These are some thoughts on my recent holiday to Moscow and Saint Petersburg. I would like to share my experiences with other www.ballet.org readers, in case anyone else is thinking of taking a similar holiday. If you are, I recommend that you do, as you will have a marvellous time.
I wanted to go to see as much ballet as possible, as well as take in all the famous sights. I was not disappointed with the ballet I saw or visiting the two cities.
Both cities have a brilliant Metro system; it is clean, cheap, very fast and safe to travel on. Trains travel at 85 kph and are very frequent. During the rush hour they are every 30 seconds or so. The longest I had to wait was 2.5 minutes, and I had just missed a train. In Moscow it is worth spending half a day visiting just the Metro stations; many are beautifully decorated with statues, mosaics, chandeliers, etc.
I found both cities excellent for walking. Some of the footpaths and roads are badly potholed, especially in Saint Petersburg, so a bit of extra care is needed, especially after it has rained.
The ice and frost rip them up and there is little money to repair them. Provided you look where you are going, it is fine.
A couple of times I got lost; the maps in my guide book did not have enough detail. I was well off the tourist routes, but felt safer walking than I did in walking parts of London (or in my home
city of Birmingham). In fact getting lost was a real pleasure, as I was able to see some wonderful examples of Soviet architecture. Much of this "hidden" stuff was fading and/or crumbling but still had a grandness about it.
The only danger in walking is crossing the road. If there is an underpass use it. When crossing at traffic lights, don't start walking just because the little green man has lit up, as the traffic takes a fair while to stop.
I would suggest a bi-lingual map, which are often available from your hotel and from the tourist office. Most guide books have maps only in English and fancy, all the signs are in Russian. For the Metro, listen to the announcements. They tell you which stop is next. The names of the stations are generally on the wall opposite the platform, and they are hard to spot as the train whizzes into the station, unless you are lucky enough to stop by one. Do what I did and keep count of how many stops you pass. When changing trains, simply follow the coloured arrows, exactly as you would on the London Underground.
Easy peasy. Around most Metro stations are little stalls/kiosks selling a wide variety of everything. Fruit and vegetable stalls abound and the quality of the fruit is (I reckon) better than the stuff I can buy in England and much cheaper. There was also lots of bread and cakes on sale. Seeing as I'm a vegetarian that is all I was eating during the day. In fact, I didn't have time to eat, as I was far too busy sightseeing. There are lots of cafes and restaurants; look for signs saying KOFE or PECTOPAH. I did see lots of kebab stalls and McDonalds for all you junk food fans. Note the O in KOFE is actually the Greek letter phi, but I can't do what I call the acrylic alphabet on this keyboard.
The hotels I was staying in (upmarketish) served fine food in their restaurants. I was on a bed and breakfast arrangement and brekkie was a smorgasbord. Lashings of it too; really set me up for the day (and for most of the night too).
If you are thirsty, you can buy soft drinks on every street corner. Most of the vendors have a fridge. Bottled water was about 8 Roubles, I always carried a bottle in my backpack. All the major drinks are easily available; I even had a bottle of Irn Bru outside the Bolshoi Theatre. (Hey I might be a ballet lover but I'm a bit uncouth!)
Again very easy. The aforementioned Metro stalls sell just about everything you could want. There are also several large department stores and lots of street markets for those all important souvenirs. Most of the souvenir vendors know enough English to be able to sell you something. These markets are a good place to haggle too. There is an amazing variety of stuff on sale; maryooshka (nesting) dolls, laquor boxes, religious icons, army hats, pork pie hats, cameras, space helmets. In the other shops point at what you want and you can generally make yourself understood.
Prices I found very cheap, except for books. I ran out of film while I was there and bought some from GUM cheaper than I can buy it in Great Britain. To add insult to injury, the film was made in GB! I may have been able to get it even cheaper from one of the Metro stalls. Most of the major brands are available in the larger shops. This film for instance was Kodak.
It is a good idea (I think) to learn a few Russian words and phrases. Hello, Goodbye, Please, Thankyou, How Much ?, I'm not Russian, and the numbers are (probably) enough to help you out with most situations. Russian is a lovely language and I found it quite easy to learn some simple phrases using a cassette course. It helped me a lot and made my holiday more fun and easier. It was very satisfying (for me) to be able to ask policemen the way to a destination when I was lost. I chose to ask the police as they are everywhere and in my experience few know a city like the police.
