New director vows to put Bolshoi back on its toes

THE BALTIMORE SUN

MOSCOW -- Nearly all of the 2,000 red velvet seats at the Bolshoi Theater were filled yesterday, and the gilt lights were glittering as Vladimir Vasilyev took the stage for the most dramatic role of his career.

This time Mr. Vasilyev, once the brightest of the Soviet ballet stars, wore a smartly cut tattersall suit instead of dancing tights. But as he stood before the closed curtain and empty orchestra pit he promised a leap more spectacular than any he had made in "The Nutcracker" or "Don Quixote."

Coming to his role against a backdrop of the theater's fading reputation and some bitter infighting worthy of a Kremlin putsch, the newly appointed director vowed to make the Bolshoi great again.

He promised to shake the dust from the worn-out repertoire and to air out the stuffy hall, which has long been closed off to experiment and leading performers from the outside world.

He said he would begin a contract system for dancers, who have always depended on the favor of their bosses and influence of their relatives for lifetime sinecures. He said he would bring in new choreographers and productions and seek out artists who had fled the old Soviet Union for the West.

And, in an extraordinary departure for the Bolshoi, he even said he would stage the work of George Balanchine. Russian-born Balanchine, the famous choreographer for the New York City Ballet, relied on a finer interpretation of music than the Bolshoi's flamboyant gymnastics.

As Mr. Vasilyev spoke, an unseen but unmistakable presence could still be felt in every inch of the Bolshoi's enormous hall.

Yuri Grigorovich, the Bolshoi's chief choreographer, artistic director and reigning prince, had angrily resigned two weeks earlier. For 30 years, Mr. Grigorovich had run the Bolshoi. He was the Bolshoi. He had made it everything it was, or wasn't.

And for the people in the crowded hall yesterday -- dancers, singers, musicians, ticket sellers, ushers and a large gathering of journalists -- he would not be easily forgotten.

Focus of blame

Over the past few years, many critics had blamed the Bolshoi's lapses on Mr. Grigorovich and a style they said was compromised by his long service during the conservative Soviet years.

Last year, the theater's general director, Vladimir Kokonin, began pushing for a contract system to revitalize the theater by paying the best talent well. Last fall, President Boris N. Yeltsin personally issued a decree authorizing contracts.

Mr. Grigorovich, 68, reportedly saw that as a challenge to his authority. And many dancers feared they would be thrown out on the streets, penniless. They began agitating against Mr. Kokonin.

In the ensuing fray, Mr. Vasilyev was appointed artistic director, leaving Mr. Grigorovich with diminished authority. His pride forced him to resign -- he and Mr. Vasilyev, a former protege, had long since parted as enemies.

On March 10, 14 members of the company struck in support of Mr. Grigorovich, preventing a performance of "Romeo and Juliet." It was the first strike since the theater was founded in 1776.

Mr. Kokonin took them to court, then was fired as general director for his handling of the affair. Yesterday, Prime Minister Viktor L. Chernomyrdin signed an order naming him executive director, to handle the administrative work for Mr. Vasilyev.

This was the drama Mr. Vasilyev joined when Deputy Prime Minister Yuri Yarov presented him to the Bolshoi artists as their new director yesterday.

"In the next century," Mr. Vasilyev promised, "the theater will be completely different."

Mr. Vasilyev, 54, clipped a pair of pince-nez eyeglasses to his nose when he read out the names of artists he wanted to attract -- such as Mstislav Rostropovich, now the revered leader of the National Symphony in America, for the orchestra.

While inciting revolution, he also promised peace.

"Today we put an end to all misunderstandings and conflict in the theater," he said.

But that seemed unlikely, when Mr. Kokonin insisted he would not drop charges against the 14 members of the company accused of staging an illegal strike.

"I'm one of the 14," Dmitri Kotov, the concertmaster, said in an interview, "and I'm proud of it."

He predicted that Mr. Vasilyev -- groomed in Mr. Grigorovich's style -- did not have the brilliance to reshape the Bolshoi.

"Grigorovich will be seen as a real epoch in Russian ballet," he said. "If there were another star waiting to replace him, then it would be fine. But there's no one with his stature. And I think the Bolshoi lost a lot when Grigorovich left."

He asserted that Mr. Grigorovich had kept the repertoire at high level.

"His enemies insist that for the last few years he hasn't staged any new performances," he said. "But why should he give birth every year? It's much to his credit that he keeps the repertoire up to a high level.

"You wouldn't criticize Stratford for performing too much Shakespeare, would you?"

Loss of talent

Last February, Mr. Grigorovich fired one of his stars in what his critics say was a classic example of his unwillingness to share attention.

The dancer, Gedeminas Taranda, had toured in Holland without Mr. Grigorovich's permission. He was fired for missing a performance, though he says he hadn't been scheduled to dance.

"In the last three years, more than 30 talented dancers have left the Bolshoi," said Mr. Taranda, sitting in the office of the Moscow dance company he started. "The Bolshoi has lost its place as one of the world's leaders."

The 34-year-old Mr. Taranda said Mr. Grigorovich fired him because he had become too independent. He said the last new Grigorovich production was in 1982.

"It's a great tragedy for the theater and the dancers," he said. "There's no creativity."

Back at the Bolshoi, Mr. Vasilyev smiled and gestured as the cameras flashed. He looked around the glorious hall, with the muses lavishly painted on the 60-foot-high ceiling, the czar's box refitted for communism with gold hammer and sickle, the five balconies gleaming with yet more gold.

He remembered sitting way up there as a child, he said, feeling overwhelmed by the beauty.

"I want others to feel that beauty," he said, "from the building, but also from the performances."

When he finished, his audience applauded.

"I only hope," he said with a smile, "that I hear that applause again when I'm leaving this job."

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