I have worked in Russia many times, and it remains a place of eternal fascination for me. It drips emotions and imagery like blood from a wound. It is vibrant, tough, wonderful, unexpected, and impossible. It’s beautifully ornate, but also, at turns, the very definition of austere. It is raw, and wary of outsiders. But, once you gain a measure of knowing and make a bridge, there is very little that is not possible. I have been eyed with the keenest of suspicion, and embraced like a brother. The pictures you make there have a special echo, as sometimes, anyway, they were very tough to shoot.
I was reminded lately of the tough, dicey part of picture making there via the recent story of the acid attack on Sergei Filin, the artistic director of the legendary Bolshoi Ballet, a truly extreme expression of the eternal intrigue, vengeful infighting, and brutal politics that surround this company in a city that worships ballet. The Bolshoi is one of the oldest ballet companies in the world, and being the artistic director there is to be the focus of adoring approval, or, ire of, well, theatrical proportions. As the NY Times reported, his “tires had been slashed, his car scratched, his two cellphones disabled, his personal e-mail account hacked and his private correspondence published.”
I can’t imagine such vitriolic anger being directed in this country at a ballet director. Now, if you were the head football coach at say, University of Alabama, and went 0-10, that’s a different story.
I went to Moscow to photograph the Bolshoi after my good friend Igor Malakhov, mentioned to me that he was friendly with one of the prima ballerinas of the company. We hatched a story, and I sold it to my editors at LIFE, who told me I could only go if I didn’t spend any money, seeing as they didn’t really give a rat’s ass about ballet. So I went to Moscow on my frequent flier miles, and stayed in Igor’s apartment (he moved in with a friend) and lived cheap, which was very possible at that time in that city.
I went in to meet the business director of the company, to introduce myself and to grandly describe LIFE’s intentions, feeling certain he would just fall over himself in terms of cooperating with such a prestigious American publication. He did seem suitably impressed, and then just casually asked me for $1,000 cash. You know, just to get the ball rolling. I blanched, and recall my hands fluttering about my pockets the way one might when you think you have lost your wallet. I gulped and told him I simply didn’t have that kind of cash. He smiled, and showed me the door.
Okay, well, the least I could do was buy a ticket to a show, and maybe sneak a few photos. Went to the box office. Sold out. And, not just tonight, but like, forever. Chagrined, I walked outside, where there was a gaggle of large men in black coats in front of black cars. Ticket to the Bolshoi? $150 USD. I had a good seat, courtesy of the Russian mob.
How to crack this nut, photographically? In Russia, there is always another way, another door. Igor contacted Nadia Gracheva, his friend. Would she consent to a photo session, outside the purview of the ballet, on her own? The answer was yes. She in turn introduced us to another ballerina, and we shot with her. We processed the film at one of the only E-6 labs in Moscow, and made several large, wonderful prints, which we then gave to the dancers. When other dancers saw the images, they started calling us and suggesting sessions. Ballet is a naturally competitive world, and attention given and withheld is duly noted. As the standing joke goes, “What’s the difference between a prima ballerina and a pit bull?” Answer? “The jewelry.”
Without bribes or contortions, we were inside the company. I shot backstage, but my main focus was to take the dancers out into Moscow. Russia was in the midst of upheaval, leaving behind the stoic grayness of Communism, and the city was bursting with entrepreneurs, fine restaurants, and Benetton stores. In such crazy times, who pays attention to ballet? I wanted to place these consummate artists in the midst of the hurly burly of Moscow’s awakening, and see what would happen.
It was fascinating to work with the dancers and sense them embrace the oddity of plying their art in the midst of a subway station, or a famed landmark of a steam bath, the Sanduny. It reminded me all over again how dancers can take and phyiscalize your imagination, and at the same time improve on it via their own fluid mechanics and improvisational movements. The fact that this was Moscow in 1996, a place in the midst of turmoil and change made it all the more of a wonderfully improbable project. LIFE, which wasn’t interested and basically sent me to Moscow to shut me up, ran it 11 pages.
I did things I still remember, like setting up my tripod at the conductor’s pulpit, where Tchaikovsky once stood. Persuading half naked Russian guys in the baths to be in a ballet photo. Igor, running around the baths with his self proclaimed “smoggy machine” a pot of something or other he lit on fire to pass for a smoke machine. The toughness of Nadia, as she posed for me in ballet duds, in Russia, in February. Getting pulled off the roof of the GUM department store overlooking Red Square, with the rationale being I was using my cameras to photograph Kremlin documents though the windows. My favorite shot of me working, courtesy of Chris Morris, up on that same roof, when Igor worked his fixer magic and got us back up there.
It was a window on a an amazing place, at an amazing time, provided for me by wonderful, passionate artists. I jumped though that window with both feet. More tk….
(Quick tech notes: All the setup portraits and scenes of the dancers were shot on a Mamiya 7 Rangefinder medium format system, working mostly with the 43 and 80mm lenses. It was far and away the most versatile, favorite medium format camera I ever used. Film was largely Fuji 100 RDPII chrome.)