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Mark Shuttleworth - January 20, 2002: a night at the ballet - A great friend from Cape Town came to visit for a few days to check out the local situation. She arrived exhausted, having had about two hours sleep on each of the previous nights flying and enjoying London. We met up at Sheremetyevo airport and dashed into Moscow to catch a show at the Bolshoi Theatre.

The Bolshoi is quite something to behold. Russians are passionate about their culture - from opera to ballet they celebrate talent and excellence. And the Bolshoi is the cultural epicentre of Moscow.

In true Russian style there had been some confusion over whether or not we did indeed have tickets. Megs was assured that the tickets had been purchased, but then one of our local supporters called me to say "it's sold out but don't worry we'll be able to find them at the door". I worried. Anyway, in some mysterious way these things are usually resolved and sure enough the tickets were waiting at the hotel. I was very relieved.

The historical centre of Moscow is the Kremlin, which is a fortified area that was once the entire self-contained city. As Moscow expanded over the centuries it became the royal fortress, and the thousands of people who lived inside it were given the boot in favour of palaces, churches and administrative offices. Now it houses a number of churches, the armory where much historical treasure is presented, and the office of President Putin. Next to the Kremlin is Red Square, and St Basils Cathedral (the incredible candy cathedral that is in half the postcards of Moscow). And across the road is the Duma (parliament) and the Bolshoi Theatre. And in the next block is the Lubyanka, the long-time head office of the KGB. So everything in central Moscow has a story and a reason to linger. But back to the Bolshoi.

Inside is a gorgeous and plush interior, with rows and rows of balconies and a magnificent chandelier. The curtain is in red and gold, with a heavy Soviet theme (hammers, sickles, stars and CCCP everywhere). It's quite breathtaking the first time.

The program for the evening was two pieces by Roland Petit, a French choreographer. The Russians are very open to international culture and love to host the world's brightest and best. So expectations were high. But even that didn't prepare us for what we saw... which was some of the most beautiful ballet I'm lucky enough to have seen, ever.

The first piece was ultra-modern, very abstract, and clearly quite challenging even for the Bolshoi company. The dancers seemed a little uncertain of the steps, because they were so unlike the normal ballet routines. I haven't the faintest clue what it all meant, but the intricate way in which the dancers moved, the multiple rhythms and patterns in their separate and collective sequences were amazing. The set was completely devoid of decoration, just an empty stage disappearing into infinity, with black drapes on either side and stark lighting. We loved it, but it wasn't clear that the local crowd liked it at all. I don't think they see a lot of very modern stuff at the Bolshoi, so the audience wasn't sure how to react. At the end of the piece the applause was a bit lacklustre, and the dancers who had obviously worked their hearts out were clearly disappointed.

But the second piece was quite different. The ballet was based on a story by Pushkin, the much-beloved poet of historical Russia, so we were at a slight disadvantage because I suspect every Russian studies the story in Grade 5. We didn't really know what was potting other than that it involved cards, gambling, and love. Although it was still a very modern set, the routines were much more classical. And the chemistry between the lead ballerina and dancer was just unbelievable. For whole sequences you could feel the tension in the theatre as the story unfolded. We both had goosebumps. At the end of the performance they received a standing ovation and the most enormous bunches of flowers I've ever seen.

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