The State Bolshoi Ballet

  • Opera Ballet


The history of the Bolshoi Theatre begins in 1776 when the first permanent theatre company in Moscow was established by the city’s Public Prosecutor and theatre-lover Peter Urussov, together with an Englishman an ex-acrobat named Michael Maddox. In 1780 the company acquired its own theatre in Petrovsky Street but twenty-five years later the building was razed to the ground in one of the fires which were a common event in the Moscow of this period.
In January 1825 the new Bolshoi Petrovsky Theatre was opened. Designed in classical style, the building was fronted by eight Doric columns and its portico surmounted by a bronze Apollo driving his four-horse chariot. The Bolshoi Petrovsky devoted itself to the production of opera and ballet only. In 1853 fire again destroyed the interior of the theatre, and the building was restored by the Venetian architect Alberto Cavos
During the 1840’s, the Bolshoi Theatre staged the first productions of Glinka’s operas Ivan Susanin and Ruslan and Ludmila, works which marked the foundation of a truly national school of composition in Russia.

Of equal importance to the history of both ballet and opera was the legacy of Pyotr Tchaikovsky, many of whose works received their first performance at the theatre. These include Evgeny Onegin, The Queen of Spades and Swan Lake.
During the second half of the nineteenth century, a contrast became apparent between the dance styles favoured by the two principal cities of Moscow and St. Petersburg. This was exemplified by Marius Petipa’s new ballet Don Quixote, which received its premiere in Moscow on 26 December 1869 in a boldly conceived, colourful production, but which then restaged in St. Petersburg two years later was transformed into a much more classically conceived work. Petipa’s assistant and pupil Alexander Gorsky was appointed to the Bolshoi Theatre in 1900 and from then until his death in 1924 he revised the company’s stagings of the basic repertoire, making them more dramatic and realistic, and laying the foundations for the company’s great successes to come. His impact over productions at the Bolshoi continued into the Soviet period and choreographers as recent as George Balanchine admitted having been influenced by him.
The turn of the century was also a period of greatness for opera at the Bolshoi Theatre. Artists performing there included Leonid Sobinov, perhaps the finest interpreter ever of the role of Lensky in Evgeny Onegin, the soprano Antonina Nezhdanova, the contralto Evgenia Zbruyeva, and the legendary bass Fedor Chaliapin. Chaliapin joined the company in 1899 and remained associated with the theatre until 1920. Such was his remarkable influence and popularity at the Bolshoi that the repertoire to be performed was often chosen specifically to showcase his unique talent. Boris Godunov and Serov’s Judith were revived, together with Rimsky-Korsakov’s The Maid of Pskov and Mozart and Salieri and, at Chaliapin’s insistence, a number of contemporary Russian operas were staged. Other composers whose operas received first performances at the Bolshoi at this time included Anton Arensky and his pupil, Sergei Rachmaninov, who also appeared at the theatre as conductor.
Following the October Revolution in 1917, Moscow became the capital of the new Soviet Union, and debate raged as to the function of the arts within a Socialist society. Left-wing critics demanded the removal from the repertoire of works by bourgeois composers such as Tchaikovsky and Rimsky-Korsakov. However, more moderate voices prevailed and, during the early Soviet period, traditional nineteenth-century operas and ballets were performed alongside contemporary works. In the 1920’s the Corporation of Solo Artists of the Bolshoi Theatre under its Music Director Nikolai Golovanov, gave free concerts for workers and soldiers, and these enjoyed enormous popularity.
Operas premiered at this time included Virgin Soil Upturned by Ivan Dzerzhinsky, and, on 14 June 1927, the first Moscow production of Prokofiev’s The Love for Three Oranges. New Ballets included The Red Poppy to music by Gliere, which received its premiere in the season celebrating the 10th Anniversary of the Revolution in 1927 and which was part-created by Vassily Tikhomirov. Tikhomirov had in 1924 succeeded Gorsky as Director of the Ballet and he was instrumental in developing the Bolshoi style during the next decades. Outstanding amongst Bolshoi soloists during this period were the ballerinas Olga Lepeshinskaya and Marina Semyonova, who trained in St. Petersburg but who enjoyed her greatest success in Moscow. Sadly, these great artists were rarely seen outside the USSR.
With the invasion of Russia by German forces in 1941, the Bolshoi Ballet and Opera were evacuated to Kuibyshev on the Volga where they remained until August 1943. The Ballet was now in the control of Leonid Lavrovsky (the creator of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet), and he was faced with the monumental task of reestablishing the company during the post-war years of deprivation and reconstruction. In November 1945 Prokofiev’s new ballet Cinderella received its first performance, with Olga Lepeshinskaya in the title-role, and nine years later the same composer’s Stone Flower was given its world premiere.
One of Lavrovsky’s significant achievements was to administer the Bolshoi Ballet’s first appearance in the West at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in 1956. British audiences were given their first opportunity to witness the virtuosity and dramatic intensity of Soviet choreographic style, and a particular triumph was enjoyed by the legendary ballerina Galina Ulanova. She was succeeded as the Bolshoi’s prima ballerina by Maya Plisetskaya, for whom choreographers such as Petit, Bejart and Alberto Alonso created roles.
The immediate post-war period produced another group of outstanding singers in Russia, all of whom made regular appearances on the Bolshoi stage. These included tenors Ivan Kozlovsky, Sergei Lemeshev and Georgi Nelepp, basses Ivan Petrov, Alexander Pirogov and Mark Reining, mezzo soprano Irina Arkhipova and soprano Galina Vishnevskaya. The theatre’s chief stage director was Boris Pokrovsky, who did much to modernize operatic stage production. New operas by living composers continued to be produced alongside the standard repertoire. Leonid Lavrovsky continued as Director of the Ballet until 1964 when he was succeeded as Chief Choreographer and Artistic Director by the 37-year old Yury Grigorovich. Grigorovich was trained at The Kirov Ballet. His early years at the Bolshoi were characterized by a series of large-scale, highly spectacular productions which fully exploited the forces available to him within the company. This period was typified by his 1968 revision of Khachaturian’s ballet Spartacus, with its huge cast and epic production which achieved worldwide acclaim.
The Bolshoi Ballet during this period was dominated by the partnership of Vladimir Vasiliev and his wife Ekaterina Maximova ? who now holds the position of Ballet Mistress with the company ? Ludmila Semenyaka, Nadezhda Pavlova and Alexander Godunov.

