Bolshoi Czar in Stormy Seas

Amid glasnost-era turmoil, Grigorovich draws inspiration from young. DANCE INTERVIEW

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

IF there is any ``textbook truth'' in classical ballet, says Russian choreographer Yuri Grigorovich, it is that ``ballet is the art of the young.'' That is a theme song for the Bolshoi Ballet this summer as it tours the United States. ``We're bringing a new generation of young dancers that America hasn't seen yet,'' said dance czar and artistic director of the Bolshoi, sitting with an interpreter in a hotel here.

The brightness of youth brings inspiration to a man who has reigned at the Bolshoi for over 25 years, but who now finds that the art of leading this 210-year-old national treasure is not getting any easier. The company's seven-city tour coincides with heightened political infighting at the Bolshoi Ballet and Opera Theater in Moscow, glasnost-related changes, and persistent criticisms of the Bolshoi's artistic and administrative standards.

``There are a lot of people wanting to take the company away from [Grigorovich],'' says Anna-Marie Holmes, ballet mistress and assistant to the director of the Boston Ballet.

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Through it all, Grigorovich appears poised and unflappable, a small but sturdy man with a distinguished silvery crew-cut. His optimism lies with the host of newcomers who grace the stage on this tour - youngsters such as Natalia Arkipova, Nina Speranskaya, Yuri Klevtsov, and American Michael Shannon.

Grigorovich spent his own youthful days at the Kirov Ballet in Leningrad where he was principal dancer for 16 years. The Kirov's refined, graceful style served him well when he joined the more heroic and flamboyant Bolshoi in 1964 as chief choreographer and director.

``He wanted to keep the macho attack and athleticism of the Bolshoi, but he has refined it more,'' says Ms. Holmes, who received much of her training in Russia. His use of counterpoint in dance, imitating musical lines, punctuates his works, she says, which include ``Legend of Love'' (1961), ``Spartacus'' (1968), and ``Ivan the Terrible'' (1975).

On the current tour, the Bolshoi is presenting Grigorovich's versions of ``Swan Lake'' and ``Giselle,'' as well as two original works, ``Ivan the Terrible'' and ``Romeo and Juliet,'' and numerous short pieces.

Artistically, the forces of glasnost are being felt at the Bolshoi, where dancers are finding themselves free to ``guest'' or hire on with foreign companies. The company's latest casualty is Irek Mukhamedov - one of the Bolshoi's top stars - who joined England's Royal Ballet last month. But Grigorovich says the muscular powerhouse might still appear on the Bolshoi's US tour.

``He is a dancer I love very much - a great talent,'' he says. ``If he is not here, it will be a shame.'' Still, the Bolshoi does not depend on one person, he adds. The loss will not alter the tour's repertoire, which features other bright lights such as Nina Ananiashvili and Aleksei Fadeyechev.

For the Bolshoi, glasnost has also brought a more intense touring schedule, one that reaps not only improved public relations, but economic benefits. The current tour, being the second major trip here since the US/Soviet cultural exchange agreement in 1985, comes on the heels of appearances in Italy and Japan.

``Touring is fun and great,'' observes Holmes, ``but it's hard to keep the standards up.''

Balletomanes in both the USSR and the West have complained the Bolshoi is no longer living up to its reputation for high-quality, bravura dancing.

``Bolshoi is a name which will sell,'' and ``people are ready to buy into that no matter what they see on the stage,'' says a New-York based dance journalist who requested anonymity. With ticket prices in New York as high as $105, the company, desperate for hard currency, ``has been turned into a cash cow.''

But Grigorovich seems undaunted. Recently, several members of the Bolshoi's Communist Party committee staged a one-day hunger-strike, a protest directed at the entire leadership of the Bolshoi Theater, whom they accused of artistic misrule and a money-making mentality.

LEADING the charge was Yuri Grigoriev, secretary of the Bolshoi Theater's Communist Party committee and a recently dismissed singer at the Bolshoi Opera. He is highly opposed to a consortium agreement between the Bolshoi, Goskoncert (the Soviet State Artists Agency), and the Entertainment Corporation Group (ECG), an international performing-arts presenter.

The agreement, which effectively began a year-and-a-half ago, gives ECG non-performing rights outside the USSR and power to license the Bolshoi name, develop corporate sponsors, and market products on behalf of the ballet.

``Grigoriev and his acolytes have always been against everything new,'' says Grigorovich. ``As long as the party committee has been at the Bolshoi, its dearest wish is actually to rule over the artistic leadership.'' With the power of the party waning, says Grigorovich, Grigoriev is struggling to stay in the limelight.

``I believe the consortium is a very important initiative,'' he says, ``because it might give us a chance to get hard currency for ourselves and to meet the most vital needs of the theater.

``[The ECG] does not in any way interfere with our artistic policies. ... Money that we can get from the consortium would be used to raise artists salaries - a number one priority - and we could use it to make new sets, new costumes, and to buy materials abroad that we can't buy inside the country.'' Grigorovich says the ECG has already fought and won court cases to protect the name ``Bolshoi'' from groups like ``Bolshoi on Ice,'' who used it illegitimately. ``No one had been protecting the Bolshoi's rights before,'' he says.

Party member Grigoriev, however, is casting a nervous eye over the breakdown of profits from the deal. The Bolshoi receives about 45 percent, Goskoncert 15 percent, and ECG about 40 percent.

``All the Russians are doing is catching up with the rest of the world,'' says Victoria Charlton, co-chairman of the London-based ECG, which has specialized in cultural exchanges with the USSR since 1982. ``Forty percent is five percent below the basic amount charged by major American licensing companies,'' she says.

Artistic leaders at the Bolshoi say putting on new productions is nearly impossible under the old Soviet system. ``It is getting hard to provide workers with material incentive,'' said Valery Zakharov, first deputy general director of the theater, during a party meeting of the Bolshoi Opera, excerpts of which appeared in Sovietskaya Kultura. Dancers leave because ``they don't like the existing system, and we cannot suggest anything else.''

Grigorovich's greatest strength may be his role as administrator rather than choreographer, since he has not produced an original work since ``The Golden Age'' in 1982 - a fact former Bolshoi principals have fumed about in recent years. Despite the criticism, ``Grigorovich has held on with both feet and both arms,'' says Holmes. His main challenge ``is to keep coming up with works that will work for his company and to hold on to the Bolshoi.''

``Ballet is always run by autocrats - it has to be,'' says Robert Greskovic, a New York-based dance writer and observer of the Bolshoi. ``Ballet, because of the youthfulness of the performers, demands a really strong parent.''

Despite the artistic and political question marks facing his company, the iron-willed Grigorovich carries on. ``In art, there are always ups and downs,'' he says.

Next year, Grigorovich plans to renew Balanchine's ``The Prodigal Son.'' He says he may also do a ballet with the Polish composer Krzysztof Penderecki.

As for the Bolshoi Ballet's future, ``I don't really like making forecasts. The ways of art, like the ways of God, are unfathomable.''

After performances end here on July 22, the troupe heads to Vienna, Va. (July 24-29); Chicago (Aug. 1-5); Los Angeles (Aug. 7-9); San Diego (Aug. 21-24); Honolulu (Aug. 29-Sept.2); and Boston (Sept. 6-9).

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