A guide to the New East

Top job: meet the new director of the Bolshoi Theatre

  • Top job: meet the new director of the Bolshoi Theatre

    Dancers Anna Tikhomirova and Artem Ovcharenko (2013). Photograph: Alexey Yakovlev under a CC licence

After a tumultuous few months at Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet, the Russian Ministry of Culture has taken a decisive step to shake up the prestigious dance company. Their search for a new head to repair the Bolshoi’s image has led them to a man who knows a thing or two about running a successful theatre: Vladimir Urin. The 66-year-old is the current head of the Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Music Theatre, Moscow’s second best ballet and opera venue. What makes Urin a standout candidate is his untarnished reputation. Those who know him describe him as a consistent and competent manager.

"A difficult situation had developed around the theatre and the troupe — everything pointed to the need for renewal"

Urin will be replacing Anatoly Iksanov who leaves the Bolshoi under a dark cloud after 13 years at the helm. Iksanov’s dismissal comes less than six months after the ballet’s artistic director, Sergei Filin, was severely injured and almost blinded in an acid attack. The attack, which was allegedly ordered by Bolshoi dancer Pavel Dmitrichenko, laid bare the theatre’s bitter rivalries. Separately, Iksanov had been accused of mismanaging funds following a lengthy renovation of the Bolshoi that cost close to half a billion pounds. Speaking to press on Tuesday, Culture Minister Vladimir Medinsky said, “A difficult situation had developed around the theatre and the troupe – everything pointed to the need for renewal.”

Following his appointment, Urin, who has been running the Stanislavsky theatre for 18 years, departed for London where his artists will be on tour until 14 July. "I first and foremost have obligations to the theatre,” he said in a television interview. Urin joined the Stanislavsky as general director in 1995 at a time when the little-known theatre was in a state of disrepair and at an all-time artistic low. After taking over, he made it his mission to turn the 80-year theatre into one of the country’s preeminent institutions, equipping it with first-rate equipment and bringing on board an outstanding team of professionals including guest choregraphers such as Nacho Duato from Spain and Pierre Lacotte from France.

Vladimir Urin, the new head of the Bolshoi Theatre. Photograph: RIA Novosti

One of his most notable hires was Filin, then a dancer at the Bolshoi, as artistic director of the Stanislavsky. Despite his lack of experience for the role, Filin, who later returned to the Bolshoi, proved Urin right by attracting a string of foreign choreographers to the theatre. “He [Urin] never had artistic ambitions and that is the reason for his success,” said Gennady Smirnov, deputy chairman of Russia’s Union of Theatre Workers where Urin once worked. “Artists and theatre employees come first for him, not his personal tastes. He also has an excellent team of advisors who he can rely on.”

Prior to joining the Stanislavsky, Urin worked as general director of the Youth Theatre of Kirov, a post he took up in 1973. In 1981, he relocated to the capital to work for Russia’s union of theatre workers where he organised workshops and youth festivals. Over the years, he has been responsible for organising Baikal-Michigan, a Russian-American theatre festival on the shores of Lake Baikal; overseeing the publication of the Russian-French theatre magazine Stsena (The Stage); and founding Russia’s most prestigious theatre award, the Golden Mask.

"He [Urin] never had artistic ambitions and that is the reason for his success"

It is this experience coupled with Urin’s managerial skills at the Stanislavsky that won him the top job at the Bolshoi. But unlike the Bolshoi, Stanislavsky’s development has been virtually trouble-free. The most notable controversy is a row that erupted over Britten’s opera A Midsummer Night’s Dream, staged in conjunction with the English National Opera in 2012. Just days before the premiere, the Russian Children’s Ombudsman received a letter, claiming that the opera was promoting paedophilia.

“All the parents approved of the participation of their children in the production,” said an unflustered Urin at the time. “But we are ready to talk to anyone who witnessed something illegal in the opera after the performance. And anyone is free to go to court if they find anything criminal related to the opera.” No legal claims followed and in 2013, the production received a Golden Mask award for the best operatic performance of the year. “His behaviour was very deliberate,” said Smirnov. “He didn’t rattle his sabre or argue with anyone. He just behaved in way that didn’t let the scandal gain ground. So naturally it disappeared.”

“I don’t plan revolutions. I understand perfectly that in this theatre, as in any other, one person alone cannot do everything" 

The Stanislavsky also briefly made headlines in 2003 and 2005 after fires broke out in the theatre, forcing the cancellation of performances. The second fire occurred during the theatre’s first major restoration. However, like the Bolshoi, the Stanislavsky's refurbishment was also delayed and over-budget. 

In addition to his managerial aptitude, it was Urin’s vision for the theatre that ensured the Stanislavsky was always packed with spectators, young and old. “Even if you have a classical production — opera or ballet — you must find something relevant for the present day,” he said in an interview on Moscow-24 TV Channel several months ago. “You must be modern. We support all kinds of experimentation until it interferes with the author’s original plot.” Urin’s hard work has paid off: today, the Stanislavsky is known for a creative programme of events that contains both classical and modern productions.

"I very much hope that the majority of people working in this theatre — talented, remarkable people — will be my allies”

Urin’s acceptance of the top role at the Bolshoi may come as a surprise to some given that he pooh-poohed the idea only a year ago. Speaking to Izvestia newspaper in January 2012, he said that while such an offer would be a great honour, his proper home was at the Stanislavsky. “Of course I have my personal opinion on how the Bolshoi should develop,” he said. “And this opinion differs from what people working there do, with all my respect to them. But it will take years to make a theatre I want, and I'm afraid we do not have enough time.”

According to Smirnov, it is Urin’s diplomatic tendencies that have earned him the respect of those in the theatre world and have allowed him to maintain a steady hand in the running of the Stanislavsky. He has never been a fan of drastic changes, said Smirnov, which is precisely why he was chosen for the Bolshoi. Theatre pundits have also responded to the appointment with optimism with many saying that Urin’s main task will be to unite those working at the Bolshoi. Speaking to press on Tuesday, Urin made it clear that this was precisely was he intended to do. “I don’t plan revolutions,” he said. “I understand perfectly that in this theatre, as in any other, one person alone cannot do everything. I very much hope that the majority of people working in this theatre — talented, remarkable people — will be my allies.”

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