The recent move of Natalia Osipova and Ivan Vasiliev from the Bolshoi to the Mikhailovsky caused consternation within the ballet world. Why? The Bolshoi is one of the oldest, largest and arguably best, companies in the world. The Mikhailovsky, while still a good company, is not quite in the same league. What was the catalyst behind such a move? They say it was artistic freedom. The facts indicate there may have been more to it than that.
It was during their time at the Bolshoi Theatre that the two young stars made their name, wowing with their virtuosity and lively stage personae in such Soviet warhorses as Spartacus and The Flames of Paris. Some, including the pair themselves, might say the two were pigeonholed; type-cast in these bravura roles, but there are many excellent companies around the world who would welcome them with open arms and their choice of repertoire should they have fancied. Departing a company like the Bolshoi for a company with which it is on par would probably raise a murmur, but the fact that it was a vertical move in what most would see as the wrong direction is what makes this newsworthy.
The General Director of the Mikhailovsky Theatre is Mr. Vladimir Kekhman, a billionaire, who I’m informed made his money in the importation of fruit. With no background in dance, his credentials are flimsy, but with that amount of money ($40 million of his personal fortune), credentials are gratefully overlooked. He ingratiated himself among the cognoscenti of the dance world and garnered enough surface knowledge to know who the movers and shakers were: last year he appointed Nacho Duato as Artistic Director of the Mikhailovsky Ballet, which had eyebrows raising and jaws dropping simultaneously.
Ballet companies have always operated in a hand-to-mouth financial state and have typically depended on the kindness of others to keep them afloat, whether those others be benefactors, arts councils, or now filthy-rich fruit vendors it seems. They have generally survived thanks to the hard work and vision of the founders, carried on by their successors who built on what has gone before, ultimately moulding a company of integrity and depth. With this move, which happened to involve two of the most visible dancers in ballet today, the moral fibre of the ballet world is called into question: why toil for a company when you can just buy yourself a better one?
The implications of this event won’t be felt overnight. In fact, they may never be; it might just be a one off. (However, Mr. Kekhman did say he’d be going after new Bolshoi recruit David Hallberg in a couple of years.) What it goes to show is that you don’t need pedigree, taste, tenacity, connections or a keen eye for talent to get your ballet company to the top fast: you need full pockets, and generous hands.