PRINT December 1987


the Bolshoi Ballet

THE GOLDEN AGE OF of classical ballet in the 20th-century, and perhaps in the history of dance, has arguably been drawing to a close since the death of George Balanchine in 1983. Balanchine advanced the entire art form through his work with the New York City Ballet, which he directed from its inception in 1948 almost until he died; at the same time, the flow of performers and of works that emerged from the company he led was steady and progressive enough to be easily taken for granted as a kind of permanent state of the world. The momentum and memory of his example were such that the quality of the company’s performance of his work, and matter-of-fact audience expectations of it, have remained high since his death. Without Balanchine, however, the extraordinary standards that his superlative organization revealed in its everyday life are beginning to slip; the dazzling picture has not exactly been erased, but its highlights are becoming dull. One finds a general perception that we have passed from a golden to a silver age of ballet, and that there is no telling how long or how shining this silver age will be.

If unparalleled excellence is no longer a virtual certainty at NYCB, however, the investigation of other sources of the ballet art can renew its freshness. Without the brilliance of Balanchine in our eyes, we may be better able to see farther afield. This year, with the appearance in New York of Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet (the company’s first visit here in eight years), we were able to do just that.

When the Bolshoi first appeared here, in 1959, it seemed old-fashioned but exotic; it had a physical and a theatrical strength that were real and winning. Its methods had the freshness of being foreign, and represented some comfortingly solid Russian background to Balanchine’s still-burgeoning American classicism. The company’s visits were knowingly limited, with a repertory carefully chosen to show what could be seen nowhere else. (One reason no other company danced like the Bolshoi was that no other company performed the Bolshoi’s particular program.) All these factors contributed to the Bolshoi’s impact. And it helped that at this point Balanchine was only beginning to command the means to show off what ballet was really capable of being.

As Balanchine built his institution into the most artistic and articulate classical-dance ensemble in the world, however, sophisticated audiences had their heads turned. They had seen the ballet of the future. If the Bolshoi’s appearances at the Metropolitan Opera House this year had come somewhat earlier, critical comparisons with Balanchine would have been harder to avoid; in the face of his classicism at its height, I doubt that the Bolshoi classicism represented in the recent season could easily have been separately admired. As I watched the Bolshoi after Balanchine’s death, however, its methods of classical dancing (even though revealed in works that were on occasion worse than heavy-handed) began to seem to me something other than old-fashioned.

Balanchine’s esthetic influence can be felt virtually wherever ballet is performed, including the USSR. But it is an influence that often modulates what already exists. One can see Balanchine in the Bolshoi, but there his theory is essentially a secondary element, an accretion on a traditional Russian foundation. That foundation is a substantial one. Tsarist Russia adopted ballet from Western Europe and shaped it into a major art, beyond its former capacity; the Tsar’s successors have maintained a caretakership of the form. Politics of course play their hand in the world of Soviet ballet, but the foundation and the structure of its classical system remain solid and broad. Perhaps the most important thing the Bolshoi tells us—in an age of institutions haunted but not led by visionaries—is to be found in how it shows us the pleasure of steps in their moments, and in some ways the virtues of what one might call the art form’s culture. The Bolshoi’s artistic director, Yuri Grigorovich, is quite undistinguished—is in fact a hack, and a choreographer whose notions of classical dancing are peculiar to say the least. But the company’s dancers have something bigger than “strong leadership.”

The quality that dominates Russian classical dancing today, at any rate to the Western eye, is what will be called here “innocence.” It comes in two strains. One springs from the vocabulary that defines classical dancing to the Russians: despite a certain expansion of the elements that has steadily entered Russian teaching—the height of a leg extension, the elevation of a jump—the system has maintained a consistent and confident accord on the language of the classical dancer. Some of the alterations and embellishments that Western practitioners have worked into the classical canon are improvements, some are not; at any rate, there is a separate kind of pleasure in the spare, limited architectonics of Soviet ballet. The second sense of “innocence” comes from the performers themselves. They have an unhurriedness and a directness that aren’t always visible in an opera-house performer. These concert well with the company’s ethos and illuminate the place of ballet in Russian society—the society’s ongoing commitment to and belief in ballet, its pleasure in dancing and dancers. The performers seem to feel that the dance public has put a trust in them that they cannot betray or cheapen. At a time when it sometimes feels as though the ballet audience in the West were more eager for revelatory tell-all autobiographies than willing to support the ongoing art form, such a sense from the performers that their audience is there to see them dance is very moving.

The kind of respect I’m describing is not everywhere in the Bolshoi; the company has its cynics. But all the exemplary dancers possess it to a great degree. The best of the ballerinas this season was probably Nina Semizorova, whose dancing is full of fine physical detail, and full of the expression of a private purpose and pleasure. Of the men, Irek Mukhamedov too seems not to feel the pressure of becoming a crowd-pleaser, for all his heat in performance and his powerful and generous outpourings of energy. For me, Aleksei Fadeyechev was the most nearly complete dancer of the season. He is a big man, and thus a dancer of strong visual weight, which accentuates the expertise of his dancing, particularly in the air. His dignity of stature is matched by the refined gravity of his manner—he has a distinct coolness and calmness of demeanor. Fadeyechev is so utterly unaffected in his performing, yet so keenly in touch with his material, that his work recalls the place taken by whiteness in the color spectrum: a brightness resulting from the balanced presence of all colors and the absence of none.

In today’s imperfect present of classical dancing, the Bolshoi is still capable of filling us with spirit, in contrast to the emptying out of spirit that’s been a general effect of the use of classicism in much of the West’s recent post-Modern quotation of it. Artistic directors have come and gone for more than 200 years in Moscow’s ballet; none has indisputably proved a voice of greatness. Yet Bolshoi dancers, a great many of whom have left indelible marks on their art over the years, have kept coming, steadily. Russian ballet has proved to be consistently capable of preparing and presenting dancers of an exceptional order. With its line of dancers intact, Soviet ballet is living honorably without a resident genius at the helm of any of its state companies. Whether we can do likewise here remains to be seen, and to be pondered carefully. Luckily for the world today there’s more to the Bolshoi than its director, and as far as our world is concerned, there’s more to this fact than a ballet lesson.

Robert Greskovic in a freelance dance-writer who lives in New York.