursue a successful solo career, and  became one of the biggest media personalities in Russia. In the wake of the acid attack, she accused the Bolshoi of being a “giant brothel”, claiming ballerinas were expected by the leadership to sleep with wealthy patrons. Bolshoi officials adamantly deny this.


Before and after – the Bolshoi renovation

2005: A six year, 700 million dollar renovation of the Bolshoi theater began. The Bolsheviks surely would not have been pleased with the three kilograms of 960 carat gold leaf that were used to cover the the papier-mâche patterns decorating the theater’s loges. Additionally, 24,000 pieces of crystal were removed, refinished, polished, and then rehung in the chandelier. The renovation was not without scandal though; there were accusations of the misappropriation of millions of dollars.

2009:  The Bolshoi meets Western pop culture when they perform with Lady Gaga at the Los Angeles Museum of Contemporary Art on the eve of its 30th anniversary gala.

2013: Bolshoi artistic director and former principal dancer, Sergei Filin, was attacked  outside his Moscow apartment. A man covered in a hat and scarf shouted an ominous greeting to Filin and then threw a jar of sulfuric acid into Filin’s face and eyes. Despite the fact Filin was able to cover his burning skin immediately with snow from the ground, he still suffered extensive burns to his face and corneas. After multiple surgeries, he is expected to regain sight in one eye.


Dancer Pavel Dmitrichenko

Dancer Pavel Dmitrichenko was later arrested for organizing the crime. Despite his admission to orchestrating an attack (but not the use of acid), 300 theater members have signed an open letter to Putin calling for an independent investigation. They suspect Dmitrichenko was forced to confess under threat of blackmail and/or torture, and that the true instigator of the attack is a higher-up in the company

The problems in the Bolshoi are said to reflect the problems in Russia itself. As lovers of dance, we can only hope that the sancity of the art, and the strength of the Bolshoi’s tradition, prevail against battles over power and money. If history is any indication, they will.

Liesl Ferreira is a native of the Bay Area who developed a passionate interest in the arts while living in Paris for more than a decade.  She believes that the arts belong everywhere, in every life, and that the ability to express our humanity, or be touched by an expression of this humanity, is inherent in us all. She devotes her life to her family, photography,  and Iyengar Yoga. Liesl is a wonderful volunteer with Diablo Ballet.