Bolshoi Hoping for International Help

LONDON -- The artistic director of Russia's cash-strapped Bolshoi Theater said he was confident enough funds could be raised to save one of the world's most famous ballet and opera companies.

UNESCO, the United Nations agency for arts and culture, has just launched an international fund-raising campaign for $350 million to renovate the dilapidated 142-year-old building.

"I am an optimist. I believe we can find the money," said artistic director Vladimir Vasilyev, announcing the first joint visit to London by the Bolshoi ballet and opera companies.

"I hope and trust the Russian government understands that the Bolshoi is Russia's business card to the world," he told reporters amid the chandeliered splendor of the Russian Embassy in London on Monday evening.

Vasilyev, once a leading dancer in the theater's famed Bolshoi Ballet, has in the past complained that the $12 million it receives annually from the government was only enough to pay wages.

The Russian government and the Moscow City Duma managed to find sponsors to keep the theater, a major attraction for tourists, open for daily performances.

But this icon of the art world has been bedeviled by money woes since the fall of communism. Funding has remained a constant headache and Vasilyev said he would be the first to admit that "our finances have been anything but brilliant."

"We have a very small budget. It is not a budget you could even start comparing with the equivalent budget in America, France or Britain," he said.

He remained optimistic despite Russia's financial woes.

"We live in a very strange world in Russia. The more difficult life is, somehow the greater the excitement is," he said.

"Despite the terrible financial circumstances in which we all find ourselves, somehow we go on - stimulated by that."

Theater critics in Moscow say friends of opera and ballet should pay less attention to the theater building and more to the drab repertoire played inside.

"They are irrationally exchanging old productions for new versions that are not any better," said Yaroslav Sedov, ballet and opera critic for the weekly magazine Itogi.

Vasilyev fiercely defended the prowess of his company of 400 dancers, singers and musicians, who will be coming to London in July for a five-week season at the Coliseum Theatre.

He said the troupe had enormous potential: "It feels that it can offer and bring something that is new."

Asked if he would like to have more Western singers and dancers perform with the Bolshoi, he said: "The whole financial problem raises its ugly head."

"It is a financial problem if we were to invite the big names from the West. ... Of course, every single such experience could not be realized without a whole group of sponsors."