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The historic ballet tour that nearly didn’t happen

Diverted planes, missed rehearsals, and a shoplifting discus thrower: the Bolshoi's 1956 Covent Garden season got off to an uncertain start.

By Paris Hart (Former ROH Collections Assistant)

3 August 2016 at 3.34pm | 2 Comments

1956 was an exciting year at the Royal Opera House. February marked ten years of Sadler’s Wells Ballet as the resident ballet company at the theatre (honoured with a week of performances of its debut production, The Sleeping Beauty), and the Company also celebrated its 25th anniversary in May. But arguably the most anticipated event of the year was the Bolshoi Ballet season, scheduled for October, which would be not only the company’s first season at Covent Garden but also its first outside of Russia.

Press cuttings held by ROH Collections in five large, bound volumes give a fascinating insight into contemporary public and critical reaction to this historic event, beginning with the coverage around the release of tickets in August. Ballet fans queued outside the theatre for up to 72 hours to secure tickets, travelling from places as far-flung as South Africa, with one couple even bringing their eight-month old baby in tow.

With excitement for the Bolshoi’s visit reaching a crescendo, September brought shocking uncertainty to the table; a diplomatic incident involving the arrest of champion Russian discus thrower Nina Ponomareva for shoplifting – in a case that became known in the press as ‘Nina and the Five Hats’ – threw into question whether the Bolshoi Ballet season would go ahead. Press reported that the Royal Opera House stood to lose £40,000 if the visit was cancelled, but arguably the bigger loss would have been for the Covent Garden audience.

It wasn’t until 29 September, just four days before the Bolshoi’s first scheduled performance, that the visit was confirmed. But the off-stage dramatics did not stop there; due to poor weather in London, the planes carrying the Bolshoi dancers had to be diverted to an airbase in Kent, causing a six-hour delay to their arrival and the loss of a day’s rehearsal – which ultimately led to the cancellation of their performance of Swan Lake on 5 October. Press cuttings covering the few remaining days before their debut performance paint a picture of anxious, hurried efforts to ensure the season could go ahead as scheduled. The Bolshoi Ballet dancers strenuously rehearsed their choreography with the only day that was left available to them, while Royal Opera House staff worked hard to unpack and assemble the huge delivery of Bolshoi scenery.

Despite the initial uncertainty and last-minute rush, the first Bolshoi season was an unquestionable success. The Bolshoi brought Swan Lake, The Fountain of Bakhchisarai, Giselle and the first London performance of Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet (which was watched by a young Kenneth MacMillan from the wings). After the first performance of this on the debut night, critics rushed to sing the praises of the Bolshoi Ballet: Romeo and Juliet ‘hit our sedate Royal Opera House like a tornado’. Particular praise was given to dancer Galina Ulánova, whose star quality was such that she was fawned over by the press for the duration of the visit. British Ballet dancers Margot Fonteyn and Alicia Markova joined members of the Royal family, including a young Prince Charles, as appreciative audience members.

After a whirlwind visit, the Bolshoi Ballet returned to Moscow on 3 November 1956. Their first performance had seen David Webster, then General Manager of the Royal Opera House, announcing on stage that ‘I don’t think I am claiming too much if I say this is one of the most historic cultural exchanges ever begun’. Sixty years later, as the Bolshoi Ballet dance another season at the Royal Opera House, it is hard to disagree.

Find out more about the Royal Opera House’s historic Collections.

The Bolshoi’s season at the Royal Opera House runs until 13 August 2016. Tickets are currently sold out.

By Paris Hart (Former ROH Collections Assistant)

3 August 2016 at 3.34pm

This article has been categorised Ballet and tagged Alicia Markova, anniversary, Bolshoi Ballet, David Webster, Galina Ulanova, history, Kenneth MacMillan, Margot Fonteyn, Nina Ponomareva, ROH Collections, Russia, tour, USSR

This article has 2 comments

  1. Eric Bowie responded on 13 November 2016 at 3:09pm Reply

    I was a member of the R.O.H. orchestra at that time.. My desk partner,George Whittaker was assigned the post of "chess opponent" in waiting to Uri Fayer the almost-blind Bolshoi conductor. Gennadi Rozhdesvensky was only allowed to conduct mztinée performances.Morris Smith was the orchestra manager at the time .....inspiring the remark from Rudolf Kempe...."we are paid to make music;he's paid to look at his watch" Happy days.!

    • Paris Hart (Former ROH Collections Assistant) responded on 15 November 2016 at 3:36pm

      Hello,

      Many thanks for your interesting comment and insight. We are always pleased to hear personal stories such as yours from people with strong connections to the Royal Opera House.

      Many thanks,

      Paris
      Collections Assistant, ROH Collections

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