The huge chandelier of the Bolshoi Theater dimmed. The red and gold curtains , embroidered with hammer-and-sickle emblems, pulled back to show the brightly costumed cast of the "The Nutcracker" -- each holding a red carnation -- in a semicircle, before a single step of the ballet had been danced.
The dancer playing Herr Drosselmeyer sprang across the stage, faced the audience in a deep plie, put a finger to his lips to quiet the audience and dramatically pointed to the director's box at the right of the stage.
There, on a gilded chair, first in shadow, then picked out by television lights, sat the diminutive figure of a woman -- a legend who has dominated Russian ballet and symbolized its excellence to the world for four decades.
Galina Sergeyevna Ulanova, ranked by many with Anna Pavlova and Dame Margot Fonteyn as one of the three greatest ballerinas of the century, stood and stepped forward to receive flowers offered by the cast.
The audience, including the Soviet Minister of Culture, Pyotr N. Demichev, in a rare public appearance, rose to its feet and applauded for minute after minute.
Galina Ulanova, in a pale blue chiffon dress, held back the gold tassels of the awning over the box, looked out at the audience over piles of pink roses, put her left hand over her heart, and bowed.
It was her 70th birthday -- Jan. 8 -- and the Bolshoi was paying tribute to one of its greatest stars with a jubilee performance.
When the "Nutcracker" cast left the stage to prepare for the actual performance, one could see, hanging from the backdrop, two of the highest civilian medals in the country, the gold star of "Hero of Socialist Labor." One had been awarded her in 1974, the second in honor of the birthday.
When the clapping finally died away, a film screen appeared. Onto it flashed photographs of Ulanova's early life and films of her best-known roles from 1944 to 1960. Since then she has been passing on her talents in Bolshoi classrooms, coaching many of today's top ballerinas: Nina Timofeyeva, Lyudmila Semenyaka, Nina Semizorova, and her favorite, Yekaterina (Katya) Maximova, who is married to Vladimir Vasiliyev, a top male star.
Over the musical scores accompanying the films, a noted Moscow actor read tributes from admirers over the years, including Igor Stravinsky and Boris Pasternak, the author (who usually goes unmentioned here).
The Soviet press, at full pitch, hailed Ulanova as the "sensation of the 20th century." It quoted Dame Margot as saying: "I cannot even attempt to speak of her dancing. It's magic." In her book "Autobiography" (1976), Dame Margot wrote of seeing Ulanova for the first time in London in 1956: "Her dancing had exactly the smooth perfection of thick cream poured from a jug. . . . Her beautiful legs were steely and lithe. . . ."
What was this "magic" that created the Ulanova legend? It was obvious from the film clips that she was essentially a lyrical dancer, in Pavlova's tradition. Her movements flowed, with never a hint of harshness.
Her technique was faultless, although more conservative than that of some of today's athletic ballerinas. Above all, she was an actress, and brought real drama to her roles at a time when ballet conventions had slipped back into ornamental entertainment.
On the stage she is chiefly remembered for her passionate Juliet. In one memorable scene, her face expressed great wonder as she took off Romeo's mask and found him everything she had dreamed of. Dame Margot speaks of the revelation of seeing Ulanova run across the stage in despair to Friar Lawrence's cell, and, leaving a few minutes later, her swift steps depicting glowing hope. The contrast, Dame Margot said, was striking. "Curiously enough," she added in "Autobiography," "running and walking are more difficult to master in ballet than many of the complicated steps."
Ulanova was also the first to dance the lead in "The Red Poppy" with the required Chinese mannerisms. Her first major role was Maria in "The Fountains of Bakhchisarai," with the Kirov in Leningrad. From there she went on master the classic traditions of "Swan Lake" and, perhaps most memorably of all, "Giselle."
She made her characters come alive. She once said, "A ballerina must learn to express her thoughts in movement so convincingly that each of them is as clear as a spoken word." Audiences were able to take part in the anguish, the joy, the despair, the love, of her varied roles.
She has continued her approach in her teaching years, which have now spanned two decades. Katya Maximova says of her, "I have faith in Galina, both as a teacher and a tutor, and finally as a person. She is a living example of total devotion to art. She is with me not only at rehearsals. She is also there, invisible, at all my performances, for I never cease to be aware of her friendly care. . . ."
She is said to have retained an innate modesty and quietness, yet she demands exceptionally hard work from her pupils. Her strength is to stimulate the pupils to develop characters themselves. Says Semenyaka: "She knows the slightest nuance or shade of character in each one of us. . . . She feels our mood."
Maximova and Vasiliyev danced the lead roles in "The Nutracker" for her jubilee. At the very end, Maximova as Masha ("Clara" in the United States) was back in her nightdress, the dream over. But instead of going to the Christmas tree to pick up the nutcracker doll, she ran to the director's box, the orchestra still playing. She took Ulanova's hand. Both of them, pupil and teacher, swayed gracefully back toward the tree in time to the music.
Maximova picked up the nutcracker, hugged it in character, then stretched it out to Ulanova as the curtain fell.For the conservative Bolshoi, such departure from strict tradition was rare indeed. But the audience loved it.