Bolshoi clings to classical ballet - despite reformist touches

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

The Imperial Russian ballet lives. Despite the Soviets' efforts to purge all the arts of their monarchist connotations, ballet's pivotal teaching institutions in Leningrad (the Kirov) and Moscow (the Bolshoi) survived the revolution. Through them, classical virtuosity was preserved against efforts to democratize the theater. Acrobatics, cabaret, vaudeville, agitprop, and signature gestures of the Common Man all make their contribution to Yuri Grigorovich's reformist choreography, but these modernisms remain subordinate to the ongoing idiom, which is classical ballet. Somewhere during the four performances of the Bolshoi Ballet I attended at the Metropolitan Opera House, I realized that not only does the company excel in pyrotechnic dancing, it's laden with the creaky devices and affectations that prompted Americans to develop truly modern alternatives.

The Bolshoi is a big company. The 30 principal dancers and 87 corps de ballet members touring the United States this summer represent only one unit of the larger aggregation, and that circumstance underscores ballet's inherent class differences. The chorus members are doomed to anonymity, while the stars indulge in subtle privileges, like wearing their own jewelry even though impersonating slaves. In ``Giselle'' Act II, while the ghostly Giselle was dancing to save the remorseful Albrecht from being slaughtered by the Wilis, both Albrecht and Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis, wandered offstage as if looking for something more interesting to do. Extravagant bows followed every solo or duet of consequence, breaking the stride of the scene and encouraging the audience to applaud even more ostentatiously. The cuckoo-clock bowing could backfire as a dancer rushed on for the second or third time, only to freeze in a ghastly grin because the mini-ovation had run out.

The productions were attractive, even in scaled-down touring versions, but chief designer Simon Virsaladze has an irritating preference for splitting the body vertically and making each half of the costume a different color. This jester effect appeared in every ballet I saw. Lighting at the Met was primitive - schematic flat blue for fantasy scenes, amber for broad daylight, follow-spots for the stars.

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More disturbing than the hack scores (Khachaturian, Drigo) and lapses in visual taste were Mr. Grigorovich's choreographic mannerisms. Certain tried and true effects are dragged into view whenever possible. Some character in nearly every Grigorovich ballet owns a large piece of fabric to match his or her costume and is sure to find a moment to run with it flung across the chest or turn while swirling it decoratively around the body.

Since Grigorovich's choreography is nonstop dancing, acting takes a secondary place in his ballets. Character is established as perfunctorily as plot, by means of symbolic gestures or stances. Crassus, the villainous Roman general in ``Spartacus,'' stands with his hip out and one hand propped on it. Whenever he comes to a halt, and sometimes when he's dancing, he assumes this imperious yet effete pose. A whole chorus of Roman ladies in the same ballet mince around with downcast eyes and one arm caressing the opposite shoulder. The point - that they're snooty but decadent matrons - is made by repeating the same step-and-pose combination till the idea is established.

Having seen several of Grigorovich's poster-style modern ballets, I awaited the classics more hopefully. But the ``Giselle'' looked lifeless, as if, deprived of hyperbole and athletics, the dancers felt they were going through meaningless motions. The complete ``Raymonda,'' a ballet we know better from George Balanchine's several splendid condensed versions, hasn't often been done successfully in the West. The Bolshoi program notes suggest that while Marius Petipa's original ballet (1898) was something of a masterpiece, Grigorovich has improved on it throughout. So much for authenticity.

Evidently thinking to clarify and strengthen the plot, Grigorovich has added more stereotyped poses and attitudes, more pedestrian sequences of steps. The entire second act is a divertissement of supposed exotica by the entourage of the visiting Saracen knight Abderakhaman. Each one is a ludicrous pastiche, neither ethnically credible nor choreographically effective.

``Raymonda's'' third act, the conventional wedding celebration of the noble lovers, looked choreographically truer to Petipa than the rest of the ballet, but by that time even the Glazunov music couldn't relieve Grigorovich's rhythmic and spatial banality. I longed for the sparkle of Balanchine.

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