MOSCOW - On tryout day for the Bolshoi Ballet School, an assembly line of Soviet classical perfection, 9-year-old Irina Zebrova was rejected at first because she was 2 inches too tall.
A thousand other little girls that day in 1976 quietly accepted similar fates for being too fat, too short, too stiff - never likely to be good enough for the five-tiered, gold-encrusted crown of Soviet culture, the Bolshoi Theater.
But Zebrova did not go quietly. A burst of dramatic tears somehow won her a reprieve - an audition.
The director admonished Zebrova not to bore the judges.
She recalls the inexperienced advice her father gave her: "Do something the school has never seen before - a gypsy dance."
"It was crazy," she says with an ironic cock of her theatrically tweezed eyebrow. "Imagine this small, skinny girl with goose bumps shaking her shoulders, stomping her feet, rolling on her knees and screaming 'Ha!' The director just fell off her chair laughing."
The moment of boldness was enough to win her one of only 40 slots that day in the Bolshoi school. With it came the real possibility of a future dancing in the gilt glow of the legendary Bolshoi Theater.
With a lot of sweat and endless hours of practice, the daughter of a welder and a nurse from provincial Ukraine could leap into the Bolshoi elite - the ballet and opera performers who have been coddled and displayed like royal jewels ever since the aristocracy in the Romanov dynasty created the Bolshoi as an imperial plaything in 1776.
In the Soviet era when Zebrova came of age, the hard-as-rock, precision-tuned Bolshoi dancers were paraded around the world symbols of superpower achievement. To be a Bolshoi performer was to be one of the "beautiful people." Performers were given big apartments with more bathrooms than most people had bedrooms. They were the sophisticates permitted to travel abroad, the few who got American jeans - and looked good in them.
After 10 grueling years of training - and reaching the very average height of 5 feet 5 inches - the Bolshoi dream did come true for Irina Zebrova.
But now she is dancing in the shabby remains of the once-great Soviet theater and ballet system. The fall of communism was the end of lavish support for the arts, and what's left of meager state subsidies isn't enough to make the theater run.
Behind the red brocade curtain - with its gold-embroidered hammer and sickle too expensive to replace - stagehands curse old wiring and unsafe scaffolding.
The Bolshoi stage - bigger than its seating area - has a river of sewage flowing through its crumbling basement. The ticket office has practically ceded its business to unsavory leather-jacketed scalpers. Bolshoi tickets are relatively cheap at face value, ranging from $2 to $60. But the bulk of tickets are sold by scalpers, who take from $50 into the hundreds. And their money doesn't go to support the theater.
Bolshoi's 'Last Tango'
Some ballets are danced to taped music. Dancers who haven't defected to independent theaters or gone off to rich foreign companies are at the mercy of a new contract system so vague they don't know from month to month exactly what their salary will be.
Today Zebrova is a working ballerina. While not a star, she is a soloist who dances regularly. But, as Richard Philp, editor in chief of Dance magazine, puts it, no matter how troubled the Bolshoi is, its dancers are still "extraordinary, at the top of the heap."
This past spring at the age of 29, Zebrova danced her first principal performance as the obsessed and sensual Jana in a new ballet based on the once X-rated movie "Last Tango in Paris." It was the crowning moment for Zebrova's long years of spinning and sweating in the mirrored and chandeliered practice rooms in the bowels of the Bolshoi.
Zebrova has a fascinating body, a 100-pound assemblage of willow and steel, dyed-black hair, porcelain white skin and a Tinkerbell voice. She has exactly the otherworldly effect you'd expect in a Bolshoi ballerina.
But it's her childlike spunk - a devotion to the "sacred" halls of the Bolshoi, balanced by self-deprecating humor and irreverent slang - that brings her down to earth.
While she's not famous in Russia, Zebrova became a minor celebrity in Japan, where audiences fell in love with her look and style when she performed there as a teen-ager. When she tours in Tokyo she still hears adoring fans call her name on the streets.
Zebrova's arms are particularly expressive, flowing like liquid into forms as impressive in the practice rooms as they are in the glow of the main Bolshoi auditorium. While Western ballerinas are known for their more accurate and quick footwork, Russian ballerinas are known for making arm movements as important as footwork.
Zebrova's life over the past 20 years has been defined by the Bolshoi in both mundane and momentous ways.
There was the battle over her height, and later, she had a pubescent bout with five extra pounds that threatened her career.
Then there was the trauma with her first husband, a dancer who begged her in the mid-1980s to defect with him. When he was finally convinced that she wouldn't give up her Bolshoi dream, he left her for America.
Most dramatic has been the tricky choreography of the times: democracy, a market economy and the end of communism's control and support of the arts. Whether they are in the state theater system or in the dozens of independent dance troupes that have formed since the state monopoly on the arts ended, most artists are impoverished.
But Zebrova and her second husband, Bolshoi dancer Alexei Varonin, have managed to stay above water.
