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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Bolshoi: Back to the Future

First it was the tsar's theater, then the operatic mouthpiece for the Communist Party. Now the Bolshoi ballet and opera house has grand plans to shed its Soviet history by giving itself a pre-revolutionary facelift - and, paradoxically, a more avant-garde repertoire.

Not only has the Bolshoi historically been hailed as Russia's most prestigious theater, it has also provided a stage for Soviet politics. It was here that Vladimir Lenin declared the formation of the Soviet Union in 1922 and gave over 30 speeches. And, in 1937 and 1976, the theater proudly accepted the Order of Lenin.

But today, as talk of massive reconstruction of the Bolshoi Theater is gaining momentum, Bolshoi-goers are not only anxiously awaiting the arrival of a new avant-garde stage being built next to the original theater, but also storing in their memory the Soviet symbols that soon will no longer adorn the theater's halls.

And it seems that the theater and its director, Vladimir Vasilyev, are not interested in flaunting the Soviet symbols that were once as proudly displayed as the performances themselves. But Vasilyev says Soviet history is only one-third of the Bolshoi's past, and "if the Kremlin's red stars are being removed, then why shouldn't the Bolshoi have the right to do the same?"

The Bolshoi officially vowed to say "farewell" to its old Soviet interior and do away with all but one symbol of the Communist Party. Save the curtain - which opens and closes each performance with the initials of the U.S.S.R. and the sheet music for the Soviet anthem embroidered on its red and gold background - all traces of the post-revolutionary Bolshoi will be gone. "The curtain is truly a part of the Bolshoi's history," Vasilyev said.

Reinventing its tsarist-era atmosphere, however, is no easy task, and the theater is finding itself stuck in a quagmire of insufficient funding and construction delays.

Adding to the quagmire, revamping the theater's always-classic repertoire may prove an even more harrowing task. Amid criticism that the theater's new repertoire may bury the Bolshoi as it was forever, Vasilyev defends the theater's leap into the future, guaranteeing that the Bolshoi "will always wear the classic label."

As seems to be the fashion of the Russian day, Vasilyev has also "reconstructed" some of the Bolshoi's classic performances. Ludwig Minkus' "Don Quixote" has been returned to its original style, and "Swan Lake" and "Giselle" have drawn fire from critics when performed with significant changes. A dynamic theater, however, is vital for survival according to Vasilyev, who says, "all my life I have brought changes to the classic shows."

Irrespective of the criticism, Vasilyev claims these new versions have become part and parcel of the Bolshoi's history, and he emphasizes the importance of collaboration with other prominent theaters if the Bolshoi is to remain a dynamic force. Vasilyev says he has been discussing the possibility of joining artistic forces with outsiders from Moscow's well-known circle of directors and musicians "and, so far, none have refused to work with the Bolshoi."

This season, the Bolshoi plans to perform revised versions of other classic operas and ballets as new premiers, including variations on Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov's opera "Pskovityanka," directed by Igor Sharoyev, which will premier this season, and Sergei Dargomyzhsky's ballet "Rusalka," directed by Michael Kislyarov. Further changes will include the ballet "Pharaoh's Daughter" by Caesar Puni, directed by Pierre Lacotte from the Nancy Theater in France.

And, for the first time ever, the eccentric shows of Boris Eifman will grace the once closed-to-anything-but-the-strictly classic stage of the Bolshoi. Eifman will be performing his variation of "Russian Hamlet or Emperor Pavel I," with music by Ludwig van Beethoven and Gustav Mahler in February 2000.

With the arrival of new deputy musical director and former Bolshoi singer Yury Grigoryev, Vasilyev is hoping for a new injection of life into the theater's much-maligned opera performances.

"I hope he'll be able to attract new singers from outside," he said. "I think he'll give them the chance to show their worth at the Bolshoi."

But at the same time, Vasilyev says he doesn't like to use big names to advertise the theater. "I don't like the word 'promotion,'" he said. "Sometimes it can be wrong."

Still, he recognizes that such great names have the potential to bring big money to the Bolshoi - and with such a grand reconstruction project in the works, the theater badly needs any extra revenue it can drum up.

Avant-garde changes aside, the massive building reconstruction itself is scheduled to begin in January 2000. For the theater, this could mean a mid-season break in performances, or a temporary move to the new stage currently under construction.

Construction of the new stage, which began in 1995 and was originally scheduled for completion by 1997, is still far from ready to house the voices of the opera or the delicate feet of the ballet. As such, the Bolshoi's 224th season may turn out to be only its 223rd 1/2 season. According to Vasilyev, the new stage won't be ready until the third season of 2001-2002.

"No one ever knows how and when the theater will receive money from the state for reconstruction," Vasilyev said.

As such, the theater's only hope for making this grand project a less painful one is funding from the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization. However, UNESCO will only fund restoration projects aimed at saving invaluable pieces of history, and will not fund an all-out reconstruction that intends to destroy symbols of the past.

For Russia's aging architectural wonders, reconstruction has become a more fashionable and less costly option than restoration. However, such a vast reconstruction may mean severe losses for the theater's historical interior. Hoping to soften the losses, Vasilyev is looking for a compromise in a mix of reconstruction and restoration. "I would like to have the spectators' part of the Bolshoi Theater restored," Vasilyev said. "We need to keep spectator's halls [in their original form] because the guests have gotten used to them. But the technology must be from the 21st century."

And visions of new technology for the theater mean demolishing an entire third of the building to add more stage space and create two extra back stage wings.

Even as construction of the new stage drags on, reconstruction of the original building is in limbo and money from the state remains merely a dream, Vasilyev still insists the only way for the Bolshoi to hold on to its classic reputation is to remain a state-run theater, as it was in Soviet times - "affected neither by economic nor social troubles."

"This [was and] is the ideal," he said. But the state has little to offer by means of financing, and Vasilyev fears long delays could mean irreparable damage to the theater's prestigious reputation. In the meantime, people may forget the face of the Bolshoi, at least as it has been since 1856.