Bolshoi Ballet; Why there's discontent

ANATOLY LUNARCHARSKY was a friend of Lenin's, the first Soviet Commissar for Public Education after the 1917 Revolution--and the man who saved Russian ballet from extinction.

At a time when all ballet schools were being closed and the very right of ballet to exist was being questioned because it was a reminder of past tsarist glory, Lunarcharsky convinced the new Revolutionary Government that the famous Russian balletic tradition should be retained. It could then be used as a foundation for a new artistic culture and as a medium for mass propaganda to bring glory to the Soviet system.

For many years, Soviet ballet has been admired and its greatness recognized throughout the balletic world. Its most famous export item - the Bolshoi Ballet Company - has pirouetted and jete-ed on most great stages overseas, delighting audiences and bringing the glory that Lunarcharsky foresaw.

But today, there is trouble in the Soviet ballet world again. Discontent with the artistic quality of Bolshoi productions--and in particular with its current artistic director--is increasingly evident both inside the company and out. The dimensions of the controversy indicate a split of opinion at the upper levels of government power, and underscore the inseparability of art and politics in the Soviet regime.

The most visible attack on the Bolshoi comes in a book by Soviet ballet critic Vadim Gayevski, recently published in Moscow. In ''Divertissement--Fate of Classical Ballet,'' Gayevski denounces the company as ''the home of false traditionalism.'' He alleges that in the past 50 years nothing creative has been produced at the Bolshoi, and that since the early '20s the company has been run by either incompetent or second-rate artistic directors.

The book singles out Yuri Grigorovich, the chief choreographer and present artistic director, as the cause of many of the Bolshoi's problems. With an outspokenness incredible for the controlled Soviet system, the book not only accuses Grigorovich of stifling the style and the talent of the company, but says that he is personally to blame for allowing its choreography and productions to stagnate.

However, no sooner had the book appeared in Moscow (and sold out immediately) than it received a prompt and biting reaction from the official powerful newspaper Sovietskaya Kultura (Soviet Culture). The appearance of this ''official'' view raised the question: How did the book get past the usual political censors and obtain the seal of approval from the ''top'' needed to be printed by an official company?

Apparently, the answer is that the powerful Communist hierarchy is divided on this issue. Grigorovich owes his directorship to his network of political friends--extending into the Supreme Soviet. But now, although some senior party officials still support him, others are lending their support to his critics, represented by the author of this recent book.

Criticism of Grigorovich's policies has its roots within the Bolshoi itself. For the younger dancers, stepping out of line or complaining publicly could result in very few opportunities to perform. Even so, several of them have privately confided how unhappy they are because they dance so seldom--twice a month is usual for soloists. Another sore point is that unlike the West, where performance plans are known months ahead of schedule, at the Bolshoi the cast list is hung only every 10 days. Even then, there are last-minute changes. ''I attend class each day, not only so that I will keep in shape,'' one of the most promising young male dancers told me, ''but so that I can be spotted and remembered if the cast lists are being made up.''

Moreover, since Grigorovich himself decides on who will dance in which ballet , it is often personal choice and favoritism and not always the best ability that gets onto the raked wooden stages of the Bolshoi and sister-stage of the huge Palace of Congresses in the Kremlin grounds.

But while younger dancers have hesitated to speak out, some older ones have not. Two years ago murmurings were heard when Grigorovich produced his controversial remounting of the ballet ''Romeo and Juliet.'' Five of the top stars distanced themselves from the director, and demanded that the more dramatic version of the ballet (choreographed by Leonid Lavrovsky) be kept in the repertoire. The five included Maya Plisetskaya, the prima ballerina who had been dancing with the company since the late '40s; Vladimir Vasiliev and Yekaterina Maximova, the brilliant husband and wife team; Mikhail Lavrovsky, whose father was the renowned ballet master and choreographer, Leonid Lavrovsky; and Maris Liepa, whose legendary Crassus in ''Spartacus'' won him the coveted Lenin Prize.Liepa wrote a letter to the newspaper Pravda protesting the change in ''Romeo and Juliet.'' He stressed the need to keep the pure classics and not to let them disappear from the stage, while introducing new ballets to the scene. Plisetskaya has refused to dance in any of Grigorovich's productions for the past five years, and instead has choreographed and danced in her own.

