Bolshoi's `Golden Age' makes use of modern art, pop culture

Yuri Grigorovich is one of the few choreographers to have thoroughly and successfully renovated the classical ballet format, and his approach to modern ballets has been widely imitated. Grigorovich's agenda, on the face of it, doesn't look very different from that of George Balanchine. Both were interested in clearing away narrative and decorative clutter, in unifying the option by eliminating passages of mime and other stage business, and in extending the highest skills of academic dancing to all members of the ensemble and all parts of the performance. The results, however, couldn't have been more different. The latest example of Grigorovich modernism, ``The Golden Age'' (Shostakovich), was on view in the early performances last week of the Bolshoi Ballet's Metropolitan Opera House engagement.

Past visits of the Bolshoi and the Kirov have displayed several others, including his best-known work, ``Spartacus.'' Of them all, I liked ``The Golden Age'' best, for its stylish appropriation of 20th-century art, fashion, and pop culture. But the genre as a whole turns me off.

Grigorovich sees his ballets as a series of scenes illustrating aspects of the society or the characters in his story. The plots tend to be minimal or well known, so he devotes little time to presenting them. All character is established by signature gestures or body attitudes, often stereotyped, and incorporated in the dancing, which never stops.

So in ``The Golden Age'' the Good Guys are the honest workers and fishermen - hearty, virile, and proud. They bound through space with expanded chests and huge, high jumps, and open-handed, inspiring gestures. Their women are modest and soft, dressed in aprons and head kerchiefs, and dance with their arms folded like Russian peasants or their hands clasped guilelessly behind their backs.

The Bad Guys come in at least three varieties: decadents, capitalists, and petty criminals. The decadents have slick hair and dance the tango. There's a chorus line of flappers, who flounce from one clich'e pose to another while launching sexy looks over their shoulders. The capitalists have stomachs that stick out, and they strut or waddle. The robbers run on tiptoe and hunch up when they jump. They gesture with a thumbs-up fist, like the thugs in ``West Side Story.''

From time to time the action shutters down to a smaller group, and you get to see the soloists dance even more athletically, or lyrically, or decadently than their massed confederates. There's a love story - Boris (Yuri Vasyuchenko), a fisherman, loves Rita (Alla Mikhalchenko), a dancer in a nightclub. For some reason their romance is complicated, and she's pursued by her dancing partner, Yashka (Alexei Lazarev), who secretly heads a band of thieves. His girlfriend, Lyuska (Maria Bilova), gets stabbed in a jealous quarrel, and of course the workers overcome the thieves, and the lovers are reunited at the end.

But the real story of the ballet is the triumph of the proletariat over evil, and the choreography is meant to illustrate this in the most schematic terms. All the movement for the groups, and their leaders who are the principals in the story, is consistent with their assigned character traits, and most of the time it's designed for large numbers in unison. So you get blasted for a long time with 40 or 50 workers leaping in idyllic comradeship; then for another long time you look at 20 or 30 decadents living it up in the caf'e.

Each scene is paced the same all the way through; so the ballet feels like a series of long cadenzas in different moods or temperaments. The symphonic modulations and elaborations that make Balanchine so interesting to follow are of no importance to Grigorovich, nor is the singling out of individual qualities. Mikhalchenko is good because she's faster, stronger, and more yielding than the other women. Vasyuchenko can jump higher than the other men. But as special personalities they're not notable here.

I had the same reaction to Grigorovich's step vocabulary: It's virtuosic and expansive, but all the steps begin to look alike, differing only in force or numbers.

For instance, in one scene Yashka, the villain, is plotting jobs for his gang. He crouches threateningly, kicks both legs in the air, hunches and punches. The thugs arrive, and they all continue the dance. Lyushka, the flapper gun moll, joins in. Then everyone leaves except Yashka. His scheming dance hasn't essentially changed, but it has gained in intensity from reinforcement.

The emphasis on spectacle, on high physical involvement, and on expressionistic gestural motifs allies Grigorovich to some of the early Soviet theatrical experimenters, like Foregger, Meyerhold, and Goleizovsky. Simon Virsaladze's constructivist designs underline this analogy, as does the '20s period of the ballet itself.

But where the constructivists used fragmentation, distortion, grotesquerie, and non-naturalistic movement to explode the soothing effect of traditional theater, Grigorovich uses classical line and virtuosity, high visibility, and attractiveness to engage the audience and sell it the party line.

After three weeks in New York, the Bolshoi performs in Washington, July 21-Aug. 1, San Francisco, Aug. 4-9, and Los Angeles, Aug. 11-30.

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