How Russia’s famous Bolshoi dances his way through the COVID-19 pandemic

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Performers from Russia’s majestic Bolshoi Theater danced through the Bolshevik Revolution, Nazi bombing in WWII, and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, but surviving the COVID-19 pandemic may be their greatest challenge. this day.

The Moscow landmark has closed for six months in the spring and summer as the city was closed to try to curb the spread of the coronavirus, but it reopened this fall for a 245th season and is trying to organize a busy schedule for the Christmas season. events.

“It’s incredibly difficult,” said first ballerina Yekaterina Shipulina, 41, during a recent rehearsal break where she was dancing. Preludes to Bach as part of a tribute to the great Russian ballet Maya Plisetskaya.

“We’re in this… dilemma where we can’t actually distance ourselves socially. We have to take off our masks to play and be side by side with our dance partners, ”she told CBC News backstage at the Bolshoi.

“But there’s that term, ‘step therapy’ and that’s what’s happening now,” she said of the intensive group effort that was required to rehearse and perform despite the restrictions. .

“We take the energy from [the audience] and we give energy. ”

During the COVID-19 pandemic, first ballerina Yekaterina Shipulina wore a mask every time she danced, except during the final performances of the Bolshoi Ballet. (Dmitry Kozlov / CBC)

Days after the theater reopened this fall, 30 out of more than 3,300 artists and workers tested positive for COVID-19.

The number is even higher now, with more than 100 employees off work.

It is not known how many of them are dancers, but for the tribute to Plisetskaya, three dancers had to be replaced at the last minute because they or a close family member had contracted the virus.

Under normal circumstances, the ballet also hosted guest dancers from all over the world in leading roles, but not now.

Expensive closure

The financial implications for the Bolshoi have been dire.

The six-month shutdown cost the theater an estimated C $ 15 million, prompting director Vladimir Urin to warn that the venue’s future was in danger.

Currently, tickets, which can cost up to US $ 200 each, are only sold for 25% of the seats in an auditorium that can typically accommodate over 2,000 seats. Until mid-November, half of the seats at ballet performances were full, but capacity was further reduced as infection rates in Moscow skyrocketed.

WATCH | How a gala ballet production comes together in a pandemic:

Andris Liepa directs a gala ballet production despite a pandemic. 2:11

Russia is the fifth most infected country in the world and has steadily recorded more than 25,000 new cases per day over the past 10 days. Moscow registers 6,000 to 7,000 new cases a day and the city’s mayor admitted that the hospital system was “under great pressure”.

In Canada, the National Ballet of Canada has canceled the remainder of its 2020/2021 season and it is unclear when performances will resume.

The Royal Winnipeg Ballet canceled its 80th season in March and this Christmas for the first time in 20 years there will be no production of Nutcracker.

The Bolshoi is home to the world’s largest ballet company, with over 200 dancers. The interior walls of the building’s gold-leafed rooms are adorned with photographs of world figures and celebrities who have visited over the decades.

The Bolshoi Theater is located in the heart of Moscow. (Corinne Seminoff / CBC News)

The director of the tribute to Plisetskaya insisted it would be a disaster if the dancing stopped for the pandemic.

“It’s in our nature,” said Andris Liepa, who as a dancer, choreographer and director has a long association with the Bolshoi Ballet.

He directs a ballet troupe in Tashkent, Uzbekistan, but traveled to Moscow for the production of Plisetskaya.

Personal risk

“People should feel that life goes on, and if you close theaters and close concerts, then people feel more pain just by not having the chance to be a part of this… culture. ”

He said that everyone who gambles has to accept some risk.

“You can’t play without being close to each other. The pas de deux [duet] should be done as close as possible – sometimes we roll on top of each other, going over the bodies getting very close, ”he said, using his hands to illustrate two dancers weaving their bodies together .

His own personal risk now, however, may be lower than others as he contracted the coronavirus a few months ago and spent weeks at home in bed with a high fever.

“We are more careful now because we wear masks, we always do tests,” he said, referring to the precautions taken in the theater for the actors, the team and the spectators.

Shipulina practices and does dress rehearsals with a mask. (Corinne Seminoff / CBC)

In fact, very few dancers or performers the CBC News crew saw during the dress rehearsal were wearing masks.

Shipulina, the prima ballerina, was the notable exception.

“I am always in a mask. I only take it off for the real performance, ”she said.

Most of the members of the orchestra, crammed under the front of the stage, were not wearing masks. Bolshoi officials told CBC News that the rules for wearing masks were up to individuals, but it did not appear that the conductor or many other musicians were covering their faces.

Social beings

On the night of the show, patrons had their temperature checked at the door, but once inside the theater, many wore their masks low under their noses.

“We are social beings, we cannot be without it,” ballerina Tatiana Telokova said while continuing the performance during a pandemic.

“It is the main theater of the country, so the government has to think about it if there are difficult times. ”

WATCH | Young Russian ballet star continues to dance during COVID-19:

A Bolshoi ballet dancer hopes the curtain will not close because of COVID-19. 1:43

One of the Bolshoi’s rising stars, 22-year-old ballet dancer Alyona Kovaleva, told CBC News that she was strongly in favor of keeping the Bolshoi open despite the significant risk of infection, but she personally finds that the wearing a mask while dancing during rehearsals is too uncomfortable.

“It’s really difficult. I tried once – but I can’t, ”she says.

Kovaleva missed dancing in a new lead role due to the summer shutdown and said it was very difficult to train and stay prepared.

“It was a disappointment. We all stopped and were kicked out of our usual world, our lives and the way we saw them, ”Kovaleva said.

Gold leaf adorns the interior of the Bolshoi Theater in Moscow. (Dmitry Kozlov / CBC News)

“It was the biggest thing we missed in our forties and time away from the theater – that feeling of going on stage, giving your emotions and then receiving the energy of the audience.

“I think we have to dance and play as long as we can. ”

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