London — The retelling of a legend -- that of Anna Pavlova, the world's most famous ballerina -- is the cause of new East-West cultural tension. Feathers have been ruffled at the release in London of a joint Anglo-Soviet film ``Pavlova -- A Woman for All Time. . .'' Costing $27 million, taking five years to make, and starring Galina Beliaeva and James Fox, the film premi`ered March 10 at a gala fund-raising evening in London attended by the Duchess of Gloucester.
It will arrive in US movie houses in the late summer.
But instead of smoothly bourr'eeing across the British silver screen in a cloud of swan's-down, this pas de deux of two countries is the center of controversy.
The British partner, Poseidon Productions, which put up $5 million, is being condemned by the Soviet side (which put up $22 million) for showing a shortened version here.
A few days before the London opening, the Western version's very existence was denounced in the Soviet Union: The original Soviet version runs for almost 3 hours, compared with 2 hours and 12 minutes for the trimmed British version.
Emil Lotianou, the Soviet director of the film, told Westerners in Moscow that this violated an Anglo-Soviet agreement that ``specifically and authoritatively states that the film is to be made in one single version for all world sales.''
Mr. Lotianou said the film had been cut ``with insensitive scissors,'' making it a ``travesty,'' and he appealed to British audiences to have the original restored.
Neither Lotianou nor the Soviet performers appeared at the London gala in the Dominion Theatre despite previous announcements that they would attend.
``Pavlova'' in the Russian version has been showing for the last six months, and is said to have played to 8 million people in the Soviet Union.
Responding to charges of heavy-handed snipping, the executive producer of the joint production, London-based Greek-Cypriot Frixos Constantine said cuts had been made in agreement with the Soviet supervisory representatives because Western tastes were unaccustomed to the lengthy sagas favored in the Soviet Union.
The film I saw here shows little about Pavlova's character or personal life. Instead it tends to be a fragmented, incomplete record of her major triumphs. I asked Mr. Constantine why at a press viewing four days before the London opening, before Lotianou had spoken out.
``I had to decide whether to make a very long documentary and include every event in her life,'' he said, ``or whether to make a film that appeals to the general public and retains the mystery of the legend. . . .
``Her name was known in every corner of the globe, even by people who never saw her dance . . . my mother, a peasant in a tiny village in Cyprus, with very little knowledge of the outside world, knew Pavlova's name when I told her about the film.''
He made no mention of two versions.
The London ``Pavlova'' is a collection of travel-brochure landscapes, magnificent costumes, and authentic, lavish sets. Since she traveled and danced around the world in the early 1900s, the cast and crew of about 120 people found themselves on location in England, France, Germany, Mexico, Cuba, and the United States after making early scenes amid the pastel-shaded buildings and snowy streets of St. Petersburg (now Leningrad).
The actual filming was not without challenges.
The international cast spoke its lines in its own languages and dubbing was done later -- although not very satisfactorily: the sound track is poor. The same scene might include a Russian, an Englishman, and a Frenchman, so the dubbing is extensive.
Then there was all that travel. ``We suddenly got word that a certain park in Leningrad was in full bloom weeks earlier than expected,'' Constantine recalled, ``and we had to rush back there together to catch the moment.'' It was worth it: a beautiful spring scene with Anna walking to rehearsal at the Maryinsky Theatre and meeting Viktor Dandre played by James Fox (Dandre became Pavlova's companion and manager) among glorious pink and lilac bushes.
The film follows Pavlova from her humble beginnings (she was the daughter of a St. Petersburg laundress) to her triumphs in the West. As a young girl she stands in snowy streets watching through frosted windows girls dancing in flowing white tulle.
At the age of eight she visits the Maryinsky to see ``Sleeping Beauty'' and resolves to dance the title role. Two years of dreaming later, she is old enough to be admitted to the Imperial Ballet School where she learns not only the steps but the determination and strong will needed for success.
The editing is very obvious in the first part of the film, which is often jerky and confusing. Luminaries from ballet history come in and out: Marius Petipa (played by the renowned Soviet ballet master Pyotr Gusev); Mikhail Fokine, Pavlova's partner who also created ``The Dying Swan'' for her; teacher Enrico Cechetti who chases her around rehearsal studios with his dancing stick, rapping bent knees and demanding continuous dancing.
In Paris we see Diaghilev, Nijinsky, and Stravinsky. In one rare glimpse into the Pavlova character -- for this film relates rather than reveals -- she is on stage rehearsing in street clothes ``The Dying Swan'' for Diaghilev's Saison Russe. Annoyed that the pianist, a gentle, elderly man with a bushy beard, is not playing to her timing, she flares up at him impatiently, demanding that he put a rest into the music ``as Saint-Sa"ens wrote it.''
He complies, but her inspiration has gone and she demands his name so she can avoid his accompaniment in the future. ``Camille Saint-Sa"ens,'' he replies. The prima donna melts.
The role of Pavlova has been given to an actress who has had ballet training, rather than to a ballerina who can act. Galina Beliaeva is a beautiful young Russian, graceful and charming, but rather too contemporary in looks to be convincing.
She performs all the dancing herself, cleverly filmed in close-up or in long-shots to camouflage her technique. For an actress she's good. For Pavlova, she misses the unique magic.
At one point in the film, Fokine tells her that she mustn't let anyone film her dancing: ``they must know only the living Pavlova.'' Good advice perhaps!
The telling moment is in Beliaeva's rendition of ``The Dying Swan,'' Pavlova's most famous role. Beliaeva struggles to relive the moment and to bring the masterpiece alive, but the ethereal beauty and dramatic genius is obviously not there. There was only one Pavlova.
The film is the story of a dancer and her times. It is disappointing that it doesn't offer the opportunity to view superb dancing, especially with Soviet influence and talent. Nonetheless, it is a film that will be enjoyed by many for its beauty and atmosphere. Perhaps, with its ``general certificate'' rating, a new young Pavlova will be inspired while watching it.