It was once a byword for the finest in Russian culture – the “big” theatre, grand not just in scale but in reputation. But the Bolshoi theatre is in danger of gaining a reputation for something altogether different. It is accused of falling victim to modern Russia’s ills – greed, vulgarity and corruption.
The surprise departure last week of Gennady Yanin, deputy director of the Bolshoi ballet company, is the latest scandal to rock the institution. Critics speak of a theatre lacking vision and even morals, threatening to derail the Bolshoi’s history as a bedrock of Russian dramatic arts.
Yanin was forced out last week when graphic images of him in bed with other men were posted online and a link emailed to thousands of people in Russia and abroad. Homosexuality remains little tolerated in Russia. He has declined to comment on the row, saying only that he decided to leave his position because he was tired.
“It’s very complicated, difficult work,” he said. “And because of what happened, the way my colleagues reacted, pushed me to do what I long wanted to do and leave the position.”
Yanin’s departure has opened the floodgates of Bolshoi gossip. With more than 200 dancers, it is by far the world’s biggest ballet company, home to endless intrigue. Yet former dancers and critics say the nature of the scandals goes well beyond the diva antics typical of any major dance company.
Anastasia Volochkova, the former Bolshoi ballerina who was fired in 2003 over her weight, describes a theatre transformed into a quasi-escort agency for wealthy donors. Several other sources backed up her claims.
“Parties are organised for oligarchs, for sponsors. And they invite ballerinas from the Bolshoi,” Volochkova said. “These girls aren’t invited privately, but through the theatre’s administration.
“The girls are told: if you go to the party, you will have a future. If not, you won’t go on the next tour. What can they do? I saw it all with my own eyes. It was openly said, it wasn’t even hidden.”
But Bolshoi spokeswoman Katerina Novikova denied the suggestions of impropriety. “The Bolshoi has a lot of trustees, and when we are abroad we have parties by board of trustees,” she said.
“One of the best parties was in Versailles, 800 people, including all the Bolshoi dancers, were there. Smaller parties are held, it’s true. It’s true there are parties where dancers, male and female, and singers are invited. As to the rest, it’s totally false information.”
The latest scandal has exploded at an inopportune time for the Bolshoi. In October, the theatre is due to reopen its doors for a grand gala after closing for renovation in 2005. The project has run three years over schedule and at least 16 times over budget, according to Russia’s audit chamber. In 2009, prosecutors opened an investigation into the lead contractor, alleging it had been paid three times for the same work in a £10m corruption case. The investigation is thought to be continuing. The total cost of renovations has reportedly reached more than £600m.
According to Volochkova and Rinat Arifulin, a former lead dancer at the Bolshoi who left the company last year, the corruption does not end there.
The two dancers, who now work together on contemporary productions, allege tenders for everything from costumes to props are consistently inflated.
“The Russia corruption that we see everywhere in our society has come to the Bolshoi in the past few years,” Volochkova said. “The leadership is not paying enough attention to the creative process, but rather to business, commerce, money.” But Novikova said the company had not been responsible for the renovations.
“The Bolshoi theatre administration, we are like guests. The state does it [reconstruction] for us. There is a special unit in the ministry of culture and they look after all this work. It doesn’t touch us,” she said.
The Bolshoi ballet troupe is due to tour Paris in May and completed a successful run in London last summer.
Yet at home, where ballet is treated with almost religious respect, it has long failed to win the critical acclaim that it once drew. “There’s a certain aura around the Bolshoi and things aren’t looked at as critically as they ought to be when they are abroad,” said Raymond Stults, who has written on ballet for the Moscow Times for 17 years.
“They have to do something absolutely radical, they can’t go on like this.”
The theatre’s current head, Anatoly Iksanov, is a long-time theatrical bureaucrat who was widely expected to leave when his contract ran out last year. Yet he was reappointed, though many major decision-making responsibilities, including high-level appointments, were taken away from him and handed to the Russian ministry of culture.
“There’s no one around there who really exercises quality control over the physical productions,” said Stults.
The Bolshoi has lost some of its best talent as the situation has worsened.
Alexei Ratmansky, a highly respected former head of the ballet troupe, left his position in 2008, frustrated with the Bolshoi’s politics.
That was followed by the surprise resignation a year later of music director Alexander Vedernikov, who quit on the first day of an Italian summer tour. The theatre was putting “bureaucratic interests before artistic ones,” he said at the time. “It’s become clear that the Bolshoi Theatre does not possess the slightest traits of an artistic organisation.”
Over the weekend, the Bolshoi announced that dancer Sergei Filin had been appointed artistic director of the ballet troupe, succeeding Yury Burlaka, whose contract expired last week. Soloist Yan Godovsky replaced Ganin as his deputy.
“For the last couple of years, there’s a feeling that there is no serious mind behind what they’re doing,” said Stults.
• This article was amended on 23 March 2011 to remove the statement that the Bolshoi gave the world Vaslav Nijinsky and Mikhail Baryshnikov.
guardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010