Comeback kids

The Bolshoi Ballet has risen again, leaving behind dark days of corruption and intrigue.

In Moscow last April to attend the Bolshoi Theatre's new production of Boris Godunov, I witnessed one of those mysterious happenings that in Russia often turn out not to be coincidental. Just as Boris Yeltsin's body was lain in state at the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour a mile down the road, the hammer and sickle adorning the old Bolshoi's portico landed in a heap of rubble on Theatre Square. Recently, as the theatre started to rise once again, the symbol was replaced by the double-headed imperial eagle.

Yeltsin will be remembered by some for his erratic, drink-induced behaviour. To the Bolshoi, however, "Tsar" Boris was the hero who saved the company from the uncertainties of privati sation. "During the 1990s, there were those who fought to turn the Bolshoi into a corporation," Anatoly Iksanov, the company's general manager, explained over lunch. "It was Yeltsin who created the special law to protect our theatre as a national treasure; and it was under him that the £400m reconstruction began."

Until the old 1825 theatre reopens next year, the company is occupying the neo-baroque New Stage building opposite. Meanwhile, the Bolshoi is waging an energetic campaign to persuade the world that its artistic transformation is complete. This month, the company comes to London for a mouth-watering three-week summer season at the Coliseum, opening with a lavish reconstruction of the 19th-century classic Le Corsaire, starring the top ballerina Svetlana Zakharova and her long-standing partner, the fiery Denis Matvienko. Two other classics, La Bayadère and Don Quixote, will showcase the company's two youngest stars - 21-year-old Natalia Osipova and Minsk-born Ivan Vasiliev, who, at 18, is already being hailed as a Nureyev and Baryshnikov combined.

The Bolshoi's visit to the Royal Opera House last year showed both its opera and ballet companies in incomparable shape and brimming with confidence. The ballet in particular electrified the public, and focused the gaze of a critical fraternity a little weary of the Mariinsky Theatre, the Bolshoi's increasingly variable rival in St Petersburg. Paradoxically, the Mariinsky's artistic director, Valery Gergiev, was indirectly res ponsible for getting the Bolshoi a slot in London. The bleary-eyed maestro's insistence on an all-Shostakovich programme was rejected by Lilian Hochhauser, the promoter who has been importing both companies for the past 50 years. Instead, the Mariinsky independently hired the Coliseum - for a financially ruinous week.

According to Iksanov, the Bolshoi, once a sclerotic hive of corruption and privilege, is embracing modernism. It also has more resources than it knows what to do with, as assorted oligarchs and western businesses alike want to bask in the company's newfound glory.

In Moscow, I had the rare privilege of glimpsing a few of the heavenly dancers in rehearsal. Passing a gaggle of ballerinas enjoying a cigarette on the staircase (yes, in Russia smoking is still part of the weight-conscious dancer's arsenal), I tiptoed into one classroom to find Maria Alexandrova practising the pas de deux from Swan Lake with the dark, handsome Sergei Filin, accompanied by a thundering piano. Twenty minutes later, the nimble and mesmerising Osipova was pirouetting through an extract from La Bayadère.

The atmosphere was vivacious and friendly, in contrast to my first visit to the Bolshoi in 1995, when the impecunious company was caught in a headline-grabbing showdown between the then artistic director, the dancer Vladimir Vasi liev, and its star choreographer, Yuri Grigoro vich. When the fidgety general manager Vladi mir Kokonin sacked Grigorovich and 15 top dancers, he unwittingly triggered defections and a prolonged civil war that ended only in 2000, with his own dismissal by President Putin.

Those mutinous days are over, according to the ballet's current artistic director, Alexei Ratmansky. He is a charming, soft-spoken former dancer who left the Bolshoi in 1992 for the Royal Winnipeg Ballet and later the Royal Danish Ballet. From his quietly confident manner, one is inclined to believe him. His success in the west, where he has been approached by several top companies, affords him considerable leverage as well as (one would imagine) some immunity from the skulduggery that is endemic at the Bolshoi.

Moreover, Ratmansky has managed to negotiate the tightrope between innovation and tradition skilfully, taking into account both the interests of established stars such as Filin and the appetite of a public hungry for fresh talent and new ballets. London will have another chance to savour his skills as a choreographer with his award-winning reworking of The Bright Stream, hailed as the best new piece to come out of Russia in years. Shos takovich's riotous collective-farm satire was intended, like everything else in 1935, to amuse Stalin; the co-librettist ended up in the Gulag, however, and the original choreographer's career ended prematurely.

Ratmansky has appeased the old guard by reviving some of the Grigorovich ballets that Vasiliev dumped, among them Spartacus (which in London will feature a guest appearance by the Royal Ballet's Cuban star, Carlos Acosta). But he has also championed George Balanchine (a Russian exile verboten during the Soviet period) and introduced more daring modernists such as William Forsythe and John Neumeier. In London he will present the British choreographer Christopher Wheeldon's new, one-act Elsinore, drawn on Hamlet, as part of a triple bill with Twyla Tharp's In the Upper Room and Asaf Messerer's Class Concert.

By looking west and bringing in outside directors, designers and choreographers, Ratmansky wants to change the culture of this once-insular and hierarchical company for good. And with enough resources to reduce the Bolshoi's punishing touring schedule - which taxes dancers to the limit - Iksanov can concentrate on getting comfortably settled into the re furbished theatre. "The first night back in our home will be a wonderful occasion, not just for us, but the entire world," he says, glowing with pride. "Then it will be your turn to come and see us."

The Bolshoi Ballet's summer season at English National Opera, St Martin's Lane, London WC2, starts on 30 July. For more information log on to:

This article first appeared in the 30 July 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Brown v Cameron. Game over?