The Current

Dancing through centuries of scandal and politics at the Bolshoi Ballet

A history with twists and turns comparable to any of the stories brought to life by the Russian company.
The Bolshoi Ballet, seen performing Don Quixote. (John D. McHugh/AFP/Getty Images)

For most lovers of ballet, the Moscow-based Bolshoi is height of beauty and excellence.

Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake was first performed by the company. Its prima ballerinas became nationally beloved figures in Russia.

Yet, there is a dark side to the Bolshoi Ballet that stretches back to its founding in the 18th century. Princeton University music history professor Simon Morrison leaps into that sordid history of scandal in his new book  Boshoi Confidential: Secrets from the Russian Ballet From the Rule of the Tsars to Today.

The most recent scandal to rock the Bolshoi took place in 2013 when the theatre's ballet director, Sergei Filin, had battery acid thrown in his face. The man behind the attack was Pavel V. Dmitrichenko, a Bolshoi Ballet principal dancer who would be sentenced to six years in prison for his part in the plot. 

The latest Bolshoi Ballet production is set to open just as a former dancer goes on trial over a horrific acid attack on the company's artistic director 2:38

But as strange and brutal as the attack on Filin was, for the Bolshoi, it was just one dark moment in a long history riddled with scandal.

"A lot of stories in the book strain belief," Morrison tells guest host Piya Chattopadhyay. "Some of the things I found in researching the book I myself couldn't believe."

The story of the Bolshoi begins in the 1770s, when a British magician and showman named Michael Maddox needed help in paying off bad debts to his creditors. He turned to Moscow's national bank, which at the time, was in the national orphanage. In return for getting a loan, Maddox had to employ orphans in a public theatre troupe.

And that was the start of the Bolshoi Ballet.

The stage was set for drama, with the Bolshoi Theatre, built in 1825, being considered one of the world's greatest arenas. Photo:Theefer

During the Bolshoi's first century, those dancers who could not make it to the upper tiers of the dance troupe faced a grim life.

"The corps du ballet were populated by dancers who were underprivileged," says Simon Morrison. "There was prostitution, which was lamentably characteristic of ballet, not just in Russia but in France and elsewhere...rough lives."

Over the centuries the Bolshoi has survived murder, on-stage suicides, fires, wars and totalitarian regimes. And in Russia, it is still seen as a jewel of the national culture. 

"Great art requires terrible pressures," says Morrison. "The story of the Bolshoi is very much about the toughest of circumstances being transformed into magic."

This segment was produced by Howard Goldenthal.

Listen to the full conversation at the top of this post.