Bulgakov and Bolshoi ballet


Eighty-five years ago (the precise date of enrolment is the 10th of October 1936), Mikhail Bulgakov joined the Bolshoi Theatre as a literary consultant and librettist. Having already fallen out of favour – his writings were not published, performances based on his plays were rapidly disappearing from theatre repertoires – he had to defend himself from graphomaniacs’ opuses and polish unevenly written librettos. He wrote four opera librettos working with an inherent enthusiasm, in close contact with the supposed authors. However, no performances were staged of those librettos and in some cases did not even reach the stage of musical composition. The development of the novel “Master and Margarita” had been under way for seven years by then – and was still four years from its completion.

Although he never lost hope of seeing his life’s work published, Bulgakov realised the likelihood of writing for the “black box”. And whatever fate he prophesied for his novel, which in the end brought him immortality and glorious fame, even his unrestrained imagination could hardly fantasise such visions as his characters standing on the stage of the Bolshoi Theatre. Moreover, realised in a ballet!

When Mr Clug, having received an invitation to stage a second production at the Bolshoi Theatre, informed us that he would like that production to be a ballet based on “Master and Margarita”, his statement was perceived as something out of the blue, like thunder in the sky above Teatralnaya Square and Vorobyevy Gori. On the other hand, the situation was quite in the spirit of Bulgakov: complicated for a stage realisation, this tricky novel, a satire on Soviet life and existence was chosen for staging by a foreigner. What’s more, he moved the action to… a swimming pool.

A month before the premiere, the choreographer was told an infamous story about the explosion of the Cathedral of Christ the Saviour (the last performance of the first series will be held on the ninetieth anniversary of that day), how years later the swimming pool “Moskva” was installed in that place. Now, Mr. Klug has experienced the shock of such phantasmagorical intersections of his conjectures with historical realities.

Edward Clug. Photo by Marta Tiberiu.

From childhood as from a homeland

The idea itself came to me from my childhood. I was born in the small town of Ștei, which was built by the Soviets, because a uranium deposit was discovered nearby. Between 1952 and 1956, trains with workers started to arrive, one by one. It resulted in perhaps the most unusual town in Romania, with long streets and one-story houses. An extraordinarily beautiful recreation centre was built for the scientists, engineers and, of course, workers. There was a swimming pool as part of it. It was when I was coming back from that swimming pool, my father offered me to try to enter a ballet school in a town seven-hours’ drive away from ours… Now I understand that our town was built at the time when under Khrushchev they laid the “Moskva” pool. It is an unbelievable coincidence! Of course, not accidental, purely Bulgakov’s. While finishing the presentation of the set design, I told my colleagues at the Bolshoi Theatre: first you brought a swimming pool into my life, now I came to return it to you, to where it was conceived.

Illusion of Moscow
As for the symbolic hidden motive, in my opinion, it is simply obvious. Everything happened at the same time. Stalin destroyed the cathedral, opposed the church, philosophical thought, and the idea of humanism as such. The idea which was so important to Bulgakov and was fundamental. The dictator and the system established by him committed an act of violence against an artist. The artist to some extent did the same to himself because of his frustration, failures, sorrow and distresses, which had befallen him. However, I do not want to emphasize it too much. Here is the real paradox: the swimming pool in Moscow became a favourite place of leisure, regardless of its contradictory history. But thank God, our performance is not about a swimming pool. People are going to watch it and know that it is Moscow. The illusion of Moscow, which, in fact, that pool was. I was prompted by my instinct to make this decision. Then I did my research. And it turned out that the Soviets converted many churches into hospitals and storages. Or into the swimming pool.

And yet why?
What I was totally sure of is that we must choose one place for the action instead of visualising different locations, in which the events of the novel unfold. Firstly, it is simply impossible, secondly, if we, nonetheless, assumed such a probability, it would create an unthinkable variegation. An empty pool, with a large number of doors around, which lead us to the changing cabins. This is what would allow us to travel to all addresses and read each and every chapter of the book. Let us take the starting point: Patriarch Ponds, Ivan Bezdomny and Berlioz. Their conversations could have happened by a pool, which can symbolise a lake or a pond. Moving forwards: Ivan’s chase of Behemoth and Fagot. He leaves his clothes on the bank and jumps into the Moscow River. Once again, here is the pool! Let’s take "Griboyedov". What it is? A men’s entertainment club. It is anything but literature. Fishing as a hobby, trips to nature and let’s imagine that the pool is a sauna. And so on and so forth.


How did it happen that I became a reader who was carried away by Bulgakov so much? Romania, one more republic of the Soviet Union, the Ceausescu regime. It was not that hard to apprehend the reality described by Bulgakov. However, what I was delighted with was all the components together – satirical, religious and romantic. I have always unconsciously wanted to stage a ballet based on this novel. To try to realise an ambitious task: not to illustrate the book through dance but suggest some moments, which might not even be in the book. However, if one read it again, they would “translate” those moments and understand their origin, they would be filled with their metaphorical and symbolic meaning. It took Bulgakov ten years to write his novel, I had three months to stage my ballet. But I had been thinking it over, going through various stages for more than six years. At first, together with Milko Lazar (he was supposed to write the music, the whole score) we offered Christian Spuck to stage the ballet after Bulgakov’s novel, when he invited us for a staging with his troupe, the Zurich Ballet. He was confused. Is it Russian “Faust”? Well, then stage “Faust”. There was a fear that it was in Zurich where this novel was unknown and not fully understood.


No, I did not know that Schnittke was the author of music for the film based on this novel (film by Yuri Kara – editor). Yet again, I find this coincidence to be in Bulgakov’s vein! Whatever it is, it seems like the music Concerto Grosso he wrote specially for my ballet. While listening to it, I feel like I am re-reading Bulgakov. And the other way round. Reading the book, I hear this concert. This concert has become fundamental for the music of our ballet. In my opinion, the most successful choice is of the music for the Satan’s Ball. The central theme, baroque, fits the characters arriving to the ball so well. However, I did understand that this music would not be enough for me. I still needed Moscow, needed burlesque. And Milko Lazar took it upon himself.


If the premiere had not been postponed for a year and a half due to the pandemic, I would have had huge problems with realising the religious component of the novel. The decision that Master will symbolically represent Yeshua came to me with time. I am sure it is the right idea. Yeshua will not be a character in the full sense. He will not be represented straightforwardly like a true, complete role. He will become Master’s daydream. He will become a dream. This dream is where his and Master’s conversation with Pilate will take place. I believe a religious component presented this way will be easier for our audience to apprehend.


Is it possible to convey in ballet the idea of love, which is based on the sacred attitude of the heroine to the artistic work of the hero? Perhaps, this is actually my message. When I read the novel for the first time, I was very young. I did not analyse it from the political point of view, I just admired the mastery and literature. This book, it seems to me, rises even above its very idea, above the author’s intentions. Thus, I would like to convey this feeling in my production, to metaphorically transfer the artistry of this book into dance. Margarita loves the manuscript. She is in love with the work by Master. It took possession of her mind. She is dependent on it. She is enslaved by it. Ready to sell her soul for it… It is thrilling. The love of my life? I fought for it for six years and won! My wife supports me greatly. She is there when I am here. I miss her and look forward to seeing her. But! I experience such pleasure from the work, rehearsals, from communication with the wonderful artists of the Bolshoi, that having not even finished this work, I have already started missing it as well. It has been one of the most thrilling working processes in my career. And one of the most difficult and challenging tasks. And I am satisfied. I believe in God and that he will help us.

The premiere series of the performances will take place on the New Stage from the 1st to the 5th of December. Cast is here.