Shall We Dance?

Moscow’s most venerable opera and ballet theater is undergoing its first overhaul since being built in the second half of the 19th century. The approximately $600 million modernization of the Bolshoi Theatre, funded by the state, has been one of Russia’s most significant construction projects in 20 years. The undertaking is so high profile that Putin personally toured the old structure and cautioned government ministers he would be closely watching the renovations to ensure that the work was completed on schedule and on budget.

Construction finally got under way in July 2005, with the finish date scheduled for March 2008. The building, which is entirely encased in scaffolding, has literally not been seen in two years. The foundation has been strengthened with thousands of piles driven deep into the ground, reinforced by concrete, and hermetically sealed to protect against an underground river that passes along the eastern end of the theater.

The renovation is meant to provide the Bolshoi with the comfort level and technical advancements found at the world’s other major opera houses, such as Milan’s La Scala and New York City’s Metropolitan Opera. The stage is to be mechanized and the luxurious interior restored. The Soviet emblems will be replaced by the original czarist-era symbols.

The crews have their work cut out for them. When they scraped away the façade, they were dismayed to find major fissures in supporting walls. Indeed, in early 2005 Anatoly Iksanov, the director of the theater, pronounced the condition of the building "life-threatening." Devastation is actually a common theme for the Bolshoi, which was founded as a private theater in 1776, during the reign of Catherine the Great: Fire ravaged it twice and floods were common. The current structure dates from 1856, and its soaring Doric columns and statue of a horse-drawn chariot steered by Apollo make it a key architectural landmark on the Moscow landscape.

As a result of the greater-than-expected structural decay, Iksanov says that the opening will need to be pushed back to 2009. Though Putin had stressed a desire for a 2008 opening, Iksanov supported the need for the extension by stating that more than 60 percent of the building was in an advanced state of ruin. No official word has been handed down on the opening date, but the project continues.

Theatergoers can take heart in the fact that the show will go on regardless. A much smaller stage, located on the building’s western side, opened in 2002, and throughout the construction it has kept the spirit of the Bolshoi alive and soaring—and will continue to do so until the grand hall reopens its doors.