Seeing the Ballet.
I was lucky enough to see two at the Bolshoi (La Sylphide and Giselle) and one at the Maly in Saint Petersburg (Swan Lake). I was supposed to see Cippolina at the Bolshoi as well, but owing to a mess up with the people who arranged my tour, the tickets arrived too late. I got my travel agent to arrange the tickets for me; it is convenient but very expensive. I was sitting in the stalls, which according to the price on the ticket was the equivalent of $3; strange that I paid $40 for them isn't it ? I believe that foreigners pay an extra premium, even if you buy tickets at the box office.
It looks very simple to buy tickets locally, although I did not do so. Just outside the Metro station near the Bolshoi is a ticket kiosk. I guess that if you pointed at the picture of the seating plan to show where you would like to sit, and waved some fingers about indicating how many tickets you require, then I think it would be quite easy to buy one. Before a performance there are lots of touts outside selling tickets. These are probably seats up in the gods, but you can most likely get them very cheap. These touts again speak enough English to sell you a ticket. Haggle!!
At the Maly there is a ticket office just inside the door. I also had a quick look in the Mariinsky Theatre and there is a ticket office in there too. Look for a sign that says KACCA. There are also lots of little ticket offices scattered around both cities. If you don't mind paying the premium rate, your tour guide or hotel should be able to easily arrange for tickets.
Both theatres I went to are the same basic layout, being horseshoe shaped. The stalls are not very well raked; luckily I had an aisle seat so I could see quite well. There are tiers of seating around the walls, six in the Bolshoi and four in the Maly. The Bolshoi looked to seat about 2000 and the Maly maybe 1000; I'm not very good at guessing sizes. The centre aisle to the stalls passes under the big wigs box, which is directly in front of the stage. There are also the usual boxes down the edges of the proscenium arch. The night I saw Giselle it was announced that Vladimir Putkin and Bill Clinton were going to be there, but they didn't turn up. They got to talking about some missile defence system; if I was in their shoes I think I would have gone to the ballet!
Both theatres have wonderfully painted ceilings, surrounding a central (huge) chandelier. The guilding in both theatres is little short of mind blowing. Well worth taking photos of. The Bolshoi Theatre does not allow this; the ushers run around during the interval and before the show telling you off. The Maly allows photos during these times, but rightly ban them during the performance. Mind you, there are always those
thoughtless people who insist on taking photos during the performance (and with flash too). I took a couple of photos without flash during the curtain calls. I use a very fast film in this situation; I DO NOT take piccies during the show.
The stalls seating look very nice, with plush red velvet seats and curved wooden backs. They do get very uncomfortable though! I can imagine it would be pure torture to sit through a long performance; I would not like to sit through the Ring Cycle or La Bayadere, much as I like both of these.
Before The Show.
As you enter the theatre there is the usual souvenir stalls. The ladies here speak perfect English. You can buy T-Shirts, videos, opera glass, books, CDs, etc. It is worth remembering that the videos are PAL/Seacam, and so are useless to our American friends. Prices are ridiculously cheap. I paid 100 Roubles (about £2.50) for a video of Raymonda. Most of these videos I haven't seen available in England, and it was very tempting to fill my suitcase; it was already very full, otherwise I think I would have. I did consider buying them and posting them home, but since I had a lot of trouble trying to send a postcard, I decided against a parcel. The post office is not the easiest of places to use.
Just like in theatres all over the world, the souvenir prices are inflated. I saw my Raymonda video in the duty free shop at Saint Petersburg airport for 10 R!
Programs are available in English, French, German, Russian and maybe Japanese. The Russian ones have biographies of the artists (with pictures), but are pretty useless to us that do not speak Russian. The foreign ones have layouts of the story and some pictures. Again we foreigners pay an outrageous price; 50 R where as the Russian one was 20 R. I did purchase a really nice generic program at the Maly with pictures of the company (opera and ballet), lists of the repertoire, history of the theatre, etc. It about the size of a large magazine and cost me 100 R (I think). I also bought the latest issue of the Bolshoi magazine; I can look at the pictures, even if I can't read the text. I have not seen a theatre's magazine of such high quality.
