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Russia's Bolshoi Theatre Brings Anna Karenina Ballet To Modern Era


I'm Mary Louise Kelly in Moscow, in fact, on the front steps of a building that is famous throughout Russia, beloved throughout Russia so much so that - hang on - open your wallet here, pull out a 100-ruble note and right there, the grand facade of the Bolshoi Theatre. And we're going in.


KELLY: Inside the Bolshoi, it's an imperial wonderland. Gilded balconies ring the stage. Crystal chandeliers, more than a hundred of them, shimmer above row after row of crimson velvet seats - impressive but not quite as impressive as what's happening up on the stage. Dancers in toe shoes and tights are rehearsing "Anna Karenina," a ballet based on the Tolstoy epic. The premiere is just days away. And choreographer John Neumeier is perched on the edge of the stage, shouting instructions, leaping up, modeling corrections to the dancers.

JOHN NEUMEIER: Stop. Stop. Stop. Stop. Stop. OK, I think here because the stage is wider...

KELLY: The ballerina playing Anna Karenina is writhing on a bed.


KELLY: She's got a fever. She's delirious, and she's torn between two men and society's expectations of her. You know the story.


KELLY: When the rehearsal wraps, we're off to meet Anna Karenina herself or at least the woman dancing the part. We're going to take a shortcut to meet her. Oh, we're about to walk under the main stage. Here we go. Backstage behind the curtain at the Bolshoi. We are following signs to a room just off the historic stage here.

OLGA SMIRNOVA: My name is Olga Smirnova. I'm a prima ballerina of the Bolshoi Theatre.

KELLY: Olga Smirnova is 26 years old. That's young to be a principal dancer here. She studied in St. Petersburg and was recruited at age 18 to move to Moscow and to the Bolshoi, a decision she describes as hard but also easy.

SMIRNOVA: (Through interpreter) I think it is the best ballet theater in the world at the moment. I'm not saying this because I work here. This is an objective assessment. No other theater can present such a diversity of repertoire, such high-quality performances like the ones that exist at the Bolshoi Theatre.

KELLY: The Bolshoi Ballet dates back to 1776. Today it's the world's biggest ballet company - more than 200 dancers. And they dance here not because they have to but because they want to.

SMIRNOVA: (Through interpreter) After the end of the Soviet Union, dancers could travel freely to other countries. They could show their art and see what's happening in the world. Today, there are many dancers who are well-known, but they don't represent any particular theater company or country. But for me, it gives me great joy to represent the Bolshoi.

KELLY: I ask Smirnova about the role we've just watched her rehearse, about the pressure of performing one of the great Russian classics. No, Smirnova told me, that's the beauty of this production. It shifts the Anna Karenina story to today. The costumes that Smirnova will wear - she could wear them straight out the door to a cocktail party tonight.

SMIRNOVA: (Through interpreter) The story is written by Tolstoy, but we are performing it as if it's happening today. This makes it more relatable not only for the performers but also for our audience. The tragedy of Anna and Vronsky in the book is the impossibility of divorce at the time. But today because everyone can file for a divorce, it is not such a tragedy. So Neumeyer shifted the focus, and I think it makes much more sense this way.

KELLY: In this staging, Anna's husband is running for political office, and Anna is his greatest weapon. She is beautiful, glamorous and sick of being treated like an ornament by her ambitious husband. Have you read "Anna Karenina?"

SMIRNOVA: (Through interpreter) Yes, and I recently reread it ahead of this performance. I did it with great pleasure. It is important to understand the reason behind her decisions, her words, her thoughts, why she comes to such conclusions and her overall state of mind.

KELLY: It's interesting that you're talking about that you want the audience watching you now in Moscow to be able to relate it to their own lives, not just a great story that Tolstoy told many years ago.

SMIRNOVA: (Through interpreter) Yes, absolutely. It becomes intergenerational. Just like when you're reading a book, you can find the answer to a question you were asking yourself today.

KELLY: Is that, to you, the power of ballet?

SMIRNOVA: (Through interpreter) Yes, this is the power of art. You forget for a moment about your own problems. This experience has a sort of healing power. And this is my challenge, to capture your attention fully.


KELLY: Prima ballerina Olga Smirnova blending the new with the old at the Bolshoi. She will dance the role of Anna Karenina here in Moscow on Saturday night. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mary Louise Kelly is a co-host of All Things Considered, NPR's award-winning afternoon newsmagazine.