Ask a Westerner for the name of a Russian ballet company and he's likely to say "The Bolshoi," which for 228 years has dominated classical dance in Russia. Along with its St. Petersburg rival, the Kirov, these two companies epitomize the grand and grandiose tradition of strict form, pure lines, and dramatic storytelling.
Ballet lovers are a-flutter with anticipation over the Bolshoi's US and Mexico tour, which begins in Boston next week. The biggest news is that the company will be bringing a groundbreaking and very un-Bolshoi production of "Romeo and Juliet" that may alarm some purists. Instead of epic storytelling, it distills the tale to its essence. Instead of delicate pointe work and turned-out feet, the choreography calls for a more modern approach. (Fans will be relieved to learn that the Bolshoi trademark precision will be amply displayed in two other works performed on the tour: "Raymonda" and "Don Quixote.")
The company has also seen dramatic twists in its directorship, which led one dance critic in the US to quip that the Bolshoi is as famous for coups as Russia itself. Four directors have come and gone since 1995, when Yuri Grigorovich left after three decades as the Bolshoi's master of macho and muscular ballets. Audiences look back fondly to the Grigorovich days, much in the way that Russians feel nostalgic about the Soviet era - because they knew what to expect.
The theater recently appointed a young director who has not grown up amid the political intrigues of backstage Bolshoi life and has spent the past 10 years dancing in the West. Ukrainian Alexei Ratmansky trained at the Bolshoi School, but has danced first with the Kiev State Ballet, then Royal Winnipeg, and recently the Royal Danish Ballet. He is also a prolific international choreographer: He staged "The Limpid Stream" for the Bolshoi last year before being appointed. "So I'm a clean sheet," he says in excellent English (another departure from tradition).
"I've no Bolshoi background, no traditions, no conventionalism to tie me down to old ways," says Mr. Ratmansky. "Though I have plans to bring new works into the company, the company will not lose its classical heritage. The program we are bringing to America truly represents the Moscow style of past and present. And I think the public will like it. This 'Romeo' is a dance drama - an exciting new production, completely different for us and something the dancers badly need. They've done the same productions for so many years - and it shows. New works give the opportunity to be alive and to progress."
The radically modern and controversial version of "Romeo and Juliet," which premièred in Moscow last December, is a spare handling of the tragedy. Gone are the poetry and beauty of the classical movement. The dancers, whose years of training demanded beautiful lines, are now required to perform challenging and often inelegant movements.
In this production, Juliet becomes a gawky, floppy-haired teenager who wears trousers to her wedding and runs, laughing and screaming, around the stage. Romeo is the gentle boy next door. His friend Mercutio dresses up in drag to go to the Capulet ball and seduces Tybalt, while an ever-present corps manipulates the two lovers' attempts to be together.
The production is the vision of renowned British theater director Declan Donnellan, who, invited by the Bolshoi to stage an opera, suggested the ballet instead. It was his first foray into the dance world, but his theatrical trademarks of sharp, concise narrative, tied up with very dramatic and emotional action, suits the Bolshoi's mandate well. However, the choreography by Radu Poklitaru shows angular, often crude postures and movements - far removed from the expected upright refinement of the company's image.
What a contrast to the epic "Romeo and Juliet" that received such acclaim in the US in 1959. Tradition and grandeur were the keynotes of Leonid Lavrovsky's masterpiece with its vast sets, lavish costumes, and bravura dancing from the huge cast. As the doomed Juliet, the legendary Galina Ulanova astounded audiences with her graceful and lyrical interpretation.
Now, in this diametrically opposite version, where the story is trimmed to the bare essentials in characters, scenario, and decor, its Juliet, Maria Alexandrova, astounds audiences with her sheer physical stamina and resilience. The piece, if not choreographically brilliant, is mesmerizingly dramatic and emotional.
Beneath the rough veneer of this production, the same polished Bolshoi Ballet is still visible.
"Romeo and Juliet" stands in stark contrast to the other two 19th-century classical ballets that are more in keeping with the Bolshoi's pedigree. "Don Quixote" is a spirited comedy with marvellous character dancing, and "Raymonda" is an elegant adventure ballet - with a crusader knight and a Saracen villain - in which good overcomes evil.
In the former Soviet Union, the 1920s was a period of avant-garde experimentation in dance. If this had been allowed to develop, the country could have been at the artistic forefront of today's scene.
But the political atmosphere at the end of that decade demanded dance- dramas with revolutionary heroes and heroines who would display the balletic bravura of the nation's superb training. And so, for all its years of classical ballet prowess, Russia is still behind in today's dance world, though experimental companies are springing up all over the vast country.
Funding problems have moved into the forefront, now that the arts are no longer solely supported by the state, and private sponsorship has to be found.
With the company's years of isolation from Western influences, and without a continuous experimental process, many of today's choreographers continue the strong Soviet-Russian traditions of dramatic, emotion-packed storytelling, often just transposing classical technique onto bare feet.
Now, however, contact with other dance disciplines is increasing, and Russian companies like Boris Eifman's are finding their own identities.
With this latest venture, the Bolshoi has made the greatest grand jeté of its life, showing it possesses the skills to push out the boundaries of its insular dance world.
The Bolshoi Ballet and Orchestra pay an autumn visit to the US and Mexico. Alexei Ratmansky's controversial update of "Romeo and Juliet" will be performed in three cities. Dates and repertory are subject to change.
Boston Wang Center Oct. 6 and 7 "Raymonda" 8-10 "Don Quixote"
Mexico City Auditorio Nacional Oct. 13-19 "Raymonda" and "Giselle"
Minneapolis Northrop Auditorium, University of MInnesota Oct. 22 "Romeo and Juliet" 23 and 24 "Don Quixote"
Seattle Paramount Theatre Oct. 27 and 28 "Romeo and Juliet" 29-31 "Don Quixote"
Berkeley, Calif. Zellerbach Hall, University of California, Berkeley Nov. 3 and 4 "Romeo and Juliet" 5-7 "Raymonda"
Chicago Auditorium Theater, Roosevelt University Nov. 10 and 11 "Don Quixote" 12-14 "Raymonda"