Before you can go into the auditorium, they rightly make you check you coat, umbrella and large bags. I had to leave my little backpack but I was allowed to take my camera in. I did not feel that leaving my bag was an imposition.
Here they sell the usual full complement of drinks. There is one important difference though. In the theatres I have been to in England and Australia, you can purchase snacks at the bar, which are usually a pack of crisps, a chocolate bar, or if you are really lucky, a dried up sandwich in one of those triangular plastic boxes. At both theatres, there was caviar, open ham sandwiches, wonderful cakes, individual chocolates of which the poorest quality was Ferro Roche, fruit, all manor of lovely looking food. It looked very spectacular all laid out on the bar. The slice of cake I had was very delicious.
In the bar at the Maly there is a nice exhibition of models of the stage sets for different productions. These may well be the actual models the directors use when blocking a show. Also there was a small exhibition of costumes. I don't recall seeing any exhibitions at the Bolshoi (could be something to do with the rocket fuel I was drinking the next night; I'm sure the bottle was labelled "Vodka"!)
At the Bolshoi easy to find. At the Maly, the gents are few and far between. My advice to the chaps is to head for the top floor as the one on the ground floor (the most obvious one) will have a long queue. As an aside, never again will I complain about that great British institution, the queue. When buying a ticket for a museum entry or getting on the Metro, you don't queue, you barge. Be prepared to use those elbows! Japanese tourists seem to be the most impolite (strangely).
Well what can I say ? There really is something very special about seeing ballet at the Bolshoi. I felt the dancing was wonderful. Technically, the dancing at the Maly was less than perfect. Odette fell over during her first solo in the second act, cut short her foutettes, and travelled about 3/4 the depth of the stage. Still I reckon if you enjoyed the performance it was a good one (and if you didn't enjoy it, then it was a bad performance no matter how technically brilliant). I enjoyed all three of them a lot. I would rate the Giselle as one of the best I have seen.
I really prefer my ballet classical and without any special effects. Let the dancing to the job. These ballets featured very simple painted sets, few props and very lo-tech effects. They didn't even bother to try and hide the wilis strings as they flew across the stage.
Having only seen the Bolshoi once before (London last year with La Bayadere), all of the dancers were unknown to me, except for Svetlana Lunkina. She wowed me in London and did it again in Moscow. She was one of the Sylphs in La Sylphide and I am pleased that I recognised her, especially as I forgot to read my cast list before the show. I was too blown away by the decor to worry about trivial things like seeing who was on, making sure I was in the correct seat etc.
So there I was, watching La Sylphide and says to myself, that lady looks very familiar. Guess I must be a bit taken with her. Anyway, I was quite chuffed with myself that I recognised her. She appeared as Giselle too and was excellent. I would like to see a lot more of her. Maybe I'll have to go back to Moscow again. I felt she did a splendid job handling Giselle's descent into madness. I must confess I don't remember much of her in the second act (damned rocket fuel); actually spent all my time watching the corps in act two, who, as usual worked very hard indeed.
I had never seen La Sylphide before. Again I didn't get around to reading my program before the show and so I didn't know anything about the story. Well I managed to follow it very easily so the company must have done something right, 'cus I'm not exactly made of rocket scientist stuff. James had some very spectacular pieces in this. It's not every day of the week you see a five turn pirouette.
Swan Lake is my favourite ballet (I hate being so obvious, but but I reckon this ballet score is the most beautiful piece of music ever written), so I was bound to like it. The trio in the first act was probably the strongest piece, although the cygnets came very close. Normally this looks very stilted to me, but this time it flowed with a freshness I've not seen in a very long time. This, or course, could be a slight case of rose tinted specs. Rothbart was very menacing; the evil dripped from this performance.
It IS VERY special to see ballet in Russia!
La Sylphide 02/06/2000 Bolshoi Theatre - Moscow
Giselle 04/06/200 Bolshoi Theatre - Moscow
Swan Lake 04/06/2000 Maly Theatre - St Petersburg
....................I Nilova (a lady to watch out for I reckon!)
Spelling mistakes are copyrighted to me!