These struggles help explain the flow of defections two years ago when in the space of six months, the Bolshoi lost five of its members -- the Kozlovs, Alexander Gudenov, Sulamith Messerer, and her son, Mikhail.

Such incidents are especially notable because ballet artists are not allowed to reach prominence at the Bolshoi unless they are considered to have proven their political reliability. And when official displeasure is aroused, the result can be the burial of an artist's reputation. For example, Sulamith Messerer, whose family has been connected with the Bolshoi since the early 1920s , was considered one of the world's most distinguished teachers. But today, like the other defectors, her name has been erased from all publications, her photos taken down. In the ''complete,'' brand-new 623-page ballet encyclopedia, printed in the Soviet Union early this summer, there is not one mention of the great contribution she made to her country's ballet culture.

The defections of Messerer and her fellow artists have seriously wounded the morale of the Bolshoi, and prevented further overseas tours - one of the most coveted privileges enjoyed by members of the troupe. It also deprived the West of seeing the great qualities associated with Russian ballet and the newer, younger interpreters of its pure, flowing, expressive and neat technique. Young ballerinas like Semizorova, Semenyaka, Mikhailchenko and Khaniashvili and dynamic, explosive young men like Barikin and Derevianko.

Only top ''trusted'' dancers such as Vasiliev and Maximova, Pavlova and Gordeyev currently get permission to participate in festivals such as the one in Venice this past summer. The brilliant younger pair were the central figures in George Balanchine's ''Donizetti Variations'' - a work that, ironically, cannot be staged in the Soviet Union, because Balanchine is a Russian expatriate.

It is interesting to note in Vadim Gayevski's book that Balanchine (director of the New York City Ballet) and Maurice Bejart (director of Belgium's Ballet du XXe Siecle) are, in the author's view, the only two really creative contributors to today's ballet. Both are known for their free, lyrical productions, expressing modern forms of Western thought.

But what of Grigorovich? His brilliance as a choreographer is undeniable. Among his early ballets are ''The Stone Flower,'' ''Legend of Love,'' ''Ivan the Terrible'' and the unforgettable, and almost-impossible-to-get-tickets-for ''Spartacus'' -- a moving dramatic masterpiece, where the male dancers thrill the audience with nonstop energy and bravado.

Grigorovich has done much to establish a unique Soviet style and has emphasized the role of the male dancers, steering clear of the all-too-often effeminate partnering and creating important character roles with strength and dynamism.

In a private interview last June one of the top authorities on Soviet ballet talked frankly about the shape of the Bolshoi and the problems just then emerging into the open. ''The Grigorovich era has passed,'' she said. ''He did wonders with his first ballet (The Stone Flower) and broke away from the solid, stale choreography of that time (1957). But we are now ready to develop a newer style and must once again look to the future.''

Still, ousting Grigorovich would not necessarily improve the Bolshoi. The Soviet Union suffers a lack of good choreographers. And the Ballet School has been in a cycle in which few young male dancers with star quality have emerged on stage. (They exist, but are kept back to allow older dancers, who have waited for years, to have their turn -- mediocre or not.) Above all, there is the constant constraint of making artistic decisions within a tightly controlled political system.

Two major dancers, Vasiliev (thought by some as a possible successor to Grigorovich) and Maya Plisetskaya have, in recent years shown their individual talents as choreographers, letting their contact with Western companies influence them. After all, ballet was originally an imported item (taken to St. Petersburg from France in 1738). So perhaps the Bolshoi -- while retaining the purity of the classics and the magnified talents of its dancers -- needs to draw back its over-protective velvet curtain and invite fresh ideas from the outside world.

Then the Bolshoi Ballet Company will again reflect the glory long associated with its name.

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