As well as the glories of its dancers and singers, The Bolshoi Theatre also boasts an orchestra worthy to be compared with any of the world’s great symphony orchestras. Throughout its long history it has been directed by some of Russia’s greatest conductors, including Nikolai Golovanov, Yury Faier, Alexander Melik-Pashayev, Boris Khaikin, Evgeny Svetlanov, Gennadi Rozhdestvensky, Mstislav Rostropovich and Mark Ermler.

From 1988 – 1995, the General Director of The Bolshoi Theatre was Vladimir Kokonin. In 1995 Vladimir Vasiliev as Artistic & Principal Director succeeded him.

In August 2000, Anatoly Iksanov was appointed General Director of the Bolshoi Theatre. Music Director and Chief Conductor Alexander Vedernikov took his position in 2001.

Since then The Bolshoi Theatre has proved to be able to tackle various artistic tasks and to achieve successful results. A number of classical repertoire operas were staged: Khovanshchina by Musorgsky, Snow Maiden by Rimsky-Korsakov, Ruslan and Ludmila by Glinka, Mazeppa by Tchaikovsky, Adriana Lecouvreur by Cilea, La forza del destino and Macbeth by Verdi, Der Fliegende Hollander by Wagner.

At the beginning of the XXI century the Theatre started to include in its repertoire masterpieces of the XX century Russian composers. For the last years The Bolshoi Theatre has presented to the audience The Gambler and The Fiery Angel by Prokofiev, The Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk by Shostakovich, the ballet The Bright Stream on Shostakovich’s music. In the nearest future the repertoire will include also Prokofiev’s War and Peace. On the occasion of the centenary of Dmitry Shostakovich’s birth for the first time in the world theatre history The Bolshoi will show all of his three ballets (The Bright Stream, Bolt, The Golden Age).

The list of the ballet premiers together with the renewal of the Swan Lake, The Legend about Love and Raymonda includes also Romeo&Juliet by Prokofiev, La Dame de Pique and Notre-Dame de Paris choreographed by Roland Petit, George Balanchine’s and modern Russian choreographers’s one-act ballets.

The Bolshoi Theatre realized a number of educating projects, a Moscow premiere of Songs of Gurre by A. Schoenberg and a concert performance of Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust included. Outstanding soloists and ensembles appeared in chamber music concerts held in The Bolshoi on a regular basis. The revived concerts of The Bolshoi Theatre Symphony Orchestra on the new stage and the stage of the Moscow Conservatoire Big Hall enjoy great popularity both with the public and critics.

It is hard to underestimate the success of the Bolshoi Ballet in Paris, London, USA, Japan, South Korea, orchestra and choir artists in Spain and Portugal, opera in Ljubljana, Warsaw and Riga.
The Theatre managed to restore fruitful partnership relations with Opera Nationale de Paris, Teatro alla Scala, Covent Garden, Polish and Latvian National Operas, Maggio Musicale Fiorentino Festival. The opera Der Fliegende Hollander for the first time in Russian history has been created in collaboration with one of the major European theaters ? Bayerische Staatsoper.

Theatre’s achievements were marked by the State prize of Russia (the ballet La Dame de Pique), and by five highest awards of the national theatrical prize “Golden Mask” (La Dame de Pique, The Rake’s Progress and The Bright Stream). The director Dmitri Tcherniakov was the first among the opera directors to merit the Konstantin Stanislavsky Prize.

In September 2005, the reconstruction of the main stage of The Bolshoi Theatre historical building began. From September 2005 to July 2011, The Bolshoi Theatre performances could be seen only on its New Stage.
On October 28, 2011 the main stage of the Bolshoi Theatre was reopened after the reconstruction and now the spectators can see the performances on the both stages.

The Russian word “Bolshoi” means “large” or “grand”, and The Bolshoi Theatre is grand by any standards. At present more then 3000 people work for the company which maintains a repertoire of twenty-four operas and twenty-four ballets, and gives more than 400 performances each year to a nightly audience of three thousand people. Today’s Bolshoi Theatre combines a pride in its artistic heritage which it is determined to maintain, with an awareness that it must grow and develop to prosper in today’s rapidly changing world.

Please contact Japan Arts if you wish to edit this biography.