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By John Helmer, Moscow

If seated in the dark at the Bolshoi Theatre, even a man of consuming narcissism as Boris Yeltsin was could tell the tights from the tutus. But Yeltsin saw himself as the prima donna, battementing and glissading into the old tsar’s box, Dress Circle centre front. At the Bolshoi, Stalin preferred the stage-side box, screened from the audience by drapery, with the secret door set into the wall of the buffet; that way he got a close-up of the good bits, and could come and go as he chose. Stalin’s taste in music was also superior to Yeltsin’s: he could tell the difference between harmony and noise, and – drunk or sober – Stalin could dance.

There is nothing particularly Russian about the habit tsars, dukes, and their hangers-on had of patronising companies of nubile young men and women; trying them out in skimpy or bulgy costumes on stage; and then trying them on in bed. The imperial ballet theatres of Russia – the Bolshoi in Moscow, the Mariinsky in St. Petersburg – were sex farms, harems without the cost of squabbles over inheritance. To the Russian court then they were what seminaries and convents are to the Catholic priesthood today, or Her Britannic Majesty’s stables to her Guardsmen. The imperial Japanese had special terms for it, acknowledging the use-by period for bedmates, er artists, lasted for no more than ten years before replacements were auditioned; if homosexuality and paedophilia aren’t likely to offend, look up 男色 (nanshoku) and 若衆 (wakashu).

The London aristocracy preferred their ballets offstage, so their theatres were talk-shows. For visuals and non-talking parts the brothels were located right next door.

Since 1991 the Russian arts have been the slowest of the country’s institutions to democratize, liberalize, privatize or reform. The reason for that is that the arts, ballet in particular, were more democratically patronized and administered before Yeltsin, more dictatorial after. The oligarchs of the Russian performing arts have grown rich by the conventional oligarchic methods – Mstislav Rostropovich and Galina Vishnevskaya (classical music, opera) ended up possibly the richest; Nikita Mikhalkov (film), possibly the most depredatory, if his professional competitors are to be believed.

The news now isn’t that the ballet has descended into gangsterdom, like every other line of business did in the early 1990s. The news from the Bolshoi is that this is continuing without let-up after twenty years, and is no longer a secret.

Dancers became capital assets in the period of state ownership. Before that, and again now, they are commodities. So what is also news is that asset privatization and consolidation of the type Valery Gergiev has already carried out for himself at the Kirov (Mariinsky) Theatre, or Vladimir Kekhman at the Mikhailovsky Theatre – both in in St. Petersburg — have been resisted in Moscow by unstable coalitions of performers, directors, theatre administrators, and Ministry of Culture apparatchiki, each of them too weak to merge, acquire, or do in the others.

That’s the primitive business dynamic which causes violence when there isn’t enough cash or bank credit to conduct conventional M&A. There was, for example, the March 2011 video-clip attack on Gennady Yanin, which destroyed his chances as the Bolshoi’s artistic director, and allowed Sergei Filin to take the job. A year later Filin began receiving telephone and internet warnings, and slashed tyres. Then the culminating acid attack on Filin on January 17, for which principal dancer Pavel Dmitrichenko is now accused in court, with innuendoes in the press that behind him stands principal dancer, Nikolai Tsiskaridze.

Filin is making many allegations, but he isn’t saying what the warnings were about in the run-up to the assault. Tsiskaridze is clear: the Filin affair is about money — who controls the state budget and the theatre’s takings; who shares in the earnings and dividends; and how the capital expense of dancing is depreciated.

In short, business as usual. So it’s also news that in addition to the local crime squad and city prosecutors, Sergei Stepashin, former prime minister and chairman of the Accounting Chamber, the public auditor for state spending, is stepping in to investigate the Bolshoi balance-sheets. The dancers claim the auditors will check what Filin did with budget money – whether he handed out bonuses in return for favours, and helped himself too. Asked to clarify, the Accounting Chamber says: “Yes, indeed, the inspection of the Bolshoi Theatre is underway now. As to the question of [the audit targets], it is not connected with anything. This is a scheduled check, according to the work plan for the checking of the federal budget for the year 2012. The Bolshoi Theatre has been verified as a major controller of budget funds. That is, everything is according to the plan, nothing extraordinary.”

Just as it was in the old days, those on stage have engaged claques to sit in the audience and hiss or clap on cue. David Remnick, a Washington Post reporter in Moscow as the Soviet Union ended, demonstrates he’s been chosen to lead the Filin claque in English, with an 11,000-word story in last week’s edition of the magazine he himself runs. The fact-checkers were apparently ordered off from the very first line, when Remnick gives Filin his cue to appear: “a man of early middle age and improbable beauty.”

The attack on Filin is either about sex and jealousy, according to the Filin claque. Or it’s about money and jealousy, according to the Tsiskaridze claque. Remnick, always the Washington ideologue, politicizes the tale, so that it turns out to be a story of President Vladimir Putin’s administration “of a piece with recent events like the broad-daylight assassination of Aslan Usoyan, also known as Grandpa Hassan, a renowned mobster.” Not to mention the blowback to the even more wicked Soviet era, when the Bolshoi stage was occupied, says Remnick, by “Grigorovich’s agitprop warhorses ‘Spartacus’ and ‘Ivan the Terrible’ ”. Filin, Remnick claims, “did not pretend to dictate policy in the Bolshevik style of Yuri Grigorovich, an imperious second-rater who ruled the company by decree for three decades, from 1964 to 1995.” In fact – where are you, New Yorker fact-checker? — that’s exactly what a near-unanimity of the Bolshoi dancers accuse Filin of doing. And doing so for the post-Soviet reason of making money for himself.

