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Fresh Winds Wafting The Bolshoi Ballet

February 01, 1987|MARTIN BERNHEIMER

Yuri Grigorovich sat at the little table by the window in his high-rise hotel room in beautiful downtown Los Angeles. He gazed, from time to time, at the twilight glitz below, and sipped a little red wine.

The powerful artistic director of the mighty Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow--does anyone have to be reminded that "bolshoi" means big?--was winding up a four-city American tour that would make a whirlwind seem lazy. He was here, literally, for a one-night stand--in preparation for an August season by the Bolshoi at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

The three-week visit, not incidentally, will be the first by the company to America since the troubled 1979 tour. Much has happened, artistically and politically, in the interim.

Grigorovich looked gaunt, and he had every right to be tired. But, as his good Russian adrenaline began to flow, he talked of his plans with ