Wild Applause, Secretly Choreographed

By Ellen Barry

CreditCreditDominic Bugatto

MOSCOW — In the crowd that enters the Bolshoi Theater before the ballet, it is not hard to spot Roman Abramov and his team, as long as you know what you’re looking for.

They are not the nouveau riche ones wearing gold brocade harem pants, or carrying hobo bags made out of tiny puffs of chinchilla. Their faces do not display the juicy satisfaction of officials’ wives collecting what they are owed. Nor are they the tourists in hiking boots, gaping up at the vestibule, with its gold-leaf-and-cotton-candy glow.

Mr. Abramov’s people are ordinary-looking middle-aged Russian women in cloth coats, and their expressions are all business. They assemble on the stairs, and as the first curtain approaches, they break up into formations, like synchronized swimmers, and vanish into the stream of people heading to their seats.

Watching over all this is Mr. Abramov himself, his dark, intelligent eyes scanning the lobby. His job is to engineer applause and ovations, on the basis of secret agreements with dancers, using associates planted in the audience. These collaborations — part passion, part commerce — can go on for years; they can also occasionally sour into nasty, revengeful dramas.

Claqueurs, as these professional fans are known, were once common in the world’s great theaters, but the practice mostly died out midway through the 20th century. Their survival here might have gone unnoticed were it not for last winter’s acid attack on Sergei Filin, the ballet company’s artistic director. Mr. Filin has undergone numerous rounds of surgery in hopes of saving his eyesight. A Bolshoi dancer, Pavel Dmitrichenko, was later charged with orchestrating the attack.

Merciless scrutiny has fallen on the Bolshoi since then, exposing some of the shadowy nonofficial power structures that shape life at the theater. It can be difficult, in Russia, to know what is real and what is artificial, and so it is in the gold-drenched auditorium. Those cries of “Bravo!” that ring out after a spectacular pas de deux? It may be that the audience is genuinely electrified.

Or it may be the sound of a very elegant theatrical protection racket.

Inside the Bolshoi’s main hall for a springtime “Swan Lake,” Mr. Abramov, who is in his late 40s, was completely in his element. As he had promised, the guards at the front responded immediately when I mentioned his name, pushing open the heavy wooden doors and letting me pass. He was wearing faded jeans and New Balance sneakers, with the faintest hint of a beard; he looked a little like a bookmaker. He could barely talk, because he was in a state of deep focus, steering his people to a constellation of stools and chairs that did not exist on the official seating chart.

Roman Abramov organizes the claqueurs of the Bolshoi Theater, spectators assigned to applaud during performances.CreditJames Hill

As people streamed out for intermission, a remarkable number greeted him personally. A woman in a watermelon-colored tunic, evidently the mother of a performer, approached him in the corridor, hoping to enlist the claque’s support at an upcoming performance. Mr. Abramov was too busy to talk, so she stood there in the hallway, fidgeting.

The idea that applause in response to performance should be spontaneous is a relatively new one. Roman emperors trained professionals to mingle with crowds at key moments, encouraging the dull roar of approval that speaks of a mandate. This behavior was refined in the theaters of 18th- and 19th-century France, where the term “claque” — from the phrase “to clap” — was coined.

At the Paris Opera, claqueurs became mighty arbiters of theatrical success; Balzac writes in “La Comédie Humaine” that the chief of the claque had “the endorsement of the boulevard playwrights, all of whom have an account with him, as they would with a banker.”

Mr. Abramov’s face is well known in the Moscow theater world, which is not surprising; he says he attends 300 shows a year at the Bolshoi. But the specifics of his operation — he calls it a “ministry” that he does out of love and fanaticism — are mysterious; Mr. Abramov has only given one previous interview, in 2004. The Bolshoi’s press secretary, Katerina Novikova, would not comment for this article, except to say that she regretted my choice of topic.

When I asked the Russian ballet critic and historian Pavel Gershenzon about Mr. Abramov, Mr. Gershenzon’s face took on a rapt expression.

“How does Roma get to the theater? I don’t know,” said Mr. Gershenzon, a former deputy director of the Mariinsky Theater in St. Petersburg. “I don’t know who he is. I don’t know where he lives,” he said in a tone of wonderment. “Is he a Jew?”

