For a Bolshoi star, one last look from the stage

The young man next to me aimed his cellophane-wrapped packet of wilting carnations, swung, and missed. The flowers tumbled into the orchestra pit. He stooped down and picked up another bunch and this time it landed on the stage. The leading male dancer of that night's performance, Mikhail Lavrovsky, laid them at the feet of the tiny ballerina beside him. Marina Kondratyeva smiled and said "spasiba" ("Thank you").

The performance of Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet" had just drawn to a close at the vast Palace of Congresses in the Kremlin, and now the audience was expressing its appreciation of a magnificent performance from both top Bolshoi dancers.

But alas, it was also a sad occasion, a farewell to the stage, Marina Kondratyeva's last dance. She is now retired and has been coaching young dancers at the Moscow Classical Dance Company.

She went out in a blaze of color, however. She was a magnificent Juliet, convincing the audience of her different emotions: growing up, falling in love, horror at the thought of marrying Paris, the decision to take the sleeping draft , and her desperation at finding Romeo dead.

She proved herself again a lyrical dancer in the style of former prima ballerina Galina Ulanova -- light, flying across the stage with complete ease, acting with dramatic skill, and completing her steps with excellent technique. Her partner, Lavrovsky, complemented her performance with high leaps and fine acting.

In fact, the evening also celebrated what would have been the 75th birthday of his father, Leonid Lavrovsky, who passed on in 1967. Leonid danced the lead in the original "Romeo and Juliet," in the first production of this ballet in 1946, as well as acting as stage manager and ballet master. He was the top ballet master in the Bolshoi from 1944 to 1964 and earned the title of People's Artist.

This staging of Shakespeare's story is a splendid opportunity to see an old, traditional ballet, full of outstanding scenery, marvelous costumes, and great crowds of people. It is slow one minute, with mimed gestures, and fast-moving the next as the stage comes to life in a superb sword fight -- the classic Mercutio-Tybalt-Romeo duel.

It was a most successful evening for dancers and spectators.

We started it by arriving early, mainly to make sure of a program (only 200 hundred printed for a hall that has 6,000 seats), and also to take the escalators to the top floor. There, munching on blinis (yeast pancakes) and caviar, we watched the setting sun sparkle on the gold domes of the cathedrals inside the Kremlin, looming close to us on the other side of floor-to-ceiling plate-glass windows. It is one of the most stunning settings in all of Moscow.

Back in the huge hall, we watched the production which Bolshoi chief choreographer Yuri Grigorovich has restaged across the road in the original Bolshoi (the Kremlin palace is the Bolshoi's "other" stage). Mikhail Lavrovsky and several other top dancers don't like the modernity of the new setting and prefer not to appear in it.

At curtain call the young man tossed up more and more flowers (at least eight bunches). Some reached the stage, others were handed up to the stage by the man in the pit gathering up the music scores.

The young man objected to the woman beside us shouting "Lavrovsky, bravo," and said, "Tonight we only shout "Kondratyeva, bravo."

The curtain calls went on and on -- we lost count after 15 -- and finally Marina came out and took a long one alone. She looked fresh and grateful and made the moment last as long as possible. She floated back to the curtain, lingered a moment, waved, whispered "spasiba," and slipped from view.

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