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Bolshoi: A history of ballet, opera and the arts

Uncover the history of the Bolshoi from its early days under royal patronage, to decline, and eventual recovery, as well as look at some of the best ballet stars to ever step foot on the stage

The Bolshoi Theatre has long been regarded as the pinnacle of Russia’s artistic prowess and is known throughout the world as one of the best places to see ballet and opera. The theatre has entertained visitors for over two centuries and has seen some of the best ballet dancers and musicians in the world grace its stages.

Today, we will uncover the history of this magnificent theatre from its early days under royal patronage, to decline, and eventual recovery, as well as look at some of the best ballet stars to ever step foot on the stage.

History of the Bolshoi

Early beginnings

The theatre began as a private theatre under Prince Pyotr Urusov who was granted permission to organise masquerades, balls and other theatre performances by Empress Catherine II in 1776.

The theatre’s first building stood on Petrovka Street on the right bank of the Neglinka river, hence the name Petrovsky theatre. This theatre was built in less than six months and was the first public theatre of its size in Moscow, opened in December 1780 to a performance of ‘The Wanderers’ by Alexander Ablesimov and a pantomime ballet ‘The Magic School’ produced by Leopold Paradis with music by Joseph Starzer. By the time of the performance, Prince Urusov had already relinquished rights to his business partner Michael Maddox. The theatre was subsequently transferred between various companies before being transferred back to the Government Loan Office.

Under threat

In 1805, a fire broke out which destroyed the Petrovsky theatre, and so the company performed at different theatres for a short while after until the new Arbat theatre was constructed in 1808. Although this wooden alternative would also be burnt to the ground during the war with Napoleon in 1812.

A competition was started shortly after with the aim of finding the perfect architect to build the theatres replacement, eventually, a winner was chosen, however, his design was considered too expensive and so another architect Joseph Bové stepped in to alter the design, improving it in the process. The Petrovsky theatre would be built once again, however, after a successful thirty years, the new theatre would meet the same fate as its predecessor when a fire burnt it to the ground in 1853.

After another century or so of uncertainty, from reconstructions, revolutions and repurposing under the Bolsheviks, the building was soon considered dangerously unstable and so emergency repair works were started aided by the demolition of all buildings between the Bolshoi and Kuznetsky Most Street, giving the new theatre the room it so desperately needed for auxiliary buildings. Ultimately the existence of the theatre was called into question once more after a bomb hit the Bolshoi theatre on 22nd October 1941.

Rebirth

Although the damage made by the bomb was considerable, restoration work began on the theatre in Winter 1942 and was opened to the public once again in Autumn 1943 to a production of Glinka’s opera ‘A Life for the Tsar’. Cosmetic repairs were completed on the theatre building annually although the problems with the building’s foundations and space remained a problem. Urgent restoration works finally came in 1987 under government decree, however, the new stage would not be complete and open to the public until 2002 to a debut of Rimsky Korsakov's ‘The Snow Maiden’.

Bolshoi’s best solo and principal ballet dancers of all time

Natalia Osipova

Natalie Osipova in Don Quixote
Natalie Osipova in Don Quixote
Nicourse / CC0

Now a principal ballerina at the Royal Ballet in London, Osipova has had one the quickest rises to fame of any ballet star in recent history. She started formal ballet training the age of 9 and was enlisted by the Bolshoi Ballet as a member of the corps de ballet at just 18. After a critically acclaimed performance as Kitri in Don Quixote in 2005, she was made a soloist in 2006. After leaving the Bolshoi she had joined the American ballet as a guest dancer before moving to the Royal Ballet in 2013. What makes Osipova more intriguing is her desire to experiment, combining ballet with modern interpretive dance through her own personal projects, paving the way for a new and exciting future for contemporary ballet.

Ekaterina Krysanova

Ekaterina Krysanova
Ekaterina Krysanova
Екатерина Владимирова / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

A highly decorated ballerina in both the principal and duet categories, Ekaterina Krysanova remains one of Bolshoi’s most loved performers. Krysanova started her ballet education in 1995 at the Galina Vishnevskaya Opera Centre in Moscow, later joining the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in 2003. She has since risen to the role of principal dancer in the Bolshoi’s current roster.

Maria Alexandrova

Maria Alexandrova
Maria Alexandrova
Ирина Лепнёва / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)

Although resigning from the Bolshoi in 2017, Maria Alexandrova has been one of the theatre’s most loved dancers. She has played a title role in most of the theatre’s major productions including Giselle in which she made her Bolshoi debut back in 1997. She is best known for playing two roles concurrently in Don Quixote, one as a street dancer in act 1 and the other as a soloist in the third act.

Denis Rodkin

Denis Rodkin
Denis Rodkin
Kremlin.ru / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/4.0)

A rising star on the ballet scene, Denis Rodkin has become one of the most memorable male principal dancers of the last decade. Voted the best dancer of the year in 2016 by Danza Danza magazine, Rodkin continues to impress at the Bolshoi and has starred in many of theatre’s most successful ballets including Swan Lake, Ivan the Terrible and Spartacus. At the age of 29, you can expect to see a lot more from Rodkin over the coming years.

Anna Pavlova

Anna Pavlova in 1912
Anna Pavlova in 1912

A world-renowned ballet dancer that was so successful that she even had a dessert named after her! Anna Pavlova was a prima ballerina of the 19th and 20th centuries, and although she was part of the Imperial Russian Ballet, her role as the dying swan at the Bolshoi was known as one of her best performances. Although said to have a limited technique compared to later ballet performers, pavlova surpassed skill with charismatic charm and style to become one of the most memorable of all time.

Vladimir Vasiliev

Vladimir Vasilyev in the Nutcracker
Vladimir Vasilyev in the Nutcracker
RIA Novosti archive, image #709789 / Alexander Makarov / CC-BY-SA 3.0

Dubbed the hero of Soviet ballet, Vladimir Vasiliev was renowned for his death-defying leaps and multiple pirouettes. He is best known for the role of Spartacus, in which he excelled at conveying the passion and drama of the story. He graduated from the Bolshoi Ballet in 1958 and would later join them as a soloist.

Visiting the Bolshoi

Although temporarily closed due to Coronavirus, the Bolshoi is set to reopen its doors from 30th June. We recommend booking your tickets for performances in advance as they can sell out quickly. 

Since you are already heading to Moscow, why not check out the rest of what the Russian capital has to offer? Moscow is a city of rich history and culture; with no less than 3 UNESCO world heritage sites including the famous Kremlin and Red Square. Learn more about this magnificent city on our Moscow destinations page.

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