Interview with Katerina Novikova, Head of Press at the Bolshoi Theatre
Interview conducted by Olivia Capozzalo and Smith Freeman of the She’s In Russia podcast.
Smith: What has been the role of the Bolshoi as a cultural center throughout Russian history?
Katya: Bolshoi is an outstanding venue. It was constructed by Alberto Cavos, a great architect and son of the royal composer Catterino Cavos. He built two theatres: one is Mariinsky and the other one is Bolshoi. Bolshoi was the first one he did. He was very much preoccupied with acoustics, but also his father was from Venice and they said that in the Bolshoi decor, in the white and gold, you have all this Venetian reflection. He built the Bolshoi in Moscow even though the capital was in St. Petersburg, Moscow still was the biggest city in the country and in this biggest city of the country he built a venue of such an incredible beauty of outstanding quality.
And from the time he built it, he was very much in a hurry because it had to be ready for the coronation of Alexander the Second, as Nicholas the First had passed away. The coronation itself was in a cathedral, but in the evening the major celebration took place in Bolshoi. I’m saying this just to stress that from the beginning Bolshoi was central to not only artistic events, but to historical events that were important for the nation.
After the revolution there was a huge quarrel about whether the new communist country needs this kind of art or if it is too Bourgeois. But of course at the end of the day, we are happy and thankful for Mr. Lunacharsky (whose role was similar to the minister of culture’s role today) that Bolshoi was preserved, that the art of ballet and opera was preserved.
When the capital moved to Moscow, the Bolshoi became a very important venue right away, because all the major party meetings took place there. It’s from the Bolshoi stage that the Soviet Union was announced, or the death of Lenin was announced on that stage or the first five year plan.
In the 20th century, one hundred forty leaders of different countries visited Bolshoi because it was part of the official program. For everybody visiting the Soviet Union it was a must to come to Bolshoi. That’s why it’s such a historical place because on one hand on stage you have numbers of outstanding talents like Vasiliev and Maximova and Plisetskaya and Bessmertnova and then on the other hand you have Kennedy, and Mahatma Gandhi, and Elizabeth the Second visiting Bolshoi. Everybody throughout history came to this place.
Olivia: Correct me if I’m wrong. In general, Russian ballet right now seems to focus on the classical, like Swan Lake etc. Is there a reason that the Bolshoi, for example, isn’t doing their own ballet choreography that is more modern?
Katya: Well, I think my answer would be too long.
So first of all there is classical ballet, there is this school of classical ballet and the school was brought to Russia by different people. So it’s a mixture, what we have now as classical ballet, because it was brought from Italian people and from French people and from Swedish people.
This year, worldwide, we celebrate the 200th anniversary of Marius Petipa, an outstanding French choreographer who spent 60 years in Russia and worked in the Russian Imperial Theatre, mostly in St. Petersburg and also in Moscow. Every summer he would travel to France and he would look over new things there. He would stage his own works and he would copy and bring back to our stage some other ballets, like Coppelia which was a staged by Saint-Léon in the beginning or Corsaire from Mazellier. But Petipa would bring it back to Russia and add something to it.
Nowadays the whole classical repertoire we know – even Giselle – is, more or less, the version constructed by Petipa. Don Quixote or Raymonda or Swan Lake or especially Sleeping Beauty and Nutcracker. Most of these ballets appeared with a Tchaikovsky score along with Petipa. So basically the whole classical heritage, the way we know it now, comes somehow from my country in a sense. One can hardly name any ballet title that wasn’t touched by Petipa.
Taking that into consideration, it’s our great great duty to preserve it all. Let’s take La Bayadere, for example, which Petipa staged in St. Petersburg in 1877. Then, In the last act of La Bayadere, 64 shadows exist. Now we have we have half of it.
For these shadows you need to have more than 30 girls in perfect shapes. You need to have dancers who can do character dance and who can do perfect classical dance and all in the same style. So only big companies, well elevated, well educated with their own school can do it. Not so many companies in the world can show you a perfect Swan Lake. You can count on the fingers of one hand who can do it, frankly speaking, companies like Bolshoi, like Mariinsky, like Paris Opera, like La Scala, like Covent Garden, it’s our duty. Because if not us, no one else in the world can show it in a perfect way.
Smith: The Bolshoi gets a lot of funding from the state and I’m curious, how does the Bolshoi manage that equilibrium between pushing artistic boundaries and also the fact that you do receive a fair amount of your funding from the state? Is that something that you guys struggle with, or has it not really been an issue?
Katya: You see, I’m head of press so I don’t know exactly. But my previous director, Mr. Iksanov, who ran Bolshoi for 20 years, and my current director Mr. Urin, who is at Bolshoi for his fifth season, both deny any pressure from the government, though the government does give like 70 per cent of money we have. So I think once they appoint the General Director they sort of trust him in a sense.
Some people think Russia is a very severe country or something like this. But I was born in the country during the Soviet Union and my father worked as a dramaturge and he had to go and get special permission to stage any contemporary play from the censorship committee. You couldn’t just stage a play without getting permission from a special censorship committee. But that doesn’t exist any longer, frankly it really doesn’t exist. If you have money you can stage whatever you want. You don’t have this censorship.
If our general director thinks a production is good, he thinks it’s good. He decides himself what is good and what is bad. And I think he has freedom to do this. It might change, but for now I guess he’s free in his decisions. Then, of course, you have your inner censorship right? You think to yourself maybe I shouldn’t do this. But this is your personal judgement.
Olivia: I want to ask about your personal experience being the head of press of such a well-known institution. Would you be able to share a particular time that it was really difficult being the head of press for the Bolshoi?
Katya: It was difficult only once, when this horrible acid attack on Sergei Filin happened. I don’t know how to deal with crime and none of us knew and our general director Iksanov didn’t know how to handle it, because we don’t face it. We know how to deal with the arts. But we don’t know how to deal with crime. I still don’t know if we acted in a proper way, but we really tried to be honest. This is one of the best things to do. I think you really have to be honest as much as you can. And actually in artistic field you really don’t have to lie. And in this situation, I don’t know, I always think that the main thing in your life is trying to be honest because I don’t know when lies help.
Otherwise, my biggest challenge was when I first came to Bolshoi and we needed the renovation and reconstruction and so Mr Iksanov said to me, “let’s do something to prove that we need a renovation and reconstruction.”
The Bolshoi was in an abysmal condition, frankly it was absolutely horrible. Everything was falling down. We had 13 cracks from top to bottom, each 30 centimetres wide. Our backstage was full of cats and had this horrible smell of cats. Heaps of dust everywhere.
And so I invited all the major press outlets, like 30 people from all the major papers and television channels and we had this big tour backstage. I thought people would see it with their own eyes and they would understand and write their articles. We didn’t push anything. I just invited them and we did this tour.
And then what I got as an output was twenty-five articles saying “Oh Bolshoi is a marvelous building. No one should ever touch it. It’s such a special atmosphere backstage, it’s such an amazing, incredible building. It has our history, it’s a symbol. No one should ever dare to do anything to this building.” And they pop out all these articles in twenty-five main papers! And I think in this moment that only the good heart of our General Director Iksanov saved me, because every other press secretary would have been sacked in a minute. It was hundred per cent opposite from what he asked me to do.