The 'Olympics' of world ballet

The 123rd contestant -- a tiny Vietnamese "Giselle" -- took her bows, and the red and gold curtains of the Bolshoi Theater closed on the first round of competition in the International Ballet competition being held here.

Twice a day, the 34 members of the jury had sat in the front row of the packed theater, watching and studying competitors who have brought their individual styles and artistry from 21 nations -- some of them little known among world powers in ballet, such as Mongolia, Argentina, Brazil, Panama, and Venezuela.

Twelve competitors came from the United States and six from Canada. At this writing, the competition had entered its final round.

Held in Moscow once every four years and lasting two weeks, the competition is sometimes regarded as the Olympics of the ballet world.

This year, for the first time, it has been sectioned into two groups of entries -- "maladshii," or young competitors from 16 to 19 years, and an older group of men and women dancers aged between 20 and 28 years. When teen-age Soviet starlet Nadezhda won the Grand Prix eight years ago, she was competing against all ages.

Although prizes and medals are given, it is the once-in-a-lifetime experience of dancing alone on the famed stage of the Bolshoi Theater that brings the greatest thrill for most foreign competitors.

"I thought it would be overwhelming to perform on that famous stage," said the youngest of the US competitors, Joanna Berman, who will not be 16 until next month. "But it was wonderful.

"In the performance [she danced solos in the first round from "Sleeping Beauty" and "Don Quixote"] I was thinking of what i was doing. It was had to know how the audience felt, as the applause doesn't sound loud from the stage, and there's no one to tell you how many bows to take."

But she didn't need to worry, it appears. The official Soviet news agency, Tass, reported that she had "won the hearts of the audience by the plasticity, musicality, and the impeccable purity of her movements," and when the results of the first round were announced, Joanna had won the required points to take her into Round 2.

So had four other US competitors: Amanda McKerrow, Linda Kintz, Nicolas Pacana, and William Starrett.

The petite "Giselle," Doan Vong Ling of Vietnam, did not make it into the second round, along with many other "Giselles," "Sugarplum Fairies," and "Sleeping Beauty." A total of 58 dancers of the initial 123 qualified.

As expected, Soviet competitors put on a spectacular show. All 16 of them made it into the second round.* With fans in the balconies cheering them on, they have danced with both control and bravado.

Andris Liepa, the 19-year-old son of the famous Bolshoi star Maris Liepa, gave an energetic and pleasing performance with partner Anna Khaniashvili of a pas-de-deux from "Coppelia." Recently graduated from the Moscow Academy of Choreography, they have danced this ballet many times on stage, and their experience and assurance showed.

The Bolshoi company itself has only two contestants this year, both recent arrivals at the company. The other Soviet dancers in the senior group come from other companies.

Miss Khaniashvili, long-legged and stately, was originally from the Soviet Georgian capital of Tbilisi. She was dancing with the Stanislavsky Theater here in Moscow. When she won the Soviets' all-union competitions in February 1980, Galina Ulanova invited her to join the Bolshoi and has been coaching her.

Yuri Vasychenko, a product of the Leningrad school and the top male dancer at the same competition, was brought to Moscow from Alma-Ata, some believe in an attempt to fill the large gap left in the Bolshoi company by the defection in 1979 of Alexander Godunov. Godunov, with his dramatic dancing, was one of the Bolshoi's greatest attractions.

There has been a notable absence of good male dancers in the company recently , but the young Soviet men now competing in the international competition could signal that the gap may soo n be filled.

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