x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

An exclusive peek behind the scenes at the Bolshoi Ballet

Ahead of the elite Russian ballet company's performance at Emirates Palace tonight, photographer Martin von den Driesch takes us backstage at the Bolshoi's previous appearances in Abu Dhabi.

The corps de ballet in Giselle. Photo by Martin von den Driesch
The corps de ballet in Giselle. Photo by Martin von den Driesch
When the Bolshoi Ballet performed in Abu Dhabi in 2008 and 2009, the Dubai-based photographer Martin von den Driesch, originally from Germany, was given exclusive behind-the-scenes access to the dancers.

His newly published book, Backstage with the Bolshoi, gives a fascinating glimpse into the mystique behind the most famous dance company in the world, whose dancers are performing at the Emirates Palace on Friday.

The sold-out Ballet Gala, part of the Abu Dhabi Festival, will feature excerpts from well-known ballets, performed by the stars of the Bolshoi and Mariinsky theatres in Russia.


I lived in Moscow for 14 years before moving to the UAE but never once had photographic access to the Bolshoi while I was there. I tried a few times but there were so many hurdles because it is such a huge institution that I never managed to photograph the dancers inside the theatre.

When the Bolshoi Ballet came to Abu Dhabi in 2008 and 2009 as part of the Abu Dhabi Music and Arts Festival, however, it was much easier. Thanks to my wife, Yulia, who had done some public relations work for the Bolshoi, it was simply a case of meeting some of the dancers and telling them my idea, which was to give an outsider's peek behind the scenes.

A glimpse into the backstage world of the Bolshoi is a rare treat. It traces its origins back to 1776 and is the most famous ballet company in the world, not to mention the largest.

The Moscow-based dancers travelled from one of the coldest places on Earth to one of the hottest to perform Swan Lake in Abu Dhabi in 2008 and Giselle in 2009. Next month, some of the stars of the ballet company will be returning to perform at the magnificent setting of the Emirates Palace once again.

I am not a ballet photographer and for me, this was a fascinating new world. I had no idea what to expect. Ballet was not my favourite art form and I had no perception of just how difficult it was.

In total, I spent five days backstage with the dancers. In that time, I photographed them getting ready in their dressing rooms, captured them rehearsing and pictured the culmination of that hard work on stage as they performed.

I had no idea how much hard work it was and the long hours of training involved in making it look so effortless and flowing. It was incredibly exciting to get so close to the stage and some of my photos show the mastery of the ballet and the emotions expressed. I had to blend into the background to capture those moments. I wanted to convey some of the mystique and grace of the dancers.

My three favourite images are Family on her Mind, Ready to Soar and Tying a Slipper, as they perfectly show the grace of the ballet.

The shows were sold out and took place in front of an enthusiastic audience of expatriates, Arabs and UAE nationals. Each of the two ballets has played at the Bolshoi for more than half of its 234 years.

Prominently featured are Maria Alexandrova as Mytha, Queen of the Wilis, in Giselle and Svetlana Lunkina as Odette/Odile in Swan Lake. Both are extraordinarily versatile dancers. Also seen are the soloists Anastasia Goryacheva and Yekaterina Shipulina, while the male dancers include Ruslan Skvortsov, Artyom Shpilevsky, Alexander Volchkov and the rising star Ivan Vasilyev, who was then 19 years old.

I felt very privileged to have that access, and by seeing all the different facets of the ballet have learned a real appreciation of this art form.

Backstage with the Bolshoi is available for Dh175 at Kinokuniya, Dubai Mall, level 2, and on www.amazon.com. Limited-edition fine art prints are available through the photographer's website, www.martinvondendriesch.com. One lucky M reader will win a copy of the book by e-mailing mgiveaway@thenational.ae with "Backstage with the Bolshoi" in the subject line.