Glasnost unleashes backstage upheaval at the Bolshoi

The 131-year-old home of the Bolshoi Ballet is swathed in scaffolding. Gaping holes and workmen's tools litter the wooden floors backstage; the warning bells that summon the dancers to performances are silent. Yet other alarm bells have been sounding, alerting the outside world to inside problems.

As the building undergoes a cosmetic facelift that will carry it through the 70th anniversary celebrations of the 1917 October Revolution, the company itself - which opened a two-month, four-city tour of the United States to an enthusiastic New York audience on Tuesday - rocks with waves of upheaval from within.

The last US tour, in 1979, saw three defections from the Bolshoi ranks by dancers apparently in search of ``artistic freedom.'' Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev's call for more democracy in Soviet life and for glasnost (openness) is already providing freedom of another kind. Bolshoi morale has been affected.

Within the company, glasnost has galvanized internal arguments and opened top management to unprecedented criticism from individual company members. Glasnost came to the Bolshoi in the form of a questionnaire originally printed for the workers of a machine tool factory in the republic of Georgia, where the workers were asked to assess their work and comment on their bosses and the state of the factory. Party officials and trade union members in the Bolshoi circulated the form among the dancers, apparently without consulting any of the ballet's officials.

The replies proved critical and cutting. Some younger members complained about the lack of leadership under artistic director Yuri Grigorovich and about evidence of male chauvinism, since Grigorovich ballets accent the role of the male dancer. They also were critical of the few opportunities given to most ballerinas since, they charged, veteran dancers such as Maya Plisetskaya and Natalia Bessmertnova (Mr. Grigorovich's wife) get first chance at the best roles.

Sovietskaya Kultura published an article by Grigorovich denouncing the whole episode. ``How can a dancer newly out of school give marks to a great ballerina like Galina Ulanova for her `professional level,' or even `her manners'?'' he asked.

Grigorovich, artistic director since 1964, has kept tight hold on the company, creating energetic, powerful ballets and redesigning classics. He has angered many who feel that he has stifled the company's development, leaving it far behind Western standards.

And yet, while building on the Bolshoi traditions of the past 200 years, Grigorovich has flavored his company with Soviet force and theatricality, firmly stamping it with its own style. His genius lies in his ability to move vast crowds around the stage in a flurry of color, contrasting the speed and action with lyrical and gentle pas de deux. His ballets are full of bravura and exciting dancing.

The Bolshoi company is huge - over 300 dancers. This summer the company is being divided into three parts and sent on separate tours - to Australia and Spain, as well as the US. The American engagements are at the Metropolitan Opera House, New York (June 30-July 18); Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Washington (July 21-Aug. 1); War Memorial Opera House, San Francisco (Aug. 4-9); Dorothy Chandler Pavilion, Los Angeles (Aug. 11-30).

The American program is stamped with pure Grigorovich style. It includes three of his full-length ballets and a concert program of favorite extracts.

One of the highlights will be the classic ``Raymonda,'' which he first restaged in 1984. Since then he has changed it slightly, making the story more comprehensive. The ballet shows off classical technique, yet has several colorful, old-fashioned, ``cast-of-thousands'' moments.

The company's new ``Giselle,'' also to be seen in America, premi`ered in Paris last autumn. It is an attractive production with new sets and costumes. It will offer Americans the opportunity to see today's top Bolshoi ballerinas perform the role made famous by Ms. Ulanova. Still elegant and youthful, Ulanova is now passing down her art to a new generation of dancers. Two of her pupils will dance Giselle: Nina Semizorova and Alla Mikhailchenko, both splendid technicians and lyrically expressive.

New to the US scene will be the action-packed contemporary-theme ballet ``Golden Age,'' which received rave reviews from Western critics last year when the Bolshoi toured Britain. It shows Grigorovich in top form, one moment filling every inch of the stage with movement (including an exhausting but entertaining chase scene), the next changing the mood with a romantic duet. It is a ballet full of surprises.

``Golden Age'' is a showcase for the latest power force in the Bolshoi - Irek Mukhamedov, a young Tartar with dark hair and eyes, who amazes audiences with his strength, speed, and stamina.

Among the other male dancers is the blond-haired Andris Liepa. His refined style has great elevation and natural turnout. Alexei Fadayechev, whose father partnered Ulanova, has become a reliable and interesting dancer with clear classical lines that embody the best of ballet tradition.

The divertissement program offers two acts from Grigorovich's ballets ``Romeo and Juliet'' and ``Spartacus,'' his most famous work, which won the Lenin Prize for its choreography. Ms. Bessmertnova will be performing leading roles, sharing them with Lyudmila Semenyaka, a ballerina of great beauty and musicality, whose sparkling technique is Kirov-based. Nina Ananiashvili, a young Georgian, offers a soft but razor-sharp approach to all her roles, and is being groomed for great things.

Margaret Willis is a London-based contributing editor to Dancemagazine.

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