December 7, 2016

Princeton Professor Simon Morrison Delves Into the Bolshoi in New Book

Simon Morrison was hoping to pursue a career as an orchestral musician when he fell in love with 20th-century Russian music. From that fascination grew an interest in Russian ballet. Soon, these subjects, and their histories, eclipsed his plans to play percussion or tuba in a symphony orchestra.

After graduating from the University of Toronto, Mr. Morrison, who appears at Labyrinth Books on Thursday, earned a doctorate from Princeton and joined its music faculty in 1998. He began turning out titles like Russian Opera and the Symbolist Movement, The People’s Artist: Prokofiev’s Soviet Years, and Lina and Serge: The Love and Wars of Lina Prokofiev.

The latest addition to Mr. Morrison’s output is attracting attention in cultural circles. Bolshoi Confidential: Secrets of the Russian Ballet from the Rule of the Tsars to Today was recently released by W.W. Norton and has sent Mr. Morrison on the publicity circuit to London, Paris, Rio, and cities in Canada and the United States.

Mr. Morrison’s appearance at Labyrinth on Thursday, December 8 at 6 p.m. will be in a conversation about the book with Marina Harss, a dance writer and translator. The event is sponsored by the University’s Department of Music.

The inspiration for the new book was the shocking incident on January 17, 2013 in which Bolshoi artistic director Sergey Filin had acid thrown in his face by an assailant. The attack took place on a snowy night outside Mr. Filin’s apartment building. It left him blind in one eye and severely limited in the other, after several operations.

“I was in Moscow around that time,” Mr. Morrison recalled this week. “I was encouraged by my agent to write something about it, which I did, and he thought the story would make a great book.”

The story certainly had all the elements of a page-turner: rivalries, political intrigue, power-hungry turf wars, and sinister implications, all behind the curtain of an art that gives an impression of delicacy and gentility as well as athletic strength. It turns out that these practices have been going on since the earliest days of the Bolshoi, which was founded in 1776 and has had a turbulent history.

“I had written a lot from a musical perspective about composers and such, but the idea of doing a deep history was foreign to me,” Mr. Morrison said. “It was a huge education to look at the history of the theater from its foundation to the 19th century, and to explain how masterpieces of the 19th century came into being. In the end, I was trying to contextualize this crime and see what the history of the theater was like, and whether similar events had occurred in the past. I wanted to explore the relationship between art and politics.”

Mr. Morrison’s research for the book took him to museums and archives in Russia. He met with dance critics and historians and enlisted the help of a freelance archivist.

He met Mr. Filin at a Kremlin gala in Moscow. (Mr. Filin is back at the Bolshoi, but no longer as artistic director. He leads a workshop for young choreographers.) Mr. Morrison also spent time with 90-year-old Yuriy Grigorovich, famed dancer, choreographer and ballet master of the Khrushchev-Brehznev era into the 1990s.

“I went to his home,” Mr. Morrison enthused. “And I yakked my way into a rehearsal. There he was, still hectoring these beautiful young dancers. He even accepted me as an American. At the rehearsal he was tough and stern, and completely with it. He’s a small person but a very imposing presence. I guess if you survive Stalinism, you survive anything.”

A chapter of the book is devoted to ballerina Maya Plisetskaya, known for her dramatic presence, technical brilliance, and long career despite political repression — in part because she was Jewish. A major cultural figure, she died in May 2015 at the age of 89.

Along with its counterpart in St. Petersburg, the less flamboyant Maryinsky (Kirov) Ballet, the Bolshoi is considered a national treasure. It is from these two powerhouse companies that Swan Lake, The Sleeping Beauty, and other classic ballets were born.

The Bolshoi theater itself, renovated to the tune of $680 million and now only accessible to those who can afford sky-high ticket prices, was the scene of many Communist party meetings during Soviet years. The theater has survived being bombed, rigged with explosives, and reinforced with cement during its storied history.

The man convicted of organizing the attack on Mr. Filin, Pavel Dmitrichenko, a dancer with the Bolshoi, was released from prison after nearly three years. “He’s out, back in Moscow, living not far from Filin,” Mr. Morrison said. “He wants to rejoin the theater and that could well happen. He still has a lot of supporters in the theater.”

The Bolshoi continues to turn out spectacular dancers, but some choose to pursue their options elsewhere. Alexei Ratmansky, Mr. Filin’s predecessor as artistic director and today the resident choreographer with American Ballet Theater, left in 2008. Mr. Morrison quotes him in the book as having written on Facebook, “Many of the illnesses of the Bolshoi are one snowball — that disgusting claque which is friendly with artists, ticket speculators, and scalpers, half-crazy fans who are ready to slit the throats of their idol’s competitors, cynical hackers, lies in the press, and scandalous interviews of people working there.”

Still, the organization endures and thrives. “There are horrible, terrible things that happen at that theater, but nothing undermines the accomplishments that happen there,” Mr. Morrison said. “Great art actually arises from some terrible pressures. Maybe it requires terrible pressures.”