Ballet Star Versus Baseball Hero

The joint US-Soviet production of `Swan Lake,' with dancers from the Boston, Kirov, and Bolshoi ballet companies, prompts a writer to explore why male dancers get less respect in America than in the USSR

WHERE are ballet's boys of summer? It's an odd question, but one that loomed at the back of my mind during a preview performance last week of the newsmaking Soviet-American production of ``Swan Lake,'' now on stage (through May 20) at Boston's Wang Center.

The production involves creative talent from the Boston, Kirov, and Bolshoi ballet companies and from the renowned Leningrad Ballet School. More on that in a minute.

But suddenly, with Tchaikovsky's music floating up from the orchestra pit, I was struck by the fact that nobody in the audience had on radio headphones to check in on the Boston Red Sox game against the Seattle Mariners.

That wasn't odd - but in a way it should have been: If ballet is the Soviet Union's national mania, why shouldn't Americans elevate it to a place alongside baseball, our national pastime?

After all, dance requires the athletic training, timing, and teamwork that the sports fan pays to see, though it carries them to a level of excellence, of expression, of apparent effortlessness that can only be called art. Some US athletic teams have even dabbled with dance instruction in their training regimens.

So why don't Americans know their fouett'es as well as their foul tips? And why aren't more of America's male athletes interested in becoming dancers?

After the show, I would talk with dancers from the Kirov and Bolshoi and to others about these questions, but for now my attention was riveted on this glasnost-inspired ``Swan Lake'' - billed as the first ballet collaboration in which Americans and Soviets have worked together at every step of the production.

Using the Kirov choreography (adapted from the Petipa-Ivanov version) by Konstantin Sergeyev, director of the Leningrad Ballet School, the production has been staged by Sergeyev, his wife, Natalia Dudinskaya, former prima ballerina of the Kirov, and the Boston Ballet's Anna-Marie Holmes. The sets were built in the Soviet Union and Boston.

And, of course, the collaboration extends to the dancers. A Soviet performer from the Kirov or Bolshoi and one from the Boston Ballet company are paired each night for the roles of Odette, the maiden turned by enchantment into a swan, and Siegfried, the prince who can free her if he maintains his vow of love.

At the Wednesday preview, Tatyana Terekhova of the Kirov and Serge Lavoie of the Boston Ballet spun and soared in front of John Conklin's monumental set. The designer has updated the look of the four-act classic by using columns, trees, and a painted backdrop to define and expand the horizon. The results were spectacular, and the audience bought the dancers and collaborators back for numerous curtain calls.

After the preview, I talked with Bolshoi dancer Alexsei Fadeyechev and Kirov dancer Alexandr Lunev, and I found it difficult to make them grasp that in the United States a man can have a successful ballet career yet remain obscure, poorly paid, and subject to stereotyping.

These dancers come from a country with a 200-year tradition of ballet and a system that eagerly scouts talented 10-year-olds to enroll in a rigorous dance and academic program.

Mr. Fadeyechev's parents were famous dancers before him. Mr. Lunev, the son of an engineer, was ``discovered'' at age 5 in a school performance, and hasn't looked back since. ``I've had no time for hesitation, no time to think whether I wanted to be someone else or not,'' Lunev says.

The glory was instantaneous, and it has grown as they've progressed. Only half the students in Soviet ballet schools make it to graduation at age 18. They are fully prepared professionals, but have only a diploma. They must compete for positions in the regional or big-league ballet companies. Success there will be crowned with titles (``People's Artist of the USSR'' is tops), prestige, and all its perks, plus job security even after they cede the principal roles to younger dancers.

That doesn't sound extravagant for the sweat it costs. ``We have a saying in the Soviet Union,'' Fadeyechev remarks. ``A ballerina or danseur works like a miner, but then is covered with roses.''

In America, the story is different. Bruce Marks, artistic director of the Boston Ballet, says, ``There are four or five dancing millionaires - Baryshnikov, Nureyev. Everybody else is barely making a living. If my dancers earn $20,000 to $25,000, they feel good.''

Why can't American men find the same prestige and prosperity in a dance career as Soviet men can, or as American men can in sports?

I posed the question to Michelle Mathesius, chairman of the dance department at the New York School of Performing Arts. Reached by phone, she said, ``Art in our society is not considered important''with I'll-tell-you-why conviction. She added that a dance career is ``a calling, like being a nun. Your only joy is the joy of doing it.''

Carolyn Clark, artistic director of the New Jersey Ballet Company, also reached by phone, pointed out publicity about hardship can cause parents to steer children away from a career in dance. ``Let's face it, she said. ``The parents are going to pay for it in the beginning. If the parents aren't supportive, it's extremely difficult.''

Then there's the persistent stigma that dancers face. Somehow there's more comfort in a president's son who owns one of baseball's worst teams than a president's son who dances in one of ballet's best companies.

Marks dismisses the stigma factor. Sure, when he was growing up, Marks would never have admitted in his Brooklyn neighborhood that he was a dancer, he says. ``I would have been stoned for wearing tights.'' No longer, he says. ``I think that's over. It better be over.''

Clark believes that a rash of movies in the 1970s, including ``The Turning Point'' with Mikhail Baryshnikov, caused a surge in the number of male dance students. This number is now tapering off, making it necessary for companies like hers to fill the places for male dancers with foreigners.

Mathesius has heard talk of a decline. However, she says that in her 30 years in dance she never saw any surge, thus thinks interest is merely stable. ``It's always been tough to get talented males,'' she says. Her school, the subject of the movie ``Fame,'' has 2,000 students auditioning for 66 openings in the freshman dance program. Ten to 20 percent of the applicants and of the winners are male. ``We do not take boys just because we need boys.'' As with girls, talent is the criterion.

Surprisingly, Marks splashes some water in the direction of Soviet ballet. ``The Soviets haven't done anything new in 50 years'' in choreography, he says. What he does value is the technical and acting ability the Soviet dancers have because of their years of intense training. In that respect he thinks his company will be helped by interacting with the visiting Soviets.

Marks also notes that the Bolshoi Theater seats only 1,800 to 1,900, compared to the Wang's 4,200 capacity. Size constraint alone means that more Soviets will see hockey or the Moscow circus than ballet, just as the Boston Ballet's ``Swan Lake'' will sell 60,000 tickets compared to the Red Sox's 2.5 million.

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