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London's teacher of the Bolshoi tradition

By Margaret E. Willis / February 2, 1984



London

In a London dance studio, far away from her homeland, a pleasant, diminutive woman dressed in black sweater and black pedal-pusher pants holds a vital key to unlocking details of Bolshoi Ballet tradition.

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Her name: Sulamith Mikhailovna Messerer, a member of the most famous family in Soviet ballet today and herself a decorated dancer and now teacher.

Her dancer-choreographer brother, Asaf Messerer, at 80, continues to teach the daily exercise class for the Bolshoi Company in Moscow. Her nephew Boris is a set designer for ballets. Her niece, longtime prima ballerina Maya Plisetskaya , is still dancing and choreographing.

Mme. Messerer brought her own unrivaled knowledge to the West in February 1980 when she and her son Mikhail defected. She was working as a guest teacher with the Tokyo Ballet Company. Mikhail, a dancer, had come with the Bolshoi Company on tour to Japan.

Living in Moscow at the time of the defection, I remember telling Bolshoi friends the hot-off-the-wire news, the kind that would never be announced in the Soviet press. Coming only six months after the first-ever Bolshoi defections of Alexander Godunov and Leonid and Valentina Kozlov, it was a genuine ''Bolshoi Skandal.''

Soon thereafter, morale in the company fell to an all-time low and rumors were rife. My friends were astounded. Here was someone whose name was synonymous with Soviet ballet, an honored and therefore privileged member of Russian society.

Mme. Messerer has said that she defected to allow her son more freedom to dance and to travel. It is speculated that the real reason was Bolshoi politics, and her own disagreements with Yuri Grigorovich, chief choreographer and artistic director.

She had had the permission and approval of the Culture Ministry itself to teach overseas in Sri Lanka and Japan, where she was a regular visitor for 13 years and learned the language fluently.

She went her way via the United States to England. ''Baryshnikov and Lucia Chase (of the American Ballet Theater) didn't want me'' - she shrugged her shoulders - ''and I got invitation to teach Royal Ballet for one month,'' she told me.

That was almost three years ago. Now settled in London, she responded speedily to my own attempt at a Japanese introduction learned many years ago. With fluency and humor she left me far behind.

Quickly we switched to a mixture of Russian and English. ''I like it here,'' she said. ''The workers are very disciplined and organized.''

She teaches classes daily (''I never take holidays''), running from the Royal Ballet Company in Covent Garden to the Royal Ballet Upper School in Hammersmith to open classes at Dance Works, off Oxford Street, where for (STR)2.50 ($3.65) any budding dancer can take her advanced class on weekdays. Future Nureyevs and Makarovas can take weekend ''babies'' classes.

She has also opened her own school, which, she admitted, has had financial problems. But she hopes to persevere and eventually to produce dancers for her own company.

''This summer I went to Japan for one month. No, not for holiday but to teach. So many friends came . . . .'' She smiled, remembering.

Sulamith Messerer has pedigree qualifications for her work.

Graduating from the Bolshoi School in 1926, she danced with the company for almost 25 years. Her most famous roles were Jeanne from ''The Flames of Paris,'' Tao-Hoa from ''The Red Poppy,'' Nikia from ''La Bayadere,'' and Zarema from ''The Fountain of Bakhchisarai.''

Often she partnered her brother Asaf. With him in 1933 she was the first Soviet ballerina to travel abroad after the 1917 revolution.