Moscow — The grand old columns are swaying and corkscrewing and, one day, if architects are to be believed, could topple altogether and dump Apollo and his great bronze chariot all over busy Teatralnaya Square.
The backstage reeks of cats. No wonder: There are 50 of them in residence, furtive and brazen creatures that sometimes swing from the ropes of the majestic old bells, the largest theater set in the world, hanging over the back of the enormous stage. Fire officials have long warned that the sweeping interior, five tiers of balconies coated with 13 pounds of gold leaf, with barely a stairway in sight, is a colossal deathtrap.
Of course, everything about the Bolshoi Theater is huge -- Bolshoi \o7means\f7 big, after all -- and as the theater's storied ballet troupe closes its main home stage for renovation and goes touring in the U.S., the cost of repairing and reoutfitting one of the great palace theaters of Europe promises to be big as well: $700 million, most likely, 10 times what it cost to refurbish La Scala in Milan.
Coming as it does just a few weeks after the company officially shuttered its main stage until March 2008, the Bolshoi Ballet's four-city U.S. tour -- the first of at least six foreign tours, culminating Tuesday through next Sunday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center -- has the whiff of houseguests who show up with a truckload of suitcases while their home is upended for remodeling.
But such an impression would be wrong. Still unsettled after a series of directorship changes, still reinventing itself as a successful Western-style enterprise, still reeling from the hostile reception that greeted last year's radically modern presentation of "Romeo and Juliet," the Bolshoi remains the Bolshoi -- arguably the most majestic ballet company in the world -- and the troupe is determined to remain a force even on its home turf here in Moscow, where it will be performing on secondary and borrowed stages for the next three years.
"We are preserving the company, their repertoire, we are continuing to issue new productions even during this period of renovation; thus we are not only preserving the artistic core of the theater, but we will develop it," general director Anatoly Iksanov said in an interview at the theater's modern auxiliary wing, which opened in 2002.
In Orange County, the 220-dancer troupe will be playing one of its trump cards -- the monumental, even bombastic "Spartacus," awash in powerful leaps, lifts and sword brandishing, a Yuri Grigorovich-choreographed ballet of the kind the company is famous for, though a recent spate of injuries has taken off the roster some of the company's most celebrated male dancers, who are badly needed to carry off the audacious ballet.
There will also be a rendition of composer Dmitri Shostakovich's "The Bright Stream," attempted by the Bolshoi's latest and perhaps most risk-taking artistic director, Alexei Ratmansky.
The ballet -- originally a light, almost vaudevillean take on Communist-era collective farms, which earned the wrath of then Soviet leader Josef Stalin when it premiered in 1936 -- is part of a Shostakovich trilogy Ratmansky is undertaking for the composer's 100th birthday next year. While described as "a frothy delight" by some critics, it has also provoked some consternation in Russia.
"It has nothing to do with classical music, with collectivization or with any kind of normal staging of a ballet. And it's not even funny! What is there that's funny in seeing 2-meter-tall men putting on tutus?" complained Anatoly Agamirov of Echo of Moscow radio, a dean of the Moscow dance critic corps. "This is good for a student's study, for a comedy talent show. But when you're talking about Stalinist collectivization, where millions died? This was a national tragedy, and there's really nothing to laugh about."
The reception reflects the divisions that have accompanied Ratmansky's brief reign as artistic director since he was hired from the Royal Danish Ballet in January 2004. The mixed feelings over "Bright Stream" were followed by a frosty critical reception in London for the Bolshoi's unusual production of Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet" last July.
Though it was choreographed by Moldovan choreographer Radu Poklitaru, with no direct involvement by Ratmansky on the playbill, the new artistic director -- the company's fourth since the legendary Grigorovich left in 1995 -- was taken to task because the ballet earned his approval and unfolded largely on his watch, having premiered a month before he joined the company and having sailed into critical purgatory in London (though it met with a significantly less hostile reception in the U.S.) during his first months on the job.
The production was decidedly un-Bolshoi-like, abandoning pointe shoes and featuring Juliet as a gawky teenager in trousers and Mercutio in drag.