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FEATURE-Russia's Bolshoi crumbles, limelight for rival
By Stefanie McIntyre

MOSCOW, Oct 24 (Reuters) - It was once synonymous with world class ballet dancers, talented musicians and sumptuous interiors. But now the lacklustre performances of Russia's theatres reflect a desperate behind-the-scenes struggle for funds.

Take the case of Moscow's Bolshoi Theatre. During its golden Soviet era, the Bolshoi produced some of the world's finest ballet and opera performances.

Now its building is crumbling, it is unable to pay wages anything close to what performers earn in the West and its administration is constantly being overhauled by the Russian government.

"Our theatre is like a mirror -- it shows what happens in the country. When the country has no money, we have no money. When governments change, we change," said Elena Lebedyanskaya, head of the Bolshoi's press service.

"The evolution of the Bolshoi is like the evolution of our country."

To make matters worse, its rival, the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg, has burst into the spotlight under its director, Valery Gergiyev, winning international acclaim as well as substantial financial donations and investment.

The Bolshoi has been in decline for years but its recent fall has been blamed on the leadership of former ballet star Vladimir Vasiliyev. Appointed artistic director in 1995, he was sacked in 2000 amid accusations of administrative chaos and stale performances.


President Vladimir Putin then put the Bolshoi under the direct control of the Ministry of Culture, which appointed Gennady Rozhdestvensky, a veteran conductor and icon of the Bolshoi's glory days, as artistic director to salvage its reputation.

Rozhdestvensky quit after less than a year when his production of Prokofiev's opera "The Gambler" was ridiculed for its hoarse singers and squeaky scenery.

He blamed a lack of money and discipline at the theatre, admitting that performers were forced to miss rehearsals to perform abroad to earn a living.

"Money is a problem and there just isn't any. A lot of performers are here just because they love the Bolshoi," said Lebedyanskaya.

The next effort to revive the theatre was the appointment of dynamic, 38-year-old Alexander Vedernikov to the prestigious position of Principal Conductor and Musical Director.

"It's normal to have so many changes in directors -- we'll find the right one," said Lebedyanskaya confidently.

"The Bolshoi is a symbol of our culture. We now have to get back our name and reputation," she said.


Finding the right person to guide the Bolshoi into the 21st century is not the only problem for the legendary theatre -- the 145-year-old building needs at least $300 million worth of restoration.

Repairs are scheduled for 2003, when the troupe will move temporarily to the new "Small Bolshoi" that is expected to be completed next year.

Although the Bolshoi receives some outside sponsorship for its performances, it has not attracted the big corporate investors that have lent their name to the Mariinsky.

"We have a history of major cultural sponsorship," said Andrei Rogov, corporate affairs manager of JTI who sponsor productions at the Mariinsky and the Bolshoi.

"However, we are not targeting our sponsorship specifically towards the restoration. That is a major, major project in itself."

The Bolshoi is relying on the government to pay for the bulk of the renovation.

"There are proposals but none have yet been approved by the government. It is all still under consideration," said Alexander Vlasov, deputy Culture Minister.


In stark contrast, the Mariinsky is going from strength to strength under its director Gergiyev, who joined over 10 years ago.

"He's very talented -- almost a genius. No one can imagine how much he works -- sometimes he sleeps for only two hours," said Natalia Matoukhno, spokeswoman for the theatre.

The Mariinsky staged 13 premieres last year alone, and frequently tours abroad to participate in international festivals.

Gergiyev tours extensively as a conductor, and lures foreign stars and directors back to St Petersburg -- including his friend, Placido Domingo, who took part in this summer's White Nights festival.

The Mariinsky also receives federal funds, but enjoys a long list of impressive sponsors and donors including the Cuban-American philanthropist Alberto Vilar.

Meanwhile Gergiyev is trying to secure the theatre's future by training young Russian hopefuls.

"Of course it depends on your talent and how hard you work," Matoukhno says. "They all have chances here. If you work a lot you'll be a star."

Plans are afoot to link the theatre to the House of Culture across the Kurkov Canal to the Mariinsky with a gallery and a second auditorium.

But despite their public rivalry, the Bolshoi and the Mariinsky will exchange performances this autumn.

"We can and should be friends with the Mariinsky," Lebedyanskaya says. "They have their face and we have ours. The Mariinsky has become a world theatre, but the Bolshoi -- that means Russia, and Russia is changing."

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