Bolshoi in the kitchen: Russian ballet is also working from home during lockdown

Isabelle Khurshudyan

THE WASHINGTON POST – This performance doesn’t require a red-curtain reveal.

It begins in a Moscow dining room. Ballet dancer Ivan Vasiliev, a veteran of stages including the Bolshoi, is dressed in a T-shirt and times his moves to pretend he is giving his daughter’s doll a haircut. The scene shifts to the kitchen, where a ballerina is gliding along the counter in point shoes.

The informal – but carefully choreographed – video goes on for another two minutes, showing various Russian dancers turning dishwashing, sweeping and cooking into art amid the pandemic lockdowns.

But there is a very sobering message, too.

With no clear end to the pandemic in sight, theatres and their performers across the globe wonder how long they can hold out without the ticket sales and other revenue that sustain them.

Every day Andrea Lassakova stretches before the ballet class. PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST
Adrian Mitchell does a ballet class at home, with jugs of water weighing down chairs to replace a barre

In Russia, the performing arts – and ballet in particular – are so entwined in the national identity that theatres are unaccustomed to empty seats, let alone barren buildings. But now even some of Russia’s most storied venues, including the Bolshoi Theater, may be in danger.

Bolshoi Director Vladimir Urin told Russian newspaper Kommersant, “If we don’t open in September, it’s even scary to predict what may happen – up to destruction of the theatre. Not the buildings, of course.”

But inspiration and hope live on – even if during self-isolation practice and dance.

“We’re really missing the stage and missing the theatre,” said Vasiliev, one of Russia’s top soloists. “We’re missing the roles that we play. We’re missing performances where we can thank a live audience.”

Moscow’s Bolshoi was founded in 1776 and moved to its present site, just down the street from the Kremlin, four years later. The building burned down in 1805 and was badly damaged by another fire in 1853. In World War II, it was hit by a bomb. It closed for six years of extensive and pricey renovations in 2005, but the troupe shifted its performances to other venues.

Urin estimated a loss of more than USD100,000 in ticket sales for every day the Bolshoi is closed. Russian President Vladimir Putin ordered businesses to continue paying their employees, even during indefinite closures, and the Bolshoi has roughly 3,400 people on the payroll.

The theatre is hopeful for a government bailout.

“Surely without performances we have no profit, yet state subsidies for Bolshoi are very considerable and we hope that the way the state is willing to help small and medium businesses, it would also help to cover losses for the theatres – and hence also for the Bolshoi,” Urin said in a statement to The Washington Post.

Russia’s coronavirus cases started spiking later than its European and Asian neighbours, which means the peak will probably be delayed, too. The country has more than 62,000 confirmed diagnoses.

The Bolshoi is far from the only performing arts centre struggling.

New York’s Metropolitan Opera announced last month that it would cancel the rest of its season because of the pandemic and begin an emergency fundraising effort aimed at covering an anticipated loss of up to USD60 million.

Washington’s Kennedy Center received USD25 million in emergency funding as part of the recent USD2 trillion stimulus package, but then it announced a plan to furlough the National Symphony Orchestra’s musicians. After public backlash, the furloughs were called off, but hefty pay cuts replaced them.

Valeria Zapasnikova, a ballerina with St Petersburg’s Mikhailovsky Ballet Company, said she and other dancers have wondered about what a return to the stage will even look like.

Once a theatre can open, troupes will need some time to practice together again before performing.

But then with the painful economic downturn the coronavirus caused, will people be as willing to shell out money for expensive tickets? Will they have the same appetite to sit in a crowded theatre? And if the borders remain closed to tourists, that could be another hit to the prospective audience base.

“Do you really think that when we announce the sale of tickets, people will immediately rush to buy them?” Urin told Kommersant. “It will take time for the audience to return to the theatre – not only for economic but also for psychological reasons. This epidemic, in my opinion, will change a lot in the relationship between the theatre and the audience.”

The dining room chairs classes in Adrian Mitchell and Andrea Lassakova’s apartment are weighed down with large jugs of water to serve as a makeshift barre for the couple’s daily ballet classes.

During the 45-minute sessions, they carefully avoid kicking the audience of one – their small dog, Beau.

Mitchell is typically teaching the makeshift class. Because the Mikhailovsky Theatre, where they both perform, closed so suddenly, Lassakova didn’t get a chance to grab extra point shoes, leaving her with just one worn-down pair.

“They reason why we came to Russia was because they have a huge appreciation for the arts,” said Mitchell, a 26-year-old American.

“So that also means a lot of government funding. And out of all of the wars and the things that have happened in Russia over so many hundreds of years now, ballet has survived.”
He is confident it will survive a pandemic, too. But the longer it lasts, the less ideal the at-home practice routine becomes. The apartment doesn’t have the proper flooring, making some moves dangerous to attempt. Other dancers said they’ve spent this time more focussed on yoga and cardiovascular workouts.

“You can’t really be doing big jumps and leaps at home,” Mikhailovsky ballerina Zapasnikova said.

Vasiliev, who was recognised as an honoured artist of Russia in 2014, called on theatres to do more to reassure and financially support their performers in the meantime.

“Performers can’t work from home. They don’t have a stage from home,” he said. “Especially the dancers who aren’t soloists, if they’re not paid per show, they’ll have to start looking for other work. That means they’ll lose their form without practise. Without them, a theatre is just an empty box.”

Lassakova, 26, would have been cast as the lead, Odette, in Swan Lake next month.

Instead, she and Mitchell passed their free nights watching others dance – online streams of past performances in Vienna, Monaco and other places. It’s something they don’t usually have time for with a full slate of their own shows.

“It would be cool if ballet was able to get a new sort of appreciation from people because of what it did during this time,” Mitchell said.

Theatres turned to Internet broadcasts. The Bolshoi’s streams of Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake and The Nutcracker each had more than 900,000 viewers, Urin said, calling them a “humanitarian gesture”.

The Perm Opera and Ballet Theater, located in an industrial city near Russia’s Ural mountains, planned to put on shows for just one person at a time – a lucky viewer selected through a lottery system.

But that project was tabled once Russia adopted stricter coronavirus measures in late March.

The theatre’s General Manager Andrey Borisov said the reception was so positive that the Perm Opera and Ballet will go forward with the initiative once the theatre can reopen.

“I believe that culture is very important: It’s not restaurants, cafes and hairdressers but theatres, movies and museums that will support people after the pandemic,” said Alexander Kalyagin, a well-known actor and director and the head of the Russian Union of Theatrical Figures.

“There is a characteristic feature of a theatre – theatres worked during the war, actors went to the front, there was a theatre even in the Gulag,” he added, referring to the Soviet system of internal exile for dissidents.

The Bolshoi opened its doors for one night to put on a live concert, aired on state television in an empty theatre to thank the country’s health workers earlier this month. Several hundred were involved in organising it.

But just days later, Urin told the state-run Tass news agency that 34 staffers had tested positive for the coronavirus, though none were involved in the concert.

“I would question the necessity of having such a concert during a time of quarantine,” Vasiliev said.

“We are being told all of the time that we should stay home. If you want to have a concert to thank doctors, you can always have it after this is over.”