“I do not even know his last name,” he added.

Mr. Abramov describes his work as a well-codified transaction: The claque provides artists with a guarantee of applause, and in return it receives free passes allocated to artists, usually two in the stalls and four to six passes to the circle or dress-circle. Because the modern-day claque represents multiple artists appearing in the same show, Mr. Abramov can often secure up to 28 seats in the theater on a given night, a remarkable fact given that tickets for a performance of “Swan Lake” sell for somewhere between $300 and $500.

Some ballet insiders contend that the claqueurs also profit by reselling passes. Mr. Abramov categorically denies this, saying the Bolshoi’s administration traces the artists’ passes, so a resale would be discovered and he would be immediately banned from the theater. He says the claqueurs’ motivation is a simpler one: They are fanatics. (“I would love to pour a ton of acid on her head,” he remarked cheerily about a critic who had offended one of his favorites.) Mr. Abramov and his associates enjoy closeness to the stars, and serve as ferocious defenders of the Bolshoi’s conservative, classical tradition. They also need tickets.

Other audience members in the theater, center, probably have no idea that they might be sitting near claqueurs.CreditOlga Kravets for The New York Times

Why do the artists need the claqueurs? Experienced performers are seeking something very specific from the applause, Mr. Abramov said, like extra seconds to catch his or her breath between the end of an adagio and the beginning of a variation. Young ones fear their performance will be met with silence. These agreements are made in private. Mr. Abramov says he and his “deputies” observe up-and-coming performers for some time before selecting those they deem most promising and setting up an informal meeting.

“This is where the first contact is made, then the next and so on, and then these contacts grow into normal working relations,” he said. The proposal — “You can be included in our situation,” was the way he phrased it — stretches out into a long symbiosis. With the passage of time, relationships with artists can turn fractious; claqueurs often prefer to deal with their mothers.

Mr. Abramov, who began frequenting the Bolshoi at 17, speaks of performers with a notable lack of awe.

“Artists have very fine and delicate natures, they have a very delicate nervous system, and, unfortunately, all of them have a strongly inflated self-image,” he said, a little mournfully. Dancers, he said, have an additional problem: “Mainly they are dumb.” He added, “They can be told what to do eight times, and on the ninth time they will still go in the wrong direction.”

Executed properly, what he and his team do is a kind of science. The applause of a few imperceptible well-placed actors — alert to acoustics, mass psychology and the technical challenges that face a performer onstage — can switch on an audience much as a pilot light ignites a gas oven, prompting neophytes to recognize that they are witnessing something virtuosic.

“The audience does not trust itself, it trusts someone else,” said the ballet critic Vadim Gayevsky, who fell in with the claqueurs as a boy in the 1940s. “If it hears someone applauding very aggressively and intensively, they think that something extraordinary is going on which they did not grasp, and they feel generally that they should not look like fools, that they should join in, so that nobody sees they missed it.”

This is especially relevant at the Bolshoi, which has been transformed by Russia’s oil-fueled market economy. The seats are now filled by people who can afford them, rather than by the well-versed balletomanes of the Soviet era. Those who approve of the claque say it transmits the sound of a vanishing generation, ordinary working people raised with a passion for classical ballet.

There’s no mystery about what happens when the claque disappears, Mr. Abramov said. “Take any recording of a performance at the Bolshoi — you hear ‘Bravo,’ applause, they come out and take the curtain and bow many times,” he said. “Now go to the Mariinsky Theater and see what deadly silence accompanies ‘Swan Lake.’ ”

Nikolai Tsiskaridze, dancing with Anzhelina Vorontsova at the Bolshoi, had a feud with Mr. Abramov after challenging the use of claqueurs.CreditStanislav Krasilnikov/ITAR-TASS

Dancers rarely speak publicly about the existence of claqueurs. In interviews with half a dozen current and former Bolshoi dancers, I was told by many that they viewed the claque as a positive influence, injecting energy into a hall packed with sleepy tourists and nomenklatura.

And many performers remember the thrill of being singled out by the claque as teenagers, identified as one of the select few who would go all the way. Asked about claqueurs in an interview in February, Mr. Filin himself said he had grown up in their hands.

