On Friday night, anyone who was anyone was in only one place in Moscow: at the grand reopening of the Bolshoi Theatre, closed in 2005 for a renovation that cost nearly three quarters of a billion dollars. President Dmitry Medvedev and his wife were there; the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church was there; former Bolshoi divas and primas were there; students of the ballet academy, waifish and tired, were there; so was pretty much every cabinet minister, including the recently fired finance minister, Alexei Kudrin. Someone even reported spotting Raisa Gorbachev, who has been dead for twelve years. The one notable absentee was Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who, in a fine counterpoint to the orgy of high culture across town, spent the evening explaining how bureaucrats fond of taking bribes should be “punched in the face.”
For those who scored an elaborately designed invitation to the inaugural gala performance, there was a red carpet and a brass band and tuxes and mandatory floor-length gowns. For crowds of the less privileged, there was the cold, jumbotrons, and the refurbished theatre’s brilliantly lit, iconic façade. The latter would become a trope in a two-hour variety show, a greatest-hits parade of the Bolshoi’s past productions. During the scene changes, a screen would glow with elaborate graphics—some 3-D, some more like an etch-a-sketch—showing how the theatre has changed during six years of renovation, with thousands of workers and engineers rebuilding its crumbling foundation, fixing the massive cracks running up the walls, enlarging the orchestra pit, removing the cement the Soviets had poured under it, creating a cutting-edge hydraulics system to switch up the stage, reupholstering the seats (now bigger than before) with lush Italian fabrics, and restoring the touches, lopped off in Soviet years, that gave the grand hall its grand acoustics. Artisans applied eleven pounds of gold leaf to the newly ornate interior, using a mixture of whale grease, rotten egg whites, and clay, then vodka, then brushes of squirrel tail.
And, despite the predictable delays (the theatre was to reopen in 2008), cost overruns, and allegations of graft; despite the naysayers (Bolshoi principal Nikolai Tsiskaridze denounced the renovations as “plastic” and resembling “a hotel in Turkey”); despite finishing touches that included a bit or two of duct tape, everything looked as deeply and imperially posh as it was supposed to. All hammers and all sickles had been removed. The bicephalous eagle, which appears on the arms of both the Russian Empire and Federation, easily skipping over those awkward seventy years of Communist rule, had come to roost on curtains and mouldings, in gold. Clearly, no cost had been spared—Kudrin, the former finance minister, told a reporter that it was money well spent—and it looked really, really good. As for the naysayers, Tsiskaridze was simply not invited.
“Our country is very big, of course,” Medvedev said when he opened the show. “At the same time, the number of symbols that unite everybody, those national treasures, the so-called national brands, are limited. Bolshoi is one of our greatest national brands.” That word—“brand”—came up a few more times in his speech, and it struck a tinny, mercenary cord in such a lofty venue: Was this all a marketing campaign?
Part of the confusion is that Russians think of something else when they hear the word “brand”: to them it means “symbol,” where to a Western ear it is tied to an object for sale. In passing through the Russian cultural prism, the Anglicism—pronounced “brehnd”—has come to mean simply something that makes us look good, something that we’re good at. Nesting dolls are a brand, Russian literature is a brand, the Bolshoi is a brand. And in an era where post-Cold War inferiority complexes are still circling under the surface of modern Russian life, brands—things that we’re good at besides all the bad things you know us for—are important in helping Russians square their shoulders at home and hike up their chins abroad, while playing with the international majors. The symbols are also key when there is little left to unite the country other than the shared sacrifice of the Second World War and a growing tide of nationalism.
I caught Vitaly Mutko, Russia’s sports minister, leaving the theatre after the performance—resplendent in a tux, his hair festively shellacked. Mutko oversees another empire of Russian symbolism: shaped by the vaguely fascistic aims of the Stalin era and the intensely political competition of Cold War Olympics, Russian sports remains a key touchstone of Russian identity. National pride is still measured in gold medals; when the Russian national team flopped badly in Vancouver in 2010, it was a painful blow to the country’s psyche. (Part of the reason, it turned out, was that, on Mutko’s watch, millions were plundered from the sports budget and athletes were largely left to fend for themselves.) Aside from that, though, Mutko has also been one of the key figures in an effort to make Russia an athletic powerhouse again (though Vladimir Putin is the inspiration behind the operation). The results include winning bids to host the Winter Olympics, in 2014, and the World Cup, in 2018.
Mutko, in other words, knows a thing or two about Russia’s national brands. I asked him about the Bolshoi. “It is one of the symbols of Russia,” he said. “And now we’ve opened it after a long break, and now any person, not just a Russian but any person who visits Moscow, will seek this place out. It’s pride, it’s culture, it’s the country. It’s one of the symbols of the country.”
And so, when the gala commenced after Medvedev’s speech, the hit parade included the other great brands of Russia: Prokofiev, Tchaikovsky, Mussorgsky, Glinka, Shostakovich, and, of course, “Swan Lake.” There was even a little piece, “Dance of the Ushers,” by one of the more recently exported Bolshoi brands, dancer and choreographer Alexei Ratmansky. (Joan Acocella wrote a Profile of him for The New Yorker.) Ratmansky’s brand had to be exported, however, because he spun it in a more radical direction than the Bolshoi was willing to go. And that is the question for the Bolshoi now: Will it simply stick to the repertory staples, or will it push the brand forward to something more modern and forward looking? Will the symbol, in other words, grow and evolve and breathe in a place as gilded and damasked as the new Bolshoi?
At the Bolshoi Gala: [TNY]