Planning to see a particular ballet in the West is fairly straightforward: Scan the advertisements, buy a ticket, and go. But not in Moscow. Not at the Bolshoi. Even the dancers here don't know the repertoire until 10 days ahead -- and tickets for the famous 2,000-seat, red-and-gold auditorium are harder and harder to come by.
So when a gift of tickets from Soviet friends came my way recently, I seized the opportunity -- and was delighted to end up seeing something out of the ordinary.
``The Golden Age'' (``Zolotoi Vek'') is more than entertainment Soviet-style, more than the radical reworking of a ballet originally staged in 1930. It marks a resurgence of the Bolshoi company itself.
In 1979, morale hit a low point after superstar soloist Alexander Godunov defected in New York, then Leonid and Valentina Koslov escaped in Los Angeles. Not only did coveted tours to the West halt, but the company's traditional strength of superb male dancing was affected. Godunov had been the up-and-coming leading man. His defection left a large gap. At the time, few of his generation seemed to have his talent.
Now, six years later, this has changed. The Bolshoi training school and ballet schools around the Soviet Union have produced a new crop of young men dancers -- and ``Golden Age'' is their showcase. The ballet, choreographed by artistic director and chief choreographer Yuri Grigorovich, is set in a Soviet coastal town in 1923, six years after Lenin's revolution of 1917. The tone is propagandist: Only by upholding the pure ideals of the Communist Party, and getting rid of evil capitalistic influences, can the new country progress.
But in this version, propaganda is leavened by outstanding choreography. One moment hordes of clean Soviet youths, clad in white overalls, leaped across the stage. The next we were in the Golden Age nightclub, watching natty but obviously decadent bourgeois clientele clinging and tangoing to strains of ``Tea for Two.''
Boris, a fisherman and leader of the party's agitprop theater, falls in love with Rita, a beautiful girl who also, he discovers, dances at the nightclub under the name of Mademoiselle Margo.
Her dancing partner, known at the club as Monsieur Jacques, is revealed as bandit leader Yaska, who sets up the club's wealthy patrons and has them robbed and beaten on their way home.
Enter Boris and his boys, bent on cleaning up the neighborhood. The stage is set for scene after scene of bravura action, with athletic men and women flying across the stage.
The whole thing is reminiscent of Grigorovich's most famous ballet, ``Spartacus,'' which was a vehicle for male dancers of an earlier period. It shows his same gift for moving large numbers of dancers around the stage -- movements complex but never confusing. The choreography alternates this spectacle with pas de deux of genuine beauty and tenderness.
Scenes by veteran designer Simon Virsaladze range from pageants of sunny, flag-flying festivities to low-lit nightclub scenes with gamins in contrasting stockings (one leg white, the other black) and men with pomaded hair in loud striped suits. The score is magnificent: Written by Dimitri Shostakovich for the original production, it has toe-tapping melody; trumpets and trombones competing to blow the loudest; a quiet love theme on the oboe; and dance-hall sequences that heat up to the strummings of a banjo and an electric guitar.
The 1930 version was set in the West. Soviet football players on tour had to undergo the temptations of the bourgeois life. Finally they joined Western workers in scenes meant to symbolize the propaganda line of the time: cooperation between Eastern and Western workers in a Red Front. Critics attacked it for advertising rather than denigrating Western ways. In the Grigorovich version, the line between the good (Soviet) guys and the bad (capitalist) guys is sharply drawn (although it almost breaks down in the character of Yaska, danced by one of Grigorovich's favorite younger dancers, Geminas Taranda, as a charming and considerate villain.
As Boris, Grigorovich uses the young Tatar-born Irek Mukhamedov, who won the Grand Prix medal at the 1981 Moscow International Ballet Competition. Tailor-made for the Grigorovich style, he catapults across the stage like an arrow from a bow. Natalya Bessmertnova, Grigorovich's wife, danced the part of Rita with the style that made her excel in classics such as ``Swan Lake.'' Among the younger ballerinas, Tatyana Golikova is a luscious Luska, Yaska's girl.
This summer, ``Golden Age'' will come to Britain when the Bolshoi pays its first visit to the United Kingdom since 1974.