COVID-19: Russia's Bolshoi dances on through pandemic with Nutcracker

·4-min read

The opening scene of the Nutcracker is the Christmas none of us had.

Guests pour in from a multitude of different households to the Stahlbaum family home, mingling and making merry beneath a gigantic Christmas tree.

Little Clara is entranced by the Nutcracker doll she's given and when she falls asleep, her dreams take her into a winter wonderland where handsome princes triumph over evil mouse armies and sweep her off her feet.

Just as much of a fantasy for most people this year is actually getting to see this staple of the festive season.

"Cancelled" says the banner on the Royal Ballet's website, alongside a trailer declaring "Christmas wouldn't be Christmas without the Royal Ballet's Nutcracker". Even the live stream version was called off.

Not so in Russia. At the Bolshoi theatre in Moscow, the winter ballet repertoire is in full swing even if audience numbers are restricted to just 25% of seats.

"You're always expecting some kind of miracle, no matter how many times you dance the Nutcracker," says Anna Nikulina, one of several of the Bolshoi's prima ballerinas performing the role of Clara, or Marie as she's known in the Russian version.

"Every performance gives you a feeling of a fairytale, of magic."

Given the high COVID numbers in Moscow and across Russia, it is almost a miracle it's on.

Russian officials admitted this week that the death toll from COVID-19 was three times higher than previously stated, meaning Russia now ranks third globally for COVID deaths.

It also has the third-highest case-load globally but the government has steered away from a second round of harsh lockdown measures.

In the Russian capital bars, clubs and restaurants can serve food and drinks till 11pm. Masks and gloves are required in shops and the metro but social distancing has not become habitual.

Theatres, concert halls and cinemas must not exceed more than 25% capacity and face masks are mandatory. Museums are closed.

As far as the Bolshoi's ballerinas are concerned, being able to dance for an audience at all is a blessing.

The theatre was shut for six months this year. Dancers were sent a barre and special linoleum flooring to help them practice at home during the first lockdown. Rehearsals took place over Zoom.

"The uncertainty was the most difficult," says soloist Ana Turazashvili.

"We spend all day, every day here at the Bolshoi - six days a week, all year. It is your life, it's your house as we call it, and to realise that it might just stop and you don't know when it's going to be reopened or if it's going to be re-opened - it was scary."

Ms Turazashvili went back for rehearsals as soon as she could. In September performances resumed.

Despite temperature checks, ballet demands close physical contact and COVID has rippled through the Bolshoi's 230 strong corps de ballet. That means plenty of last-minute changes.

"If one person gets sick all of a sudden, then everyone in the dressing room or their dancing partners have to isolate too and lots of people just go out in one day. So it's been a bit more chaotic than it was," Ms Turazashvili says.

The Bolshoi's director, Vladimir Urin, admits that staging performances for just a quarter of the audience would be impossible without government support, but he says it matters for morale.

"It is very important that the artists stay in shape, the performances are preserved in the repertoire, and the contact between the artists and the audience continues," he says.

The Bolshoi theatre has seen wars and revolution. It was on the main stage that the USSR was declared a country in 1922.

It had pride of place in imperial Russia, during the Soviet Union and in Putin's Russia. From the Kremlin's point of view, the show must go on.

"I think that dancing at the Bolshoi is the best thing that can happen to a ballet artist, it's truly a gift from above," says principal dancer Denis Rodkin, one of the Bolshoi's biggest stars.

"People in Russia love ballet so much that I am sure that even if there is only five per cent of spectators in the auditorium, we would still feel one hundred per cent support from them."