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Bolshoi Theater in for Big Change

BalletMoscow's Bolshoi Theater is in for big change. The renowned dancer and choreographer Alexei Ratmansky takes charge of the Bolshoi Ballet on January 1, 2004. He is a guest soloist with the Copenhagen-based Danish Royal Ballet, where he is now also mounting a production of "Anna Karenina."

Ratmansky, 34, saw his career surge as he staged Dmitri Shostakovich's avant-garde ballet "The Limpid Stream" with the Bolshoi company last year. Reluctant to open itself to modern dance, the Bolshoi has long been sticking to its traditional repertory, dominated by classics such as "The Swan Lake," "Giselle," and "Don Quixote." Avant-garde productions have hardly ever been put on here. Many want this changed, and pin their hopes on Ratmansky as a choreographer believed to be capable of instilling passion for bold experimentation in the Bolshoi's technically brilliant company.

Ratmansky was taught in the Moscow ballet tradition, and he knows the Bolshoi dancers quite well. Another asset he boasts is his vast experience in working with Western ballet companies under strict contractual terms. He is widely expected to rid the Bolshoi of performers unwilling or incapable of keeping up with the times -- something that his predecessor, the soft-spoken Boris Akimov, does not have the nerve to do.

With about 2,500 people on the staff, the Bolshoi remains the nation's largest theatrical company. It provides employment for as many as 900 performers, including 300 orchestral musicians, 200 choral singers, 70 opera soloists, and 250 ballet dancers (more than in any other ballet company of the world).

The Bolshoi's incumbent administration has never dared sack any of the veteran performers, however inefficient, for fear of lengthy litigation. But by putting duration of service above merit, it provoked envy and intrigue in the troupe and hindered the promotion of young and talented newcomers.

Commenting on Ratmansky's appointment, Managing Director Anatoly Iksanov said: "Today, we seek to live and work like leading theaters of the world do, agreeing in advance on management rotation. I'm glad that the great teacher, performing artist, and administrator Boris Akimov is handing over to the young and successful choreographer referred to by many as a hope of Russian choreography."

Ratmansky himself tries not to elaborate on his forthcoming reforms for the time being. The only thing he has revealed about his plans thus far is that he won't do any dancing at the Bolshoi, but will devote himself entirely to directing.

Before he joins the nation's No. 1 ballet company, Ratmansky, a Ukrainian national, will have to obtain Russian citizenship.

Change is what the Bolshoi desperately needs. Managing Director Iksanov has set the stage for reforms by introducing new rules and a new labor code. Until then, the theater was almost impossible to control as it swayed from side to side like Arthur Rimbaud's "drunken boat." Now, finally, the Bolshoi has set course toward land. All performers working with the theater will soon be transferred to short-term contracts, and casting will become competition-based. This practice may be common to Western theaters, but is something new to Russia, where repertory companies prevail. Small wonder, then, that the Bolshoi troupe is panicking. Mass layoffs is just one of the unwelcome prospects it faces.

The Kremlin backs the plans to reform Russia's most famous theater, including financially. It has just increased its annual budget allocations for the Bolshoi to 40 million dollars, up from $14 million.

Anatoly Korolev, RIAN

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