Remnick is also ready to excuse Filin on the off-chance he may have exploited his position at the theatre sexually. According to Remnick, Filin “had led a healthy [sic] amatory life—he was the object of adoration by many female dancers and countless fans—and it was clear that he had rivals in the company, others who had hoped to lead the Bolshoi.”

That’s the sort of apology that is unacceptably obsolete if you are a cardinal in San Francisco or a schoolteacher in New York. But Remnick’s sexual orientation turns into political ideology: “In Russia, the destruction of a rival through kompromat—compromising documents, photographs, or videos—is common in politics and business. If the Kremlin or the secret services want to destroy an inconvenient satirist or an irritating journalist, they often find a way to lure him into the usual [sic] human temptations, record the proceedings, and make the results public.”

In Moscow Remnick is remembered for the kompromat when he was the target himself, and of Remnick’s vindictiveness after he was exposed. What happened was no hand-job on sex organ video, nor hand grabbing an envelope. Instead, Mark Ames (right), editor of The Exile, impersonated Remnick in a telephone-call to a local magazine. The object of the prank was to demonstrate to Remnick’s readers what an egotistical fellow he was. Remnick proceeded to prove the point when the magazine he controlled condemned the book Ames and co-editor Matt Taibbi had written on the history of their adventures in Moscow of the 1990s. The two were the most fearless reporters the US sent to Russia at the time; Remnick wanted the Pulitzer Prize for himself (1994, “general nonfiction category” for Lenin’s Tomb, The Last Days of the Soviet Empire). For the alternative, read this.

Putin, Remnick appears to have decided rather than investigated, “is not musical”. That’s a canard the New Yorker fact-checker also overlooked.

Then there is Remnick’s innuendo that behind Tsiskaridze are the KGB, Putin and the siloviki. In Remnick’s version of the political conspiracy, Filin is the protégé of unfortunate prime minister Dmitry Medvedev, whose spokesman, Natalia Timakova, is the wife of the long-suffering chairman of the Bolshoi Theatre’s trustees, Alexander Budberg. After drinking tea with Budberg in the tsar’s box, Remnick isn’t sure about Budberg’s privatization credentials: “he has the look of a friendly corner butcher who has come into an unexpected inheritance.”

Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. A new history of Russian ballet by a London graduate student named Christina Ezrahi opens in 1917 with a full-length picture of the Mariinsky dancer Mathilda Kschessinskaya, her normal amatory relationship with the tsar and his cousin, and a warning from the local police chief that the revolution might put her at risk. The Bolsheviks then took over her house. One day, before the dancer and Grand Duke Andrei Vladimirovich Romanov decamped to live together in Paris, she drove past the house and “saw the most prominent female Bolshevik, the revolutionary Alexandra Kollontai, stroll around her garden in the ermine coat she had left behind.”

The words sex and money are missing from Ezrahi’s history. To her, as to Remnick, the Soviet takeover of the ballet was bad for the art. So the nationalization of a Romanov tart’s house, and the transfer of authority from the Mariinsky dancer to Kollontai, the People’s Commissar for Social Welfare, were “absurd” — Ezrahi’s word.

Ezrahi loved the Romanov aristocracy and hated the Soviets so much, her history denigrates the revolution in theatre that was attempted during the Soviet period. Her account of the establishment of the dancers’ unions and the artistic collectives in the ballet companies, and how they decided repertoire, dance content, and movement theory, is subordinated to a litany of complaints about “bureaucratic mediocrities”, “defense against Sovietization”, and “slurping and burping party officials”.

Ezrahi’s story stops before 1991. Remnick’s version of the Filin case picks it up to make the same claim – the art of ballet suffered from the collectivism of communist ideology. The art is so much finer, both of them believe, when sex and money, tsars and grand dukes, run the show.

So what happened to the arts councils, the ballet company collectives of the Soviet period? When was it decided to put a stop to them, and who decided that it would best for the art if theatre power should be privatized in the hands of a single director? Oksana Tokranova, spokesman for Gergiev at Mariinsky, replies: “At the Mariinsky Theatre there is no arts council. This is a purely Soviet tradition, which has been eradicated. For repertoire the official responsible is the artistic director — Gergiev. Proposals on the repertoire are made by appropriate heads of artistic departments.”

Tokranova added that her comments should be submitted in advance of publication and not quoted unless she grants her approval. Otherwise, she said, she “will retaliate.”

The recent history of Kekhman’s takeover of the Mikhailovsky – and his commercial tussles with the Bolshoi and the Mariinsky – have ended for the time being in the courts of St. Petersburg and London, and in Kekhman’s bankruptcy. But not before it has also become clear that if the value of Russian brand ballet collapses, along with the multi-million dollar income peripherals, the competing markets for ballet in New York and London will gain.

Lest the reader imagine that Russian ballet has been destroyed by acid more potent than the Soviet state, or impresarios like Filin, Gergiev and Kekhman have managed so far, here’s proof of survival – the production of Sergei Prokofiev’s Cinderella, which filled the Bolshoi to the rafters at a standard the locals have yet to match. At least not since the premiere at the Kirov in 1945. The production company was the Lyon National Opera Ballet in 1989:

I paid $50 for a standing room which had been sold three times over. Still cheering.

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