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Bolshoi Ballet; Why there's discontent

By Margaret E. WillisSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / February 10, 1982

ANATOLY LUNARCHARSKY was a friend of Lenin's, the first Soviet Commissar for Public Education after the 1917 Revolution--and the man who saved Russian ballet from extinction.

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At a time when all ballet schools were being closed and the very right of ballet to exist was being questioned because it was a reminder of past tsarist glory, Lunarcharsky convinced the new Revolutionary Government that the famous Russian balletic tradition should be retained. It could then be used as a foundation for a new artistic culture and as a medium for mass propaganda to bring glory to the Soviet system.

For many years, Soviet ballet has been admired and its greatness recognized throughout the balletic world. Its most famous export item - the Bolshoi Ballet Company - has pirouetted and jete-ed on most great stages overseas, delighting audiences and bringing the glory that Lunarcharsky foresaw.

But today, there is trouble in the Soviet ballet world again. Discontent with the artistic quality of Bolshoi productions--and in particular with its current artistic director--is increasingly evident both inside the company and out. The dimensions of the controversy indicate a split of opinion at the upper levels of government power, and underscore the inseparability of art and politics in the Soviet regime.

The most visible attack on the Bolshoi comes in a book by Soviet ballet critic Vadim Gayevski, recently published in Moscow. In ''Divertissement--Fate of Classical Ballet,'' Gayevski denounces the company as ''the home of false traditionalism.'' He alleges that in the past 50 years nothing creative has been produced at the Bolshoi, and that since the early '20s the company has been run by either incompetent or second-rate artistic directors.

The book singles out Yuri Grigorovich, the chief choreographer and present artistic director, as the cause of many of the Bolshoi's problems. With an outspokenness incredible for the controlled Soviet system, the book not only accuses Grigorovich of stifling the style and the talent of the company, but says that he is personally to blame for allowing its choreography and productions to stagnate.

However, no sooner had the book appeared in Moscow (and sold out immediately) than it received a prompt and biting reaction from the official powerful newspaper Sovietskaya Kultura (Soviet Culture). The appearance of this ''official'' view raised the question: How did the book get past the usual political censors and obtain the seal of approval from the ''top'' needed to be printed by an official company?

Apparently, the answer is that the powerful Communist hierarchy is divided on this issue. Grigorovich owes his directorship to his network of political friends--extending into the Supreme Soviet. But now, although some senior party officials still support him, others are lending their support to his critics, represented by the author of this recent book.

Criticism of Grigorovich's policies has its roots within the Bolshoi itself. For the younger dancers, stepping out of line or complaining publicly could result in very few opportunities to perform. Even so, several of them have privately confided how unhappy they are because they dance so seldom--twice a month is usual for soloists. Another sore point is that unlike the West, where performance plans are known months ahead of schedule, at the Bolshoi the cast list is hung only every 10 days. Even then, there are last-minute changes. ''I attend class each day, not only so that I will keep in shape,'' one of the most promising young male dancers told me, ''but so that I can be spotted and remembered if the cast lists are being made up.''

Moreover, since Grigorovich himself decides on who will dance in which ballet , it is often personal choice and favoritism and not always the best ability that gets onto the raked wooden stages of the Bolshoi and sister-stage of the huge Palace of Congresses in the Kremlin grounds.

But while younger dancers have hesitated to speak out, some older ones have not. Two years ago murmurings were heard when Grigorovich produced his controversial remounting of the ballet ''Romeo and Juliet.'' Five of the top stars distanced themselves from the director, and demanded that the more dramatic version of the ballet (choreographed by Leonid Lavrovsky) be kept in the repertoire. The five included Maya Plisetskaya, the prima ballerina who had been dancing with the company since the late '40s; Vladimir Vasiliev and Yekaterina Maximova, the brilliant husband and wife team; Mikhail Lavrovsky, whose father was the renowned ballet master and choreographer, Leonid Lavrovsky; and Maris Liepa, whose legendary Crassus in ''Spartacus'' won him the coveted Lenin Prize.Liepa wrote a letter to the newspaper Pravda protesting the change in ''Romeo and Juliet.'' He stressed the need to keep the pure classics and not to let them disappear from the stage, while introducing new ballets to the scene. Plisetskaya has refused to dance in any of Grigorovich's productions for the past five years, and instead has choreographed and danced in her own.