It's pretty hard (although fairly hilarious) to envision Russia's heavy-set, stern-faced president, Boris Yeltsin, in a frothy tutu, satin toe shoes and a plumed, rhinestone tiara, his countenance aglow with beatific expression, mid-jete to the strains of Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake.
Nevertheless, Yeltsin and his recent political predecessors have profoundly -- and not altogether gracefully -- altered the place of Moscow's legendary Bolshoi Ballet, by virtue of their radical re-choreographing of the Russian political landscape. Difficulties for the Bolshoi arose in the early '90s, when its country's shift from a communist Soviet Union to a democratic Russia was mirrored in the 1995 ousting of longtime company Director Yuri Grigorovich, and his replacement by the company's then-principal dancer, Vladimir Vasiliev.
But the switch in leadership within the company was not the problem: In fact, existing company members and Bolshoi hopefuls weary of Grigorovich's 30-year prima donna reign -- along with ballet aficionados around the globe -- welcomed Vasiliev's balletic genius, his artistic broad-mindedness and his eye for more innovative stewardship of the company.
But since its founding in 1776, the Bolshoi had operated courtesy of total financial support by a changing cast of czars and the ensuing Soviet state. Suddenly, the company's fiscal responsibilities were almost entirely its own, and its first optimistic step toward financial autonomy -- a poorly organized U.S. tour claiming Las Vegas as its focal engagement -- met with tragi-comic (not to mention somewhat surreal) results. A pitifully sparse audience dotted the Aladdin Theater's 7,000 seats for the Bolshoi's opening performance, which took second billing to a glitzy extravaganza called Country Tonite.
"This was a disaster, a total disaster!" says new company Manager Val Golovitser, who formerly acted as an agent arranging solo tours for Vasiliev and Irina. "How can this not be ridiculous? Bolshoi in Las Vegas? This is like Mickey Mouse in Royal Albert Hall!" In fact, several dancers dressed as Disney characters -- Mickey Mouse included -- in protest.
"Of course, it was expected, really," he adds. "When Vasiliev took over, the contract for this tour was already signed. Grigorovich had set it up. So they went. I think this is maybe very hard for many Americans to understand -- how is it possible to make such huge mistake? -- but such drastic and extreme changes as we have had in Russia, they take time to adjust to. Now there is almost no government support -- very small amount -- and so we must look all the time for sponsorship, for money."
Political and economic changes impacted the company and its dancers in other ways, too: An article in Life magazine last August noted -- along with Vasiliev's determination in the face of his daunting task to market the Bolshoi outside Russia -- that one ballerina's frustration with a new world order that places bankers before dancers in importance; that "fake Bolshoi companies" (like "Stars of the Bolshoi," which visited Asheville a couple of years ago) had muddied the esteemed group's public image; and that critics had called recent Bolshoi performances "technically proficient, but uninspired."
In short, Life proposed that the Bolshoi was undergoing an identity crisis.
But the Russian spirit is nothing if not indomitable, and just seven months later -- as fast as you can say "radical reform" -- the legendary Bolshoi seems to have regained its footing. While the new Russian government has stepped out of its funding role, Russian banks and corporations (contributing both to individual dancers and the newly established Bolshoi Ballet and Opera Foundation) have begun picking up the tab, according to Golovitser. Likewise, he says, some European and American corporations (like AT&T, which backed two major Bolshoi productions this year) have started providing financial support. Golovitser and Vasiliev also have great expectations for the company's current 30-city U.S. East Coast tour, which began in New York City last week. The two hope the tour will clear up any lingering misunderstandings and misgivings about the company's image, and attract additional sponsorship.
If the morale of Bolshoi dancers has suffered under the fallout of Russia's political and socio-economic shuffle, it has been bolstered by Vasiliev's determined guidance and fresh, energetic approach to artistic concerns. Indeed, while many company members have been offered contracts and enviable salaries by other ballet companies all over the world, almost all have opted to stay with the Bolshoi, despite marginal pay and a sometimes erratic schedule, says Golovitser.
"The changes we have had, of course, have affected all Russian people dramatically," Golovitser says. "For Bolshoi ballerinas, some lost a sense of privilege. When Russia was a very closed society, they were in [a] very privileged position. Only prima ballerinas could travel to London, Paris, New York. ... Now, thank God, ordinary people have same opportunities. ... When change happens so quickly, it takes time for people to catch up with how this affects their lives.
"Also, in the old Bolshoi system, there were two or three prima ballerinas who automatically got the major roles," Golovitser continues. "Now, if Vasiliev sees a dancer who is very, very talented, they can get major roles right away. I may get in trouble for this," he adds with a little mischief in his warm voice, "but I think this is difficult for some ballerinas to accept."
For an upcoming generation of superlative young dancers, though, it means previously inconceivable opportunities: 18-year-old Svetlana Lumkina, the company's youngest member, culled a major role in a Bolshoi production of Giselle, slated for later this spring. As yet, no singular star like Baryshnikov or Pavlova has made a spotlit appearance on Russian ballet's present-day stage, notes Golovitser ("Now I may reallyget in trouble!"), Lumkina and her contemporaries are "beautiful, beautiful dancers," who exhibit "an extraordinarily high level of artistry and technique.
"Even when the Bolshoi goes through hard times, it is the Bolshoi!" Golovitser adds passionately. "We still -- we always! -- have some of the best dancers in the world."
Most critics seem to agree, praising Vasiliev's more liberal role-assigning methods, in tandem with efforts to incorporate the works of contemporary choreographers and movement styles from other dance genres into the Bolshoi's historically strict classical repertoire. At the same time, some voice high hopes that the Bolshoi's tradition as one of the world's premiere classical ballet companies will not be eroded by such modernizing moves.
After seeing the Bolshoi perform an excerpt from La Bayadere, New York dance critic and historian Lillian Moore wrote in Dance 62: "As the Russians progress toward a valid, contemporary choreographic expression, let us hope that this heritage will not be neglected and irreparably lost -- and that we may have the opportunity to see much more of it. The patina of age should only increase its power to delight the eye and stir the imagination."
Area balletomanes can take their own measure of the Bolshoi's current incarnation when the company performs "From Russia With Love," a suite of selections from classical ballets including La Bayadere, Swan Lake, Don Quixote, Sleeping Beauty and Narcissus. The full company (some 40-odd dancers and musicians) will grace the Thomas Wolfe Auditorium stage for an opening number from La Bayadere's tragic Indian love story, as well as for excerpts from Don Quixote and Tchaikovsky's Symphony No. 6 Finale (choreographed by Vasiliev). Solo lovers, too, will not be disappointed: Bolshoi lead dancer Gennady Yanin will dance the difficult role of the tormented Narcissus, and Nina Speranska will be featured in one of ballet's most renowned dramatic solos for women dancers, The Dying Swan -- originally created for Anna Pavlova.
Backed by the Bolshoi's own 11-member chamber orchestra, and with dancers attired in magical, sophisticated costumes by French couturier Yves Saint-Laurent, the performance is sure to deliver wonder and excitement via myriad aesthetic and sensory pleasures.
Are Golovitser and company looking forward to their sojourn in western North Carolina? Yes, Golovitser says, after a moment's joking hesitation.
"I must admit, at first I thought, maybe you say Nashville," he laughs, "and I think to myself, 'Oh, no, not another Las Vegas nightmare!' Please, no more country music for the Bolshoi!"
No double-bill with any C&W crooners here in Asheville, I assure him. (Although, if he could get Yeltsin to go for the tutu, I'd move heaven and earth to hook him up with Dolly Parton -- and even do my damnedest to foot the bill.)