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Russian ballet gets overhaul -- Soviet style The Bolshoi's Next Act


Moscow -- The Kremlin's Italianate walls are only 500 yards from the Grecian columns of the Bolshoi Theater, a proximity that has invited dictator and democrat alike to regard the great hall as if it were his own personal stage.

So Russians have found it only natural that President Boris N. Yeltsin has handed out the choice roles himself. Last month he installed Vladimir Vasilyev, a much-admired dancer, as the Bolshoi's artistic director.

Mr. Vasilyev, it seems, has only one enemy. That was Yuri Grigorovich, the choreographer who ruled the Bolshoi for 30 years. Enraged by the appointment of his former protege, Mr. Grigorovich resigned as director March 9.

An era was over, and Western critics are hoping a new one will begin. They said the once-legendary ballet had fallen sadly behind the times, with a tired repertoire and weary dancers. Indeed, the Bolshoi and its decline tell the story of how Russia's cultural institutions suffered from years of intellectual and artistic repression. And perhaps the Bolshoi was subjected to the most scrutiny, for the Kremlin leaders saw it as an extension of themselves and their rule.

"It was one of our symbols," says Ludmilla Merzhanova, a 77-year-old former ballerina. "We had the Bolshoi, black caviar and the birch tree. With the Bolshoi, we showed the world our grandeur."

Miss Merzhanova remembers the intense gaze of the Kremlin quite well.

Josef Stalin liked the prettiest ballerinas to sit on his lap. Members of the Politburo used to send a car, and young dancers would be bundled off whether they were interested in a liaison with their masters or not.

Miss Merzhanova started dancing at the Bolshoi in 1936, when she was 18 years old. She danced for Stalin, and affectionately called him "Papa," as many did.

"One time he came for the last act of 'Don Quixote,' " Miss Merzhanova recalls. "I had to make three big jumps, finishing directly opposite where Papa sat. I felt so nervous because he was there.

"I was fine until I got to the third jump. Then I fell right down on my bottom. I looked straight at him and threw my arm up with a flourish. Everyone applauded. It was a very big success. Of course, I could have been shot."

Miss Merzhanova led a relatively privileged life. Now a widow, she was married to a war hero 20 years older than she. She is small -- about 5 feet tall -- and because she was younger than her husband's friends and very pretty, she was always admired and fussed over. So her memories of the Stalin years are very different from the horrors recounted in history texts.

"I knew Stalin very well," she says. "Once I was sitting on his knee and embracing him -- everybody loved him -- and I admired his watch.

"He said, 'Should I give it to you?' I said, 'No, you don't need to.' And I picked up a piece of candy and gave it to him. 'Give me that,' I said. He gave it to me, and I tucked it into my bra."

Miss Merzhanova took it home to the apartment where she still lives on Tverskaya Street, a few blocks from the Kremlin and Bolshoi. She pointed out the place of honor where she displayed it in her china cabinet.

A few years later her young daughter, alone in the room, noticed it. She ate it and threw away the wrapper.

The members of the Bolshoi always had special comforts -- as long as they were in favor with their bosses. They had good apartments and fine furniture, and those who were especially well-behaved or connected could tour abroad.

They all understood the limits: art was intended to glorify communism and the state; it was not to be a means of individual expression, which was seen as a threat to the totalitarian state.

No one understood this better than the longtime director, Mr. Grigorovich, who by all accounts possesses great talent but still churned out the approved versions of the old classic ballets year after year. The dancers who felt stifled artistically kept silent, or defected. There was no middle ground.

A delicate balance

Some of the younger dancers say that their colleagues are afraid to this day to take any risks that might threaten the system.

"The whole country is in transition," says Gedeminas Taranda, who was one of the Bolshoi's best character dancers, "but in the Bolshoi they still have a Soviet-communist way of doing things." He was fired last year after he dared to go on a well-paid tour of the Netherlands that his bosses had not officially sanctioned.

"It's all very political," says Mr. Taranda, who now runs his own company. "The Ministry of Culture and the government try to influence the theater as much as possible. Everyone is trying to push his own man.

"In the end, no one is really responsible. In the last three years, 30 talented dancers have left the Bolshoi -- not only for the West but for other theaters in Russia. It's just like the society in the communist system -- no one is responsible for anything."

