European choreographer Edward Clug returns to Russia with the greatest production of his career — a ballet based on the novel The Master and Margarita.
How and when did you get the idea to stage Bulgakov's novel The Master and Margarita?
Like many adaptations of The Master and Margarita, my idea of the production took several years to mature. It all started in 2015, when I was working more often on short abstract ballets with different companies in Europe. I was invited to create a big performance based on a literary work, and I thought about The Master and Margarita almost immediately. It was interesting for me to take on a book that had hardly been interpreted in ballet before.
So, we started working on the production for Ballett Zürich together with my longtime friend, composer Milko Lazar. But soon we realized that The Master and Margarita was a rather little-known book in Switzerland, and decided to switch to a similar project — a Faust-based ballet.
I was eager to continue working on The Master and Margarita, but I said to myself: "If this production is destined to happen, I should wait for the right place to come up." At that time, I couldn’t even imagine that it would be the Bolshoi Theater!
To stage The Master and Margarita in Moscow, especially in the major Russian theater, is, certainly, a great responsibility, but also a unique opportunity. One can hardly conceive of a more suitable place in the world for this ballet — I don’t need to explain the plot to the audience here.
How many times have you read the book and in what language?
First, I read The Master and Margarita in Romanian, then in Slovenian. I’d very much like to read the novel in the original language, but, unfortunately, I understand Russian just a little.
I read the book for the first time when I was 20 years old. In Romania, we studied Tolstoy and Dostoevsky at school, but Bulgakov's works were not included in the curriculum. Later, I decided to fill in the gaps in my education, so I read the book and loved it.
The first time I was reading it without much thinking about what Bulgakov wanted to say. It was just extremely fascinating, beautiful and poetic literature for me. Later, I started analyzing the work and its topics more and more, but it was its fantastic magic that made a strong impression on me from the very beginning.
When trying to adapt the book for stage, many directors had mystical experiences that had no logical explanation. Did it happen to you while working on the ballet?
The pandemic was announced literally a few weeks after we had begun working on the production. And I thought immediately that people would probably associate this with the “curse” of The Master and Margarita. But in fact, this interruption due to the lockdown allowed us to dive deeper into the work and make our interpretation more interesting. If the ballet premiered a year ago, it would have been completely different.
What was your work with Russian ballet dancers like?
I met most of the dancers of The Master and Margarita three years ago, when I was staging Petrushka at the Bolshoi Theater. When working on the new production, we became even closer, our friendship grew practically into a spiritual connection. All of them are well aware of how important is the thing we are doing. They have read Bulgakov's novel many times, so they can easily understand any ideas that I want to convey. I’ve got a wonderful relationship not only with the dancers, but also with the entire staff of the Bolshoi.
At the beginning of last year, in an interview, you announced a ballet to the music by Dmitry Shostakovich and Alfred Schnittke. Now, we see Schnittke and Milko Lazar in the playbills. What was the reason for such changes?
When I, inspired by The Master and Margarita, was imagining the ballet, and even when I was just re-reading the book, I clearly heard the music by Schnittke and Shostakovich. Both of these composers and Bulgakov himself had similar experiences. They were hostages of the system forced to build complex relationships with it - each in his own way. I saw parallels with my own story in their life paths, because I grew up in Romania, which was under the influence of the Soviet Union. We all had to deal with the lack of freedom.
Then I talked with Maxim Shostakovich, and he argued against the idea of using the works by his father and Schnittke in the same production. Shostakovich's music was the basis for at least a third of the ballet, so initially I didn't want to give it up. But we met with Milko Lazar, who could’ve been the composer for the Ballett Zürich production. And the music he’s created to complement Schnittke’s fits even better, in my opinion.
The scenery and stage design is, perhaps, one of the main surprises of your production. Could you tell us more?
It wasn’t easy to choose the sets. Bulgakov's novel takes place in many locations, it was simply impossible to show them all on stage. I wanted to find a single site that would serve as a free interpretation of the key locations of The Master and Margarita.
At some point, I got an idea to stage the ballet in an abandoned drained pool. I was inspired to do this by the memories of my hometown of Stei in Romania. It was situated near the Soviet uranium mines and was designed by an architect from Moscow in the 1950s. Besides the residential buildings, they constructed an outstanding outdoor pool. For many generations, including mine, it was the center of social life. Today, this pool is abandoned. Every time I visit my hometown, I feel a nostalgia mixed with melancholy for the youth that I spent trapped in the Ceausescu system.
Much later, I learned the history of the Moskva pool, built on the site of the demolished Cathedral of Christ the Savior instead of the failed project of the Palace of Soviets. The Cathedral was destroyed in 1931, when Bulgakov was actively working on The Master and Margarita. This story has many connections with the topics that the author raises in the novel: the struggle of the atheistic system against Christian values and totalitarian power against humanistic philosophy.
What should viewers expect when they plan to see The Master and Margarita in your interpretation?
They should expect a new journey to familiar places. Of course, I treat the original source with respect, but at the same time it was extremely important for me to find the courage and do something new with it. Our ballet focuses on the poetic and fantastic aspects of the book, not the socio-political ones. To lift the spirits and fill the hearts with emotions we all need so much, in my mind, is the task of not only this ballet, but of all art in general.