Britain welcomes the Bolshoi Ballet while US waits its turn
London — Next summer, the famed Bolshoi Ballet Company is due to tour the United States for the first time since 1979. What kind of company will American audiences see? Clues emerged in the Bolshoi's recent return to England and Ireland. Margaret Willis toured with the company for seven weeks, working with the dancers backstage as interpreter and assistant to the tour manager. Here is her analysis.
In 1956, the Bolshoi Ballet Company paid its first visit to Britain -- indeed to the West. It was a triumph for all. Among the stars appearing were two ballerinas whose names are now legendary in the ballet world -- Galina Ulanova and Raisa Struchkova. Their performances on the stage of the Royal Opera House in Covent Garden saw standing ovations and bouquets and rose petals strewn by admirers on the path from the theater to the hotel.
This summer, 30 years later, the two legends appeared again on the Opera House stage. This time they were taking their bows for their roles as ballet coaches alongside their proteg'ees -- young ballerinas who are continuing their teachers' Russian ballet traditions.
The Bolshoi Company was in London as part of a seven-week tour of Ireland and England. With a young, talented company of over 100 dancers, four full-length ballets, and a three-act divertissement program, there was plenty of opportunity to judge the skills and the state of the Bolshoi today.
After watching every one of their 46 performances, I can report that the company is in splendid form, very alive, amazing in its energy and enthusiasm, yet never losing sight of the 213-year-old traditions. The company, under artistic director Yuri Grigorovich, has dedication and drive (qualities badly needed by many companies in the West), and a pride in its work that won acclaim from the British critics.
The British and Irish audiences were introduced to a company of mostly new, young faces -- only a few of the dancers such as Natalia Bessmertnova, Boris Akimov, and Segei Radchenko were already known to the Western public. Among the members were two of Madame Ulanova's pupils -- ballerinas Nina Semizorova and Alla Mikhalchenko.
Semizorova's technical wizardry was seen at its finest in the Black Swan pas de deux in the divertissement program in the sharpness of her footwork and strong interpretation.
In London, she danced for the first time the role of the vampish ``Lyuska'' in Grigorovich's 1920s ballet ``The Golden Age.'' Here Ulanova's dramatic training was evident as Semizorova brought the bandit's girlfriend to life, flashing her eyes and using her charms on her unsuspecting victims.
With Mikhalchenko, Ulanova's influence is seen in her lyrical and fluid movements. Long-limbed and elegant, Mikhalchenko feels the musical phrasing, and even when the leg movements come to an end, her body and arms gently carry the moment on into the next action, making the dance a continuous whole.
The beautiful young Georgian ballerina, Nina Ananiashvili, is being coached by Madame Struchkova. She came on tour after winning first prize at the Jackson, Miss., ballet competitions in June. At 23, and youngest of the leading ballerinas, she demonstrated her brilliance and control in the leading role of ``Raymonda'' and in her solos in the timeless, classic ``Chopiniana'' (``Les Sylphides'').
The company's first stop was in Dublin, where it transformed the atmosphere of the huge livestock market arena -- the Royal Dublin Society (RDS) -- into a magical kingdom with their divertissement program, ethereal nymphs (``Les Sylphides''), powerful warriors (``Spartacus''), and a dazzling array of make-believe characters from favorite classical ballets. The RDS, the scene of hog sales the week before, was equipped almost overnight with 4,000 seats, yards of bunting, a three-foot-deep orchestra pit, and a stage whose proportions were comparable to the one back home in the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow.
The plush Covent Garden season opened with a royal gala of Grigorovich's historical ballet, ``Ivan the Terrible.''
After the performance, Ulanova and Struchkova were presented to Princess Diana along with the dancers.
The performance also gave the London public its first sighting of the Bolshoi's new superpowered dancer, Irek Mukhamedov, whose remarkable physical powers enabled him to dance steps not seen here before.
A Tartar by birth, Mukhamedov relishes the daring and dazzling Soviet choreography and yet presented a refined, polished performance as Jean de Brienne in the Russian classic ``Raymonda.''
The final week of the tour was spent in a tent in Battersea Park on the banks of the River Thames.
Despite the damp and cold of one of the worst summers remembered in England, the Bolshoi warmed the hearts of the British public.
In a three-hour live television performance from the tent on their final Saturday evening, the commentator spoke for all when she referred to ``a stage full of talent.'' She added, ``we've seen a great company putting its best foot forward.''