The Bolshoi was never like this
London — No crowds waited outside the Covent Garden underground station. No one was begging anxiously for a spare ticket as I walked up to the Royal Opera House. Inside I could actually buy a program -- red, thick, and plenty available, containing information about the theater, the company, photos of the dancers and . . . advertising.
This was certainly nothing like an evening at the Bolshoi in Moscow.
Living for four years just five minutes away from the famous yellow, classical Bolshoi Theater itself, and watching more than 70 performances of the Bolshoi Ballet Company made this holiday evening at the Royal Ballet in London extra special for me.
At last I would be able to compare the two very different styles of ballet -- English and Soviet -- not to decide which company was better, but to appreciate each technique the more.
Yet it was impossible not to note down the differences between a night at the two theaters as well.
In Moscow there's always a scarcity of programs, but in London I bought one with ease. I pushed through the crowds of laughing, noisy, well-dressed people standing eating and drinking before the show. Instead of the dingy, ill-lit Bolshoi bufets with their poor selection of open sandwiches and drink and long lines, the Covent Gardens buffets were well-stocked, polite, and quick.
I entered the auditorium -- much larger than the Bolshoi, not quite as spectacular, less gilt. "E II R" rather than hammers and sickles adorned the red velvet stage curtains.
I found my seat -- Row P, and costing a steep $:10.50 ($25.20). At the Bolshoi the same seat would cost 4 rubles and 90 kopecks, or $8, about one-third of the price. Before the Bolshoi price rise for the 1980 Olympic Games, the seats were even cheaper.
In London, opera glasses were available for 10 pence attached to the seat in front -- red and nonadjustable. The Bolshoi's are better, and they also enable you to get your coat more quickly after the performance, as you can jump the line and hand them straight over to the attendant.
The bells rang and everyone settled quickly. The seat in front of me was empty: At the Bolshoi it would have been snapped up by one of the eagle-eyed ticketless fans prowling the aisles.
Earlier, in celebration of the Queen Mother's 80th birthday, there had been a gala night at the ballet. Part of the glittering evening had been televised, including the ballet "Mamzelle Angot," which was also the first of a triple bill the evening I attended.
A revival of a Leonide Massine work, it had been first performed in 1947 by the Sadlers Wells Ballet (as the Royal Ballet was then known) and then had been danced by Margot Fonteyn, Moira Shearer, and Michael Soames.
A frivolous, light-hearted ballet in three scenes, it is full of comedy and action. Alas, little opportunity to compare styles here, although my notes scribbled in the dark remind me that although Russian technique is neater, more exact, and correct, the British dancers appear to enjoy their work far more.
They express joy at the sheer delight of dancing and the joy gives a lightness to their steps. Twice comic dancers stole scenes from the soloists -- something that would never happen in the Bolshoi where the stags stand completely still for solos so there are no distractions.
The Russian audience always applauds at the end of individual dances, often interrupting the flow of the ballet and sometimes, as in the ballet "Sleeping beauty," making the evening very late.
In the Royal Ballet there's no clapping until the ballet has ended.
Entre-acte: no mad rushing to the buffets. Some preferred to sit and talk, others ambled to the foyer. Missing, too, was the traditional promenading around the upper foyer as at the Bolshoi. Round and round Soviet audiences walk , arm in arm, talking in hushed voices, some stopping to look at old photos and posters in the Bolshoi museum gallery.
The second ballet was an adaption in one act of Turgenev's novel, "A month in the Country" with music by Chopin and choreography by Sir Frederick Ashton.
A delightful ballet. The Russian mood was well set with clever mannerisms. The dancers performed well, especially Margeurite Porter as Natalia, but there was something missing -- something that became apparent later.
Finally, after the second interval, the moment arrived that the audience had been waiting for. The plush red curtains drew aside and a lone Russian dancer with gold-sprayed hair and golden costume stood poised for his first steps. The audience, which had been very proper up to then, broke tradition and clapped loudly. He in turn started pirouetting singly, doubly, leaping, jeteing, gold spray flying.
Mikhail Baryshnikov, along with fellow Russian Natalia Makarova, have been guest stars with the Royal Ballet this summer and that evening he was performing in "Rhapsody" -- the ballet dedicated to the Queen Mother and again choreographed by Sir Frederick Ashton.
The music is the rhapsody on a theme of Paganini by Rachaninov. The ballet is danced by the younger members of the company in pastel costumes and sequined helmets. It was specially choreographed for Baryshnikov and his partner, Lesley Collier.
There is great speculation as to who will take his place next season when he returns to the US to become artistic director for the American Ballet Company.
The young girls danced well and gracefully but it was suddently obvious what was missing. Their partners, like the other male dancers that evening, lacked the strength and vigor shown by their Russian counterparts -- strength seen in the Bolshoi Ballet's "These Charming Sounds," among others.
Baryshnikov was an excellent example. His strength and dynamic stretches showed what the young Royal Ballet boys lacked. He attacked his role, challenging himself, leaping endlessly. At times he seemed tired while waiting for his turn. But once he was on, he put everything he had into his part.
It was his last performance in England and he had danced the role three times already that week, but he showed the British audience what a powerful role the Russian male dancer plays.
The pas de deux with Lesley Collier was stupendous. Dressed in tulle, she literally floated as he lifted her gently. They were in perfect harmony, complementing each other's style, blending the best of English and Russian techniques.
At the end of the solo, the audience clapped again and again in a most Russian fashion. As the final chords of the concerto were played -- excellently , by Philip Gammon -- Baryshnikov performed some spectacular turns, ending suddenly with crossed legs, raised shoulders, and a quizzical look on his face.The audience was stunned at the abruptness of the moods . . . paused, giggled, then started to cheer and stamp.
A huge success. Curtain call after curtain call. . . . And a strong contrast between the buxom usherettes in blue miniskirts who bring flowers on for the Bolshoi stars, and the pair of delightful footmen in powder blue, white wigs, and kneebreeches who bowed ceremoniously to their receivers.
No flowers rained down as in Moscow, but one or two roses were tossed upon the stage. Soloists took their bows between two slightly opened curtains with a similar drop curtain behind, rather than squeezing between the opening as at the Bolshoi.
The pianist, the conductor, and the two soloists took their bows, ten in all, and then it was out to the underground station again for the 60- minute journey home -- thinking rather wistfully of the five-minute car ride to our apartment in Moscow.