Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre was a difficult place to renovate during Soviet times. Communist party bosses liked to hold meetings there, making it awkward to shut it down for construction. Joseph Stalin appeared to have been particularly fond of the place. He celebrated his 70th birthday there, and used the theatre for several notable speeches at which audience members applauded unrelentingly—fearful, one can assume, of what would happen to whomever stopped clapping first.
And so the grand and iconic building, built in 1825 and renovated after a fire in 1856, fell into disrepair. Its stone walls and oaken foundations cracked. Then the Soviet Union itself collapsed, and in the economic turmoil that followed, restoring such an opulent structure wasn’t a priority. It was finally closed for extensive refurbishments in 2005.
Last fall, three years behind schedule and 16 times over budget, the theatre reopened—amid much public anger about alleged corruption, and fallout from a sex scandal involving explicit photographs of the director of the ballet company that were posted on the Internet. The total cost of the repairs, including those to an adjacent building connected by a tunnel to the main theatre, topped $1 billion.
The results are visually stunning. Previously white ceilings have been painted in soft glowing pastels. On some walls, 20 layers of paint were peeled back to discover their original colours. Renovators pored over old gravure prints to learn even the design of vases adorning railings outside the main hall. Gold leafing shines everywhere. The metal was washed in vodka and polished with squirrel tails. Artists skilled in all-but-vanished gilding techniques were found and hired. Others needed to be taught. “They all fell under the spell of the place,” says Katerina Novikova, a spokeswoman for the Bolshoi, speaking of the craftsmen and women enlisted for the renovation. “They like to come back.”
For the Kremlin, which funded the project, the renovation is a metaphor for a reawakened Russia. But renovations also speak to what aspects of Russia’s heritage the government wants preserved. The Bolshoi Theatre’s history spans czarist Russia, the Soviet Union, and now the post-Soviet Russian Federation. Each era is reflected in the building, and those plotting the renovations faced constant dilemmas about which fragments of history to restore, replace or discard.
The Soviets came to power with no sentimental attachment to the Russian empire they replaced. Novikova points to deep red floor-to-ceiling tapestries that were woven in 19th-century France. The curtains originally included royal monograms and images of the two-headed Russian imperial eagle. The Soviets took offence. “They just cut them out with scissors and replaced them with flowers and the hammer and sickle,” she says.
The Soviet symbols on the curtains have now been removed and replaced with replicas of the original imperial motifs. The same thing has been done throughout the theatre. A gold-gilded eagle now dominates the auditorium, reflecting a vision for the theatre’s restoration that seeks to turn back time a century. “If you ask me, I don’t know how much of the hammer and sickle we need to take away, because the glory of the Bolshoi came in Soviet times. Before then the capital was in St. Petersburg,” says Novikova. The Bolshoi’s location in the Soviet capital Moscow, especially, so close to the Kremlin and Red Square, grew its fame. And it was during the Soviet era that many innovations in Russian ballet took place at the Bolshoi, she adds.
The renovations that have most upset some Russians, however, are those few in the audience will notice. Everything behind the stage curtain has been redone: dressing rooms, rehearsal theatres, workshops, even the main stage itself. There are now modern hydraulics that allow for more elaborate, faster set changes, as well as less noticeable additions, such as new showers for the dancers.
Vladimir Sergeev, a member of a Russian architectural heritage group, disapproves. “It’s a historical monument. It should be preserved the way it was built,” he says. Novikova admits the new modern half of the building lacks mystique. “It doesn’t really have the former spirit of the house. It’s all new,” she says. “But we can just hope that the old spirit comes back. The house is starting this new life. We have to wait.”
Maria Allash, a prima ballerina at the Bolshoi, danced in the theatre before its six-year round of renovations. “It feels different. I have memories of how it was, so I have to get used to the new buildings,” she said in an interview with Maclean’s. She likes some of the changes. The backstage renovations mean it’s now faster to change costumes between scenes, for example. Besides, she adds, once you’re on stage and the curtain rises, you don’t think about anything else.