Ballet of the Beast: The Bolshoi

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A new book examines the Russian ballet company's history of violence.

Long into its post-Soviet doldrums, Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre hit the news in 2013, when the artistic director of its ballet troupe, Sergei Filin, had acid hurled in his face by a thug in the pay of a dancer with a grudge. Flaring violence, it turns out, according to Simon Morrison’s breezy history Bolshoi Confidential (Liveright), is one of this custom-encrusted place’s many traditions. Reel back to 1847 and we find Avdotya Arshinina, a young dancer, dumped at a hospital. “Pale and emaciated,” Morrison tells us, “she had severe injuries on her head and body as well as bruised, infected, ‘blackened’ genitalia.”

First to step onto the stage of Morrison’s account, in 1780, was a wheeler-dealer from England, Michael Maddox, who worked his way in with Catherine the Great and seized the chance to introduce ancient, still-medieval Moscow to ballet, opera, Shakespeare, and popular entertainment. With talents in magic and clock making, plus a hefty dose of showmanship, Maddox might have been an avatar of the man who here brings him to life. Morrison is a Princeton music professor and an acknowledged authority on Russian music, but he never lets scholarship cast its dust on a lively tale.

Morrison fills in dull patches by drawing on wider history. Rasputin, who almost certainly never darkened the Bolshoi’s doors, nevertheless gains admittance here. And so he should. The Bolshoi’s story is Russia’s. “Every nation,” Morrison concludes, “lives in its own combination of realities,” and Russia’s certainly includes all the ostentation and the brutality, the spectacular achievement and the autocratic control, that have made the Bolshoi.