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The Bolshoi in London 2013: Big, bold and brilliant

A look back at the history of Moscow’s great ballet company and its relationship with Covent Garden.

By Chris Shipman (Head of Brand Engagement and Social Media)

29 July 2013 at 1.37pm | 5 Comments

This summer's performances by the Bolshoi Ballet mark the 50th year of the Moscow-based company performing at Covent Garden under the banner of Victor and Lilian Hochhauser.

Described by tour promoter Lilian Hochhauser as 'the cultural face of Russia', the Bolshoi is recognized as one of the foremost ballet companies in the world. Even Lady Gaga is apparently a fan. Recent controversies seem to have done nothing to blunt the company's brilliance on stage.

The company was founded in 1776, originally established by Prince Pyotr Urusov as a dance school for Moscow orphans. English theatrical entrepreneur (and former acrobat) Michael Maddox played a key role in helping the company to develop and within a couple of decades a the Bolshoi consisted of 50 dancers.

In 1812 the original premises were destroyed by fire and so in 1825 the Company moved to the newly-built Petrovsky theatre, which soon became known as 'the Imperial Bolshoi Theatre of Moscow'.  'Bolshoi' is Russian for 'big', still true today of a company that comprises over 200 dancers). By the early years of the 20th century, the Bolshoi was developing its own identity, helped by the appointment of Alexander Gorsky, Marius Petipa's former assistant who staged and revised such works as Don QuixoteCoppéliaLa Bayadère and Swan Lake.

The start of the Soviet era saw Moscow become the capital of the newly-formed Soviet Union and politicians increase their involvement in artistic decision-making. Works from this era such as The Red Poppy often feature revolutionary themes.

The first London performances by the company took place in 1956, when they danced Swan Lake at the Royal Opera HouseThe Hochhausers promoted the tour in 1963 that included performances of Swan LakeCinderellaRomeo and Juliet and The Little Hump-Backed Horse. They have organized all of the Bolshoi's trips to the UK since, with the company's London initial early 1960s performances being a decade in the making. 'The day of [Stalin's] death we started working with the Russians,' Lilian recently told the Telegraph, 'That meant we just missed meeting Prokofiev because he died the same day.'

As the Soviet Union began to open up, and under the directorship of Yuri Grigorovich, the company cemented its international reputation with a string of tours and grand productions including Spartacus and Ivan the Terrible. This period saw opportunities for a new generation of stars too, as dancers such as Ekaterina Maximova were able to perform on the world stage for the first time.

Over the years the Bolshoi has developed a historical rivalry with St Petersburg's Mariinsky. Both companies have developed different performing styles; the Mariinsky's refined classicism against the Bolshoi's emotion-filled spectacle. The company has a reputation for reviving classics, commissioning new works (Royal Ballet Artistic Associate Christopher Wheeldon became the first Englishman to create a work for the company when he created Misericors in 2007) and developing new talent (Royal Ballet Principal Natalia Osipova being just one example).

This 50th anniversary visit by the Bolshoi promises to be a treat for ballet fans, a reflection of a company that is - as the Russians say - Bolshoi nazvaniyem, bolshoi svoistvom' ('big by name, and big by nature').

Have you seen the Bolshoi perform? What makes the company's style so unique?

The Bolshoi Ballet perform Swan Lake, La Bayadère , The Sleeping Beauty, Jewels and The Flames of Paris between 29 July and 17 August. Tickets are still available for some productions but there are no day tickets for Bolshoi performances.

This article has 5 comments

  1. David Williams responded on 30 July 2013 at 12:14pm Reply

    An interesting and helpful overview of Bolshoi history.

  2. Lada Hornjatkevyc responded on 1 August 2013 at 7:04pm Reply

    Where can I find updated casting for the Bolshoi tour? For example, information about Sleeping Beauty casts on this site dffer from that on the Bolshoi's own site. If any further changes are made, where will the information be posted?

  3. Robert Penman responded on 14 August 2013 at 12:27pm Reply

    Are you quite sure that the season in 1963 was the first time the company had appeared at the ROH? I, together with a number of other pupils at the RBS danced in that season with the Bolshoi - Cinderella, School for Ballet, etc. I don't remember it ever being said that this was the first time the Bolshoi had appeared at the ROH. Of course it may have been. However, for certain the company first performed in London in 1956. Indeed, the BBC broadcast a programme commemorating that event on October 21, 1956. So, maybe the Bolshoi did not appear at the ROH, but they certainly did perform in London. If, as part of the publicity for the present season it is being claimed that this is the golden jubilee of the company's first appearance in London then that is simply misinformation that needs to be corrected. Margaret Dale, the producer, described to me the concerns that she had of getting Nicolai Fadeyechev and Galina Ulanova to the Riverside Studios in Hammersmith, from where the programme, which included the pas de deux from the second act of Swan Lake, was broadcast. Thankfully, the programme is still in the BBC's archives.

    • Ellen West (Head of Creative Studios and Digital Products) responded on 16 August 2013 at 5:42pm

      Dear Robert

      You are quite right to say that 1956 was the first performance by the Bolshoi at the Royal Opera House. We have clarified the post so that it is now clear that the anniversary relates to their visits with the Hockhhausers.

      Best wishes


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