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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

The Perfect Bolshoi Bailout

The other day, on the last day of the ballet season, I paid a visit to the ticket scalpers in front of the Bolshoi Theater. As far as I could see, there were six or seven groups peddling seats: mostly young, and some not at all user-friendly. They were carefully got up to play the part that was probably their own -- with paramilitary pants, tank tops, cropped skulls and worked-up muscles -- well, you know the kind of thing.


I wandered about among these groups for a bit, enquiring about tickets. And each one produced exactly the same seating plan of the Bolshoi and offered identical prices: $15 for a seat up by the ceiling-shields, to $60 down by Tipper Gore, who was paying a visit that evening. There was no competition, and no discount for the bulk buyer. (I finally suggested that I might be in the market for 15 tickets.) That was the price, and that was it.


Now the day before, as it happened, I'd gone to a press conference at the Bolshoi, given by Vladimir Vasiliev, the great danseur noble who has now taken over as the theater's artistic director. And all the talk there was also about money. The government, he said, guaranteed the theater about $7.5 million a year, of which it had received, sadly, only about $2.3 million.


To pay dancers properly, he added -- they're currently paid between $84 and $189 a month -- and to start up the contract system in the theater that President Boris Yeltsin wants, he would need a yearly budget of at least $29.6 million. He had no idea at all where it was going to come from.


An aside, for a moment, to put all this money into perspective. Thanks to the Russian government, we can now turn to the new 100,000-ruble banknote. For the new bill features the Bolshoi Theater in a major way, with a long shot on one side and, on the other, a close-up of the famous four-horsed chariot on the top of the toothed portico.


Now this 100,000-ruble ($22) banknote a few years ago would have flown half the theater's 2,000-strong staff from Moscow to Vladivostok -- and probably back. It would have paid the 200 dancers' salaries for about two months. Today, it will buy the services of one member of the corps de ballet for a week -- or just about 40 percent of one of the stall seats the biletny mafia had on sale outside the theater.


It's no wonder, given this, that Bolshoi dancers live for the Bolshoi's foreign tours, as they have done for the last 36 years, according to dancer Maya Plisetskaya. For there they get performance fees, however small, in real money. And if they starve and never leave the hotel, except to perform, they can save more real money from their daily allowances. Enough, says Plisetskaya -- in the old days, at any rate -- to buy clothes and VCRs, even cars and cooperative apartments.


Anyway, back now to the ticket scalpers. For as I wandered the next day from group to group, feeling like a bad actor, I began asking, like a bemused tourist, where exactly the tickets on offer came from. There was much shrugging of shoulders. "From the artists," volunteered a young woman finally. "We buy them," said one of the bully-boys menacingly. It was obviously not a topic I was supposed to pursue.


I don't know where the tickets do come from -- probably from bigwigs in factories and ministries who ask for allocations and then sell them off. And there has got to be somebody inside the theater who's also cleaning up: transforming, at one stroke of the pen, $2.50 tickets into something that is, outside, worth 24 times the price.


My advice, then, to Vasiliev -- if he wants to solve his money problems -- is to sack the people inside who are in on the game, cut out mass allocations of tickets (and all the middlemen), and get the biletny mafia indoors. Give them all the tickets, and let them take over the box office.


He might as well. For as things are, the scalpers are selling out the theater at a rate of about $60,000 a performance, about $350,000 a week, or -- if the theater never went dark year-round -- a whacking $18 million a year. Top that with sponsorship, Friends-of-the-Bolshoi schemes, the government's guarantee and proceeds from foreign tours, and Vasiliev will be way over what he says he needs for the contract system, not to mention new producers, choreographers and foreign guests.


I know there are problems. But he'd probably be doing the scalpers a favor, too. They wouldn't have to pay off the protection boys and the police any more. They'd be out of the elements. And they'd probably go for it if they were put on the same percentage they get now.