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Putin suggests sweeping changes at Bolshoi, Mariinsky theaters

A state news agency reports the Russian president asked a loyalist conductor to consider merging Moscow’s Bolshoi and its St. Petersburg rival

Dancers in a 2013 Bolshoi production of “Swan Lake” in London. (Ian Gavan/Getty Images)

Ten days after a star ballerina’s departure from the Bolshoi Ballet and her public denouncement of Russia’s war in Ukraine, Russian President Vladimir Putin raised the possibility of sweeping changes at the country’s top performing-arts institutions.

According to the Russian state-controlled news agency Tass, Putin advised conductor Valery Gergiev, a noted Putin loyalist, “to think about” founding a joint management of Moscow’s Bolshoi Theatre and its St. Petersburg rival, the Mariinsky Theatre, which Gergiev now leads.

The report comes as the Moscow-born Gergiev’s support for Putin and refusal to denounce Russia’s invasion has led to widespread cancellations of Gergiev’s concert appearances outside Russia, including at Carnegie Hall, and his dismissal from various orchestras and festivals. The star maestro was fired from the Munich Philharmonic orchestra this month after that city’s mayor issued him an ultimatum to reject the invasion and Gergiev remained silent.

Meanwhile, Putin has seen a hemorrhaging of talent from the country’s leading ballet companies. European dancers hired by the Bolshoi and Mariinsky have left their jobs in protest, including the Mariinsky’s English principal dancer, Xander Parish, and the Bolshoi’s Italian principal, Jacopo Tissi. But the biggest blow came March 16, when Bolshoi principal ballerina Olga Smirnova quit to join the Dutch National Ballet, after posting criticism of the war on the messaging service Telegram.

Bolshoi star ballerina quits famed Moscow company: ‘I never thought I would be ashamed of Russia’

Amid this artistic turmoil at the long-standing jewels of Russian culture, Putin met Friday with laureates in the arts. It was during this meeting that Putin spoke to Gergiev about uniting leadership of the Bolshoi and Mariinsky, Tass reported.

“How do you feel about the idea of re-creating a common directorate?” Putin reportedly asked Gergiev, referring to the system that existed in imperial Russia before the 1917 revolution, when a single director oversaw the opera, ballet and theater companies in St. Petersburg and Moscow, as well as their schools.

According to Tass, Putin added, “I’m not saying that this is some kind of decision, just so that there isn’t any unnecessary talk.”

Gergiev reportedly noted that the Bolshoi and the Mariinsky theaters “are two of the most powerful musical and musical theater traditions on Earth.” Perhaps it is time, Gergiev reportedly said, “to think about how to coordinate efforts.”

As for Putin’s idea of a common directorate, Gergiev added, “it seems to me that, perhaps, this can have far-reaching and full-fledged favorable opportunities,” according to Tass.

Simon Morrison, a music professor at Princeton University and the author of the Russian ballet history “Bolshoi Confidential,” said the exchange reported in Tass amounts to laying the groundwork for uniting the Bolshoi and Mariinsky under Gergiev. Putin’s proposal is retribution against Bolshoi head Vladimir Urin, he added.

“Putin is punishing Vladimir Urin for not being loyal enough,” Morrison said in an interview Friday. In addition to allowing Bolshoi star Smirnova to leave, Urin signed an antiwar letter, along with other cultural leaders. He also agreed to let choreographer Alexei Ratmansky “tear up his contract,” Morrison said, for a ballet he was creating for the Bolshoi before abruptly returning home to New York when Russia invaded Ukraine. Choreographer Jean-Christophe Maillot was also allowed to temporarily withdraw permission for the Bolshoi to perform his “Taming of the Shrew.”

Reached for comment Friday, Bolshoi spokeswoman Katerina Novikova said in an email, “What is published here by Tass agency is that Mr. Putin suggested Valery Gergiev to think over the idea of united direction the way it was” with the imperial theaters, “and we don’t comment on it.”

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Morrison described Urin as a no-nonsense director with the skills and authority to manage “a messy bureaucracy.” In 2017, he allowed a ballet about the Russian ballet defector Rudolf Nureyev to be performed. The ballet, Morrison said, “had strong homosexual elements, and Putin is very anti-LGBTQ. It was a very liberal move for Russia, the kind of provocative thing that Urin, with his stature, was able to get away with.”

Now, it seems, that time might be over. Urin may not be replaced right away, Morrison said. He may be allowed to remain at the Bolshoi for the rest of the spring season. But it could happen more quickly: Putin’s suggestion of Gergiev’s installation at the Bolshoi may be enough to lead Urin to resign, raising the possibility, Morrison said, that “this will de facto take place.”

Jeanne Whalen contributed to this report.