Mr. Grigorovich, 68, spent his career keeping a delicate balance between the constraints of a totalitarian system and the dictates of his own powerful personality.

He took over the Bolshoi in 1964, the same year Nikita Khrushchev was toppled and replaced by Leonid Brezhnev. The Brezhnev days are now called the era of stagnation.

While many critics blame Mr. Grigorovich for the Bolshoi's loss of luster and leadership, his supporters argue he kept glorious traditions alive.

His "Nutcracker," they say, was the best in the world.

"He's a great Russian choreographer," says Dmitri A. Kotov, the Bolshoi's chief accompanist. "Of course, he himself is no great gift -- I mean his character. He has made lots of enemies, and finally they prevailed."

Mr. Kotov fears that the contract system ordered by President Yeltsin, under which members of the company will get higher pay but lose guarantees of lifetime jobs, will ruin the theater. It's the Western, capitalist way, and he worries that decisions will be made for financial rather than artistic reasons.

"You can buy anything with money," Mr. Kotov says. "Whoever has the money orders the music. Look what's happened to television -- you can't even watch it, it's so bad."

Mr. Kotov argues that Mr. Grigorovich preserved a priceless cultural treasure by limiting the repertoire and performing the classics such as "Swan Lake," "Don Quixote" and "Romeo and Juliet" and his Soviet ballets such as "Spartacus."

According to this view, the Bolshoi fills a valuable role as monument, and has no need to be a trend-setter.

The firing line

Mr. Kotov blames the Bolshoi's business manager, Vladimir Kokonin, for forcing out Mr. Grigorovich and for introducing the idea of awarding dancers contracts. "In principle, it might be a good idea," he says. "But in practice, it's impossible because of our general poverty."

Mr. Kotov, who lives in an apartment directly above Mr. Kokonin, earns the equivalent of $100 a month, and dancers don't earn much more. Though he now lives in poverty, under the old system -- when access was more important than cash -- he lived extremely well. His living room would astonish most Muscovites, with its gilt clocks and 19th-century furniture made of rare Karelian wood.

Mr. Kotov and others fear that after years of serving the system, Mr. Kokonin will use the introduction of contracts to fire the people with whom he disagrees. They would be left without unemployment insurance or pensions.

Mr. Kotov is furious that President Yeltsin ignored the wishes of the majority of the company, who supported Mr. Grigorovich and the old system. "He calls himself a democrat, but he considers the Bolshoi his personal theater just as they always have," he says. "It's the same system we had previously."

Miss Merzhanova, the retired ballerina, maintains that the Bolshoi was indeed diminished over the years. She blames the decay on Soviet megalomania.

The Bolshoi -- which means "big" -- always had a large company. There were so many ballerinas that they never got enough time to dance. And the repertoire was limited. Dancers were never stretched creatively. According to Miss Merzhanova, they felt restricted.

"We had huge performances," she says. "In the West, they would have 10 to 12 in a performance. We had to have 60. We had to have the grandiosity of huge performances. We had too many dancers.

"And why not? It was free. Everything was free. It didn't matter how much it cost."

Pleasing 'Papa'

It was the predeliction for overwhelming spectacle that Western critics disliked most. They consider the Bolshoi style of ballet flamboyant, even circus-like with its extravagant sets and costumes. Like the gigantic architecture and the enormous statues of Lenin everywhere, it glorified the state, and made the individual small and insignificant in comparison.

Stalin loved it, Miss Merzhanova recalls, the same way he loved the massive, threatening skyscrapers he built.

She remembers another of his trips to the Bolshoi. She was the sixth swan when Stalin sat in the czar's box watching "Swan Lake."

His security men had issued every person a special pass.

"The second act began, and 32 swans had to go on stage," she says. "We heard the loudspeaker. 'Swans -- on stage.' We ran down the stairs, but when we approached the curtain, guards stood on both sides, blocking the way.

" 'Where are your passes?' they shouted. We cried out, 'Can't you see? We're quite naked except for our feathers.' They demanded our passes. The music was starting. No swans. The conductor started over. His eyes were quite wide. No swans.

"The director approached the guards in a panic, and finally persuaded them anything could happen if the swans did not appear for Stalin.

"Finally, we flew out. We caught up with the music. And we danced away."

Miss Merzhanova hummed the music and exuberantly threw her arms out with all the grace of a young ballerina.

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