Russia's Bolshoi sticks to classics after revamp

MOSCOW Thu Sep 22, 2011 8:46am EDT

Ballet dancers watch Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev visiting the Bolshoi Theatre to mark its re-opening after years of reconstruction in Moscow September 20, 2011. REUTERS/Denis Sinyakov

Ballet dancers watch Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev visiting the Bolshoi Theatre to mark its re-opening after years of reconstruction in Moscow September 20, 2011.

Credit: Reuters/Denis Sinyakov

MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia's Bolshoi Theatre is regaining its 19th century sheen and charm with a long-awaited revamp and a repertoire to suit, resisting global pressure to go modern.

Much anticipation surrounds the reopening of one of Russia's

cultural gems after a six-year restoration plagued by delays and financial scandal. President Dmitry Medvedev will lead the opening in a grand ceremony on October 28.

"The Bolshoi Theatre is based on classics and classics will remain its priority in both opera and ballet," the theatre's general director, Anatoly Iksanov, told Reuters in an interview.

Russian ballet troupes, in particular, have been trying to wean themselves off the classic repertoire so loved by their countrymen and embrace the minimalism of modern dance, but often face resistance from theatres and audiences alike.

Iksanov said "any radical experiments" in opera and ballet will be performed on the Bolshoi's smaller, more cramped New Stage, where all shows took place during the revamp.

"The main stage will remain more traditional. But it doesn't mean we'll let ourselves get dusty," said Iksanov, 59, who has led the Bolshoi since 2000.

But he said the Bolshoi "is not a museum and never will be. As any live form of art, it will evolve".

Its 236th season will open on Friday with "The Golden Cockerel" opera, based on a fairy tale by the 19th century writer Alexander Pushkin. The first artists to perform on the revamped stage will be Italy's La Scala orchestra and choir with Giuseppe Verdi's "Requiem", in November.

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Started in 2005, the reconstruction of the interior of the Bolshoi's main hall and stage included installing panels of rare pine, plush red curtains and was finished off with a medieval recipe of real gold, vodka and eggs.

After years of neglect and exhaustive use during Soviet times, the main stage closed in 2005 and was meant to reopen in 2008. The restoration was hit by delays and a scandal over missing funds.

Iksanov said the reconstruction's cost of 20 billion roubles was what he expected, although infrastructure analysts and construction companies had named a sum almost twice that, embarrassing Russia's cultural authorities who said the country's endemic corruption had reached the stage.

First built on the same site in 1776, the Bolshoi survived three fires and a World War Two bombing.

"There were a lot of surprises. The building was literally floating on its wooden foundation until the water level in the Neglinka river (flowing under the city) shrank," Iksanov said.

Smiling proudly, Iksanov said three layers of bricks, the oldest dating to 1780, are now on display in the main building through two glassed wall panels.

Despite the number of seats shrinking from 2,200 to 1,720 for the main stage -- by replacing the rigid Soviet-era seats with ones that are wider and more cosy -- the fact the Bolshoi will perform on two stages means touring will have to be cut.

"We won't give it up completely. We will just tour less," Iksanov said, adding that the Paris Opera, Vienna Opera House and Warsaw Opera are all queuing up as guests for next year.

"Things are humming," he said in an office decorated with burgundy sofas and a portrait of Tsar Alexander II, a great reformer who freed the serfs in the 19th century and visited the Bolshoi.

(Writing By Nastassia Astrasheuskaya, editing by Amie Ferris-Rotman)

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