“You could call these people the domestic spirits of the Bolshoi Theater,” he said.

But dancers’ reticence to talk about the claque is also out of self-preservation, since the Bolshoi’s claqueurs are known as thin-skinned and vengeful, with a range of inventive strategies for interfering with performances. The offense could be caused by an artist’s withdrawal from a longstanding agreement to provide passes — something that happens not infrequently, as an artist gains confidence and no longer feels the need for guaranteed applause.

One ballerina, who would speak only on condition of anonymity, said she had squirmed out of her arrangement as tactfully as possible in the hope of avoiding a confrontation.

“In principle, yes, I was hiding, I was running away from them,” she said. “They were trying to find me through my mother. They found my mother at the theater and said: ‘Why is she not calling us? Why is she not taking care of passes and tickets for us?’ ”

In exceedingly rare cases, a dancer takes the step of challenging the claque in public. In 2004, a newly minted prima ballerina, Maria Aleksandrova, infuriated Mr. Abramov and his team by saying she did not need their support. (Ms. Aleksandrova would not comment for this article.) A legendary feud arose between Mr. Abramov and the dancer Nikolai Tsiskaridze, who was quoted making similar comments. What ensued, both men agreed, was a campaign of revenge, mostly aiming to break the dancer’s concentration at key moments in a performance.

When asked for details, Mr. Tsiskaridze smiled sweetly.

“One can start applauding at the wrong moment,” said the dancer, whose contract at the Bolshoi ended this summer. “One can accidentally drop coins on a drum. Also, one can start laughing accidentally. One can start coughing — many people can start coughing at the same time, during a quiet scene. There is no law against it. You cannot do anything about it.”

Mr. Abramov looked sympathetic when reminded of this. Yes, he and his troops took revenge on occasion. It is possible, for instance, to clap off-rhythm when a dancer is performing the series of difficult turns called fouettés, he said.

Claqueurs were far more common in 19th-century Paris.CreditBibliothèque des Arts Décoratifs, Paris

“Kolya fell down because of us many times, because I was at war with him for years and arranged these things for him,” he said, of Mr. Tsiskaridze. “Poor guy, in ‘Raymonda’ he screwed up the whole variation and flew off and ended up with his nose on the floor. In ‘Nutcracker’ once, I made him drop his fouetté, from way up high, and he sat down on his bottom, butt facing the hall. And we all laughed.”

He paused. “But I am very sorry about it. I sincerely repent, and admit that what I was doing was wrong.”

Mr. Abramov said he decided to give up all forms of sabotage for good three years ago, after suffering a heart attack. Looking around at the women and men who make up most of his work force, most of them well past 50, he wonders if his is the last generation of claqueurs at the Bolshoi. With every year since the breakup of the Soviet Union, it has become harder to find people who love ballet with that kind of obsessive passion.

“You see, I have nothing but this in my life,” he had told me. “No sensible person would survive eight performances of ‘La Bayadère’ one after another. Or 20 ‘Nutcrackers’ in 10 days.”

In any case, there was no time for introspection on this particular night, as “Swan Lake” hurtled toward its dismal, ecstatic finale.

In the theater, shouts of “Bravo! Bravo!” emanated from a member of Mr. Abramov’s team, a man perched on a stool at the edge of a row of chairs, who left gusts of cologne behind him as he walked. But then the ballerina was whipping off 32 perfect fouettés, and it was no longer possible to say where the shouting was coming from. It came from everywhere.

When the curtain fell, much of the audience was already headed for the coat-check line, but some two dozen people stood at the front row, shouting “Bravo! Bravo!” while the three lead dancers, gleaming with sweat, took their last bows. Most of them were Mr. Abramov’s people. You could pick them out if you had been paying attention.

At that point the dancers and the claqueurs were standing two yards apart, hanging on for just one more moment before the stage hands came to roll away the scenery. Where the love ended, and deceit began, was impossible to tell.

Nikolai Khalip contributed reporting.

A version of this article appears in print on , on Page AR1 of the New York edition with the headline: Wild Applause, Secretly Choreographed. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe