Virtuoso folk dancers from the Soviet Union return to US

After an opening that was foiled by a tear gas episode at the Metropolitan Opera House, the Moiseyev Dance Company of the Soviet Union made its debut on the second night of its season under a security blanket last week. No incidents marred the performance. Returning to the United States after a 12-year absence, the company will tour 16 cities after its New York season, which ends Sept. 14. Founded 50 years ago and still headed by artistic director and choreographer Igor Moiseyev, the company is one of the first and most successful purveyors of theatricalized folk material. The Moiseyev has become so virtuosic, in fact, that it sometimes borders on the folk-dance interludes we see in 19th-century ballets, with fantastic leaps and turns, and neat geometric floor patterns lined out by dancers in peasant finery. But the Moiseyev is not for purists, of either the ballet or the ethnic kind.

I like this company best when it most resembles the chorus in a crack Broadway musical. What I admire about the dancers is their enormous energy and their ability to do precision routines. I can't resist the impact of 20 pairs of red boots flashing past in joyous syncopation. The first part of the current Moiseyev show, subtitled ``Yesterday and Today,'' is like a fast-paced revue of Sovietiana.

Several numbers feature big, colorful ensembles, with women's and men's choruses, couple dances, and tiny, explosive solos. ``Summer,'' ``Polyanka,'' and ``Zhok'' all show off these themes with variations.

The Moiseyev doesn't exploit the sculptural possibilities of the body but relies instead on foot dancing, the most basic component of the whole family of dances from Eastern Europe to Central Asia. With the body held vertical, the arms falling naturally at the sides or slung around a partner's shoulders, the dancers stamp, run, slide, and hop, usually traveling in lines. When the verticality is exaggerated, the dancer can spring into the air or sink suddenly all the way to the ground.

The Moiseyev men can bounce down into a squat and kick to the side, to the front, and even as high as their shoulders. They can do almost the same complicated traveling steps close to the ground as they can standing upright.

In ``Kalmuk Dance'' the men dance mainly in place, rolling their feet over on the ankles, twisting their lower legs together, and shimmying their shoulders.

Women's lib has come to the company, I noticed. Though still fairly segregated into lovely swaying lines of feminine charmers and male virtuosos who do the big bravura tricks, the company now encourages some strong solo bits by women, like the one in ``Partisans'' who spins around on her knees.

``At the Skating Rink'' is a very long piece that looks balletic enough to show how unballetic the dancers really are. Even if we didn't know Frederick Ashton's remarkable skating ballet ``Les Patineurs'' (1937), most dance watchers by now can probably tell the difference between a classical arabesque and a gymnast's prettily extended leg.

``Old City Quadrille'' is a comic number with four couples and some onstage musicians, playing accordions, a tambourine, and balalaikas. The look and sound of authentic instruments is one of my principal pleasures, but here they're mainly for decoration. A similarly extraneous village band -- with an intriguing but inaudible hammer dulcimer carried by one of the musicians -- led on another procession of festive peasants in ``Night on Bald Mountain.''

Among the happily whirling dancers, a drunken fat man and his friends lurch on and off. Later he passes out and dreams a witches sabbath. A whole tribe of acrobatic devils with pigs' snouts, wearing little else but long black tails and scruffy black wigs, dance a tasteless sort of minstrel-show frug.

As the program slid further and further from any recognizable folk or ethnic origins, I grew less and less appreciative of the dancers' skills. The Moiseyev never claimed to be authentically reproducing folk dances, but this aspect now seems downplayed, the regional sources blurred. I'd prefer less would-be contemporary choreography and more real folklore.

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