Their fans came to Paris not only from Britain and all parts of Europe, but from as far as Australia and California. It was the first time that Bolshoi stars Ekaterina Maximova and Vladimir Vasiliev had danced ``Giselle'' together in the West since 1977, and it was an occasion not to be missed.
The Soviet couple, who have formed one of the great partnerships in ballet history, were invited to join the Kirov Ballet Company in Paris for two of four performances of ``Giselle.'' The Kirov from Leningrad - the Bolshoi's slightly older sister - was concluding a highly successful eight-week season in the French capital, where it had also presented ``Swan Lake,'' ``Knight in a Tiger Skin,'' a Divertissement program, and the complete production of ``Le Corsaire.''
Maximova and Vasiliev have been stars of the Bolshoi for over 25 years, yet today they are rarely used in the company's repertoire and are not included on its overseas tours.
In recent years they, and several other dancers, have disagreed with the policies of the Bolshoi's artistic director, Yuri Grigorovich. Consequently he does not consider them to be an integral part of his company, where the emphasis is on youth and vigor. The older stars are able to perform occasionally at the theater, as they have many supporters and friends, but the opportunities usually come when the main company is on tour.
The long-rumored, behind-the-scenes friction came to the public's eye when an article, in the spirit of glasnost (openness), was published last November in the weekly magazine Orgonyok.
A letter with 60 signatures had been sent to Grigorovich claiming, among other things, that ``ballet is in full crisis'' at the Bolshoi. The editors of Orgonyok asked Grigorovich to respond. When no reply was received, the magazine invited leading members of the artistic world to comment, and Vasiliev and Maximova were among the many who welcomed the opportunity to air their views, as did Asaf Messerer, the Bolshoi's revered teacher.
The printed criticisms included charges of ``stagnation in choreography'' and ``archaic style,'' and one writer said the troupe (with its 270 dancers), had become ``too big to be effectively managed'' and ``needed to progress, not live on past glories.'' Messerer stated that, although there were officially 40 ballets in the repertoire, only 18 are seen today, and ``there is not a single work by such giants of the 20th century as Goleisovsky, ... Balanchine, ... Petit, B'ejart.''
More recent reports from Moscow indicate the last challenge has been met: French choreographer Roland Petit, director of Ballet National de Marseille, has been invited to stage ``Cyrano de Bergerac'' for the Bolshoi in a March 15 premi`ere.
Vasiliev and Maximova are household names in the Soviet Union. They first danced together at the Ballet School in Moscow, were coached by the legendary Galina Ulanova, and have received acclaim from balletomanes, critics, and the state. Vasiliev holds the Lenin Prize, the top Soviet civilian medal, and the French Nijinsky Prize. Maximova is an Honored Artist. Their partnership and interpretation in ``Giselle'' is internationally renowned.
Today, both still take Messerer's daily class at the Bolshoi. Now in their late 40s - usually the upper age limit for performance in this field - both dancers have critics who say that it is time to leave the stage and make way for new young talent. Yet the maturity of their interpretation gives a credibility to their roles that show-stopping young performers often cannot match.
In recent years, Maximova has been seen performing with the Moscow Classical Company, a troupe of young dancers with a more contemporary repertoire than that of the Bolshoi; Vasiliev has reached out into different fields of art. Over the years he has choreographed several ballets for the Bolshoi, and he is bringing his most recent creation, ``Annuyta'' (with dancers from Riga, Latvia), to the Chatelet Theatre in Paris, March 31-April 20.
He also enjoys moviemaking and has directed dance films for TV and for cinema. One of his full-length feature films was ``Fouett'e,'' which, although set in the ballet world, deals with the life and anxieties of an aging ballerina, played by Maximova. One poignant scene, perhaps close to the heart, shows her in class striving to perform her fouett'es (whip turns on one leg), while younger girls critically watch and wait.
Both artists have a lot to offer the ballet world. The ``Giselle'' that I saw in Paris demonstrated this.
In a moving first act, their miming conveyed their inner emotions and feelings, and they performed as if for the very first time. Their dancing is not as forceful and passionate as is often seen today, however.
Vasiliev can no longer compete with the height and lightness of the young men's jumps, and for some reason he chose to do circles of fast jet'es on both his entrance and finale. But he commands the stage and possesses a fine technique.
Maximova's performance was like finest bone china - dainty but strong, with a first-class purity and refinement. She floated like thistle-down in the second act, absolutely confident in her partner, and showed great musicality and beautiful balance.
I also attended rehearsals of the other two couples - the beautiful, cool Altynai Assylmuratova and her exotic partner, Farukh Ruzimatov, whose dynamo-like vigor competed for the spotlight; Veronika Ivanova and Alexander Lunev also gave a touching performance.
A word, too, must be said of the splendid support by the Kirov Company. Their symmetry and precision, especially in the second act, was a joy to watch.