Dance of the cygnets from Swan Lake, the Bolshoi Ballet
In May 1992, just five months after the collapse of the Soviet Union, my plane finally landed at Moscow airport. My first flight to Moscow had been a long one, and I was quite nervous. After a bumpy taxi ride from the airport to my hotel, I settled in and spent the weekend mentally preparing myself for one of the most challenging work assignments during my 20-year career at the organization where I worked. A colleague of mine, Mary, had arrived in Moscow and checked in at the same hotel the previous day. We were going to work together, and a local interpreter, Boris, was hired to assist us in every aspect of our work during our stay in Moscow. So, on Monday, our grueling work began.
On our first Friday evening in Moscow, my colleague Mary and I decided to take a break from work and try to attend the iconic Bolshoi Ballet, located a mere five minutes from our hotel. The concierge told us we could purchase tickets directly from the hotel at favorable prices. We immediately purchased our tickets for a performance of Swan Lake that evening. The cost of each ticket was about 80 US dollars, considerably lower than the cost of similar tickets in Washington. However, cost was not really an issue. Having heard a great deal about its legendary ballet performances, through film and other media, both Mary and I were quite excited and looking forward to watching a Bolshoi performance. This was a great opportunity that we would not miss for any price.
That night we walked over to the Bolshoi and took our seats in the magnificent performance hall. Before the performance began, I was full of anticipation and curious about a few aspects of that night’s production. Would the dancer playing Odette, the female lead, make a reference to The Dying Swan performance of the famed Anna Pavlova with particular movements of her arms? I had read somewhere this was done quite frequently by Russian ballerinas when performing Swan Lake. Would we see the revised happy ending of the story, or the original one where both Prince Siegfried and the swan princess Odette die? Our lead ballerina did not make the reference to The Dying Swan, but she did perform beautifully and we wholeheartedly enjoyed her performance. There was a happy ending to the ballet, where the prince and princess overcame their troubles and lived together in harmony. In the third act, I tried my best to count the famous “32 Fouettés” (revolving on a single leg) of Odette’s look-alike rival, Odile, but failed to do so. Overall, it was an exceptional performance, and I was delighted to have been in the audience. Having enjoyed every minute of the performance, Mary and I left the Bolshoi that night very pleased but wanting more.
The next morning when Boris, our interpreter, came over to our hotel to have breakfast with us, we told him about our achievement. He was not impressed. He said, “You should have told me you wanted to go to Bolshoi.” He then told us there were ways to get cheaper Bolshoi tickets and asked if we would like to watch another performance. We said “Yes” as we did not have any other plans for that evening. Boris told us not to worry about tickets and to be ready to leave the hotel 20 minutes before that night’s program started. Later that evening, Boris picked us up at the agreed time, and we walked over to the Bolshoi.
Once there, we stood outside the entrance and waited there until 10 minutes before the curtain call. Then, as if on cue, several locals approached us (they knew exactly who the foreigners looking for tickets were) and asked if we wanted to purchase tickets for that night’s performance. We said “Yes.” Then they started proposing prices, knowing they needed to be competitive among themselves. The offers started at 60 US dollars per ticket, but then, quickly started to come down. With Boris’s assistance, and much to our amazement, we purchased our tickets for 10 US dollars each. Then we quickly walked into the building as the curtain was only minutes away from going up.
That night’s program was a potpourri consisting of select parts from the best known and best loved ballets. We were more than ready for it. For the remainder of the evening, trivial as they may be, Boris introduced us to a few long-standing Russian customs for enjoying a proper night at the ballet. Before taking our seats in the magnificent performance hall, one more thing needed to be done. We placed our orders for drinks and refreshments for intermission, something we had not done the night before – we were not aware of this custom and did not know how to do it. We gave our orders which, on Boris’s recommendation, included Russian blinis, caviar, vodka for two, and champagne for one (I prefer champagne to vodka), and paid the bill. In return, we were given a number which would help us locate our drinks and refreshments later when we came out for intermission. I thought this was quite smart but wondered how so many people would find their orders. It worked out very well.
After enjoying a splendid first-half performance – I thought the potpourri was just as good as Swan Lake, and in particular, the segment from Giselle was exceptional – we came out to the intermission hall. I observed how all the guests easily located their beverages and refreshments. Close to the dining area in which we had placed our orders, there were built-in marble ledges no more than 30 inches wide sticking out of the wall. All orders were served there, according to their numbers. This was done just before the curtain came down. When the audience emerged during intermission, they walked to that area and picked up their orders based on their assigned numbers. With Boris’s lead, we found ours quite easily. By tradition, the drinks and refreshments are enjoyed standing up, while chatting with friends and acquaintances. I was eating blinis – small pancakes topped with caviar – for the first time. Boris, who turned out to be a walking encyclopedia on Russian history and culture, explained to us how blinis are made and how they have been a part of Russian life for a long time. We learned that home-made blinis, as opposed to those served in restaurants, do not look like American pancakes, but rather like French crêpes folded into quarters, which are easier to eat. The blinis and caviar were delicious and complemented our drinks nicely.
When the performance ended, there were many calls for the performers to come back to the stage (I counted over 15). This was different to my experience in the US. I had seen performers called back to the stage a few times by audiences through continued applause, but I had not seen them called back so many times. Apparently, this is a Russian custom and Boris told us if the performers were called back to the stage only two or three times, it would have meant the audience did not like the performance at all. For me, watching the ballet performance and seeing the beautifully and lavishly decorated Bolshoi building with its exquisite architecture, was a huge treat. Although the introduction was brief, we were indeed educated on Russian ballet culture. It was an incredible culturally enriching evening.
Having mastered the routine well, the next night, a Sunday, Mary and I went back to the Bolshoi on our own and watched Sleeping Beauty. Once again, we admired the dazzling sets and costumes, the red and glittery adornments of the performance hall with a magnificent chandelier hanging from the center of its ceiling. And when the show ended, we applauded endlessly, just like Russians do!
Aysel K. Basci is a new writer working in nonfiction. She was born and raised in Cyprus and moved to the United States at age 19. Aysel is now retired and lives in Washington DC area. Her writing recently appeared in Bosphorus Review of Books, Adelaide Literary Magazine and Entropy.