Varonin, 38, jokes that they've been scrambling "like Indiana Jones" ahead of the economic avalanche caused by the market reforms after perestroika in the 1980s. They've scooped up what they could: An apartment. A car. Private school for Phillipe, their 5-year-old son. Furniture. Portable phones.
Old Soviet perks
Zebrova and Varonin were among the last under the old Soviet system to get a cheap apartment in the Bolshoi's luxurious new cooperative building. The central Moscow double apartment they bought 10 years ago for $7,500 is now, in a market economy, valued at nearly a half-million dollars and is paid off.
And Zebrova's dance trips abroad still net her good money - $1,000 for a 10-day Bolshoi tour in Egypt this spring, which is five times her base monthly salary.
In Russia, the average monthly wage is estimated by the government to be about $150. So Zebrova and Varonin's income and assets make them affluent.
"Our performers are a little higher paid than [the Russian] middle class," says Vladimir Kokonin, the Bolshoi's executive director. "They enjoy privileges, but we can't say anymore that they're elite - none are upper class, if upper class is Rolls-Royces, Mercedes and the New Russian style."
"So far we've been lucky. With the help of trips [abroad] we've been able to buy all this," says Zebrova, gesturing with her
perfectly manicured hand at the new German mail-order furniture, the calico wallpaper and framed botanical prints in their home.
Under the Bolshoi's new contract system, Zebrova's base salary has doubled to $200 a month, plus a bonus for each performance.
The controversial new system was designed to "democratize the theater so that it's impossible now to have one person get paid for 30 years whether she dances or not," Kokonin says. "No one will work without a renewal of a contract."
In principle, Zebrova likes the idea of the contract. But in reality she can't say she really understands the fine print.
"It would be interesting for me to know what I'm getting for 'Last Tango,' " she says, explaining that in the six months since she's been on contract, she's never received the exact amount on her contract - sometimes more, sometimes less.
But she immediately stresses that she has no beefs with management. That sensitivity is clearly a holdover from the Soviet days when the corps de ballet was expected to breathe as one - automatons in thought as well as dance.
After 'Little Stalin'
In theory, that system ended last year when Yuri Grigorovich, the longtime dictatorial and ultra-classical artistic director of the Bolshoi, left in a dispute with management to form his own private troupe. When he left, 14 members of the company went on strike in protest.
But Zebrova was one of a few who signed a letter against the strike - and was ostracized by many of her fellow dancers as a traitor, she says.
Grigorovich was known as "Little Stalin" for his way of making and breaking careers, and for staging stiff classical ballet and pieces that served Communist ideology with clear plots of good and evil. Some of his ballets even had dancers portraying the Communist ideal of a worker. Zebrova and Varonin laugh as they show how they wore construction belts over their leotards.
The venomous politics of the ballet always bothered Zebrova. Sure, Grigorovich gave her a break by making her a soloist, she says. But the Bolshoi is a "hallowed" institution, a national treasure that is bigger than any one person, she says.
"I don't miss [his] screaming," Zebrova adds as she moves between Bolshoi practice halls, waddling duck-like in her slippers, wrapped in a thick terry-cloth robe, tights sagging around her ankles.
"For the first time in my 10-year career, I'm getting real pleasure," she says of her "Last Tango" role.
"For me, it's absolutely a new choreographical language - lying on the floor, and jumping and running. It's more difficult because our muscles and mentality are classical," she explains, adding that her first weeks of practice gave her scratches and bruises like she'd never had before.
Zebrova senses that life in general seems better than it did before President Boris N. Yeltsin's market reforms started five years ago. She's grown disenchanted with Yeltsin mainly because of his unending war with the breakaway Chechen republic. But it wasn't enough to turn her vote for the Communists in the recent elections.
Zebrova is sensitive to the casualties of the reforms from which she has benefited. She knows, too, that the old arrangements enabled her to fulfill her dream.
Her first ballet teacher in Ukraine - the one who saw her talent and sent her on that trip 20 years ago to the Bolshoi tryouts - has been reduced to selling goods on the street to make a living.
Out in the provinces, ballet teachers aren't getting government salaries anymore to send hopeful little girls to knock on the Bolshoi doors.
And, says Zebrova, grimacing at the thought of her elegant and devoted teacher as a street-seller, no matter how much you love ballet, "you've got to have money. You can't eat air."
About this series
In the five years since the collapse of communism and the disintegration of the Soviet Union, Russians in the vast epicenter of the lost empire have tasted democracy and freedom. Some have flourished. Some yearn for the old security. All have changed.
This is the first of seven articles about how some Russians have fared.
Today: The ballerina
Monday: The herder
Tuesday: The capitalist
Wednesday: The farmer
Thursday: The pensioner
Friday: The dissident
Saturday: The journalist
Tomorrow The herder: Uncertainty still swirls through Siberia.
Pub Date: 8/18/96