Raising the Barre: Moscow's Bolshoi Theatre Gets a $700 Million Makeover

  • Kirill Kudryavtsev / AFP / Getty Images

    Showtime The Bolshoi's 1,768-seat great hall. The wals have been restored to their original violin shape, desgned to enhance acoustics

    Twenty years ago, in every small Russian town, you would find a Dom Kultury , or House of Culture, where at least once a week someone would be teaching ballet. My mother still talks about the man who went to my hometown from the Bolshoi Ballet to teach the local girls. He was a loud and acerbic man, but the students worshipped him because of his affiliation with the Bolshoi. Three Czars marked their coronations at Moscow's Bolshoi Theatre, and after the communist revolution of 1917, Lenin declared the birth of the Soviet Union from its stage. It was a public face of the communist utopia, its stars deified by the state press. According to Soviet lore, soldiers going to the front in World War II carried two photos with them for luck — of Stalin and of the Bolshoi's prima ballerina.

    Svetlana Zakharova, the current prima ballerina, started out aged 6 in a dance school in Ukraine, but by the time she made it to Moscow things had changed. The Bolshoi, like all Soviet icons, had faded. "There was this feeling that nobody needed us anymore," she says.

    By the late 1990s, Russia was nearly bankrupt. The Bolshoi's budget was barely enough to pay the ballerinas. Foreign tours stopped. In the theater's grand hall, netting was installed to keep plaster from falling on people's heads. The building had become a reflection of the society around it — which helps explain why its rebirth has caused a stir. Everyone is looking for a restoration of Russian pride.

    On Oct. 28, the theater reopened after a six-year, $700 million refurbishment — 16 times over budget — partly because much of the money has been pilfered or misspent along the way. But it is finally done. The foundation has been relaid; balconies are again dripping with gold; and the stage's giant curtain, newly sewn with the Russian imperial crest, is so heavy with golden thread that it would crush a man if it fell.

    The opulence, according to some critics, comes at a price. Last month, VIPs on a preview tour were greeted not by a composer or dancer, but by Snoopy the dog — the mascot of one of the sponsors, MetLife. The presence on holy ground of a man in a beagle costume hit a nerve. "It's disgusting," said Nikolai Tsiskaridze, the Bolshoi's star male dancer.

    Like many venerated troupes, the 235-year-old Bolshoi must dwell in both the pure world of performing art and the grubby world of corporate gimmicks. But it considers the latter especially infra dig. Private sponsorship was illegal in the U.S.S.R. and is still unsavory to the culturati. "I have to go around convincing ballerinas to attend [fundraisers]," laments general director Anatoly Iksanov. "It is not in their tradition to accept."

    Indeed, recent years have been mortifying to the Bolshoi's traditionalists. After her dismissal in 2003, prima ballerina Anastasia Volochkova accused managers of pimping ballerinas out to patrons. She maintains it carried on after her departure. "If a girl put out, she got to dance in the premiere," Volochkova tells TIME. "That is the way it worked." The company denies her accusations, as have several dancers, but scandal lingers. In March, the ballet troupe's director, Gennady Yanin, resigned after pictures appeared on the Internet of him having sex with a man. "Scandals impact every member of the troupe," says prima ballerina Zakharova. "I feel like we have to be a fortress."

    Now that the Bolshoi's physical grandeur has been restored, the hope is that the scandals will fade amid the gilt. The troupe is touring overseas again. But it's unlikely the Bolshoi will retain its special place in every Russian heart. In my hometown, at the House of Culture, nobody teaches ballet now. They've switched to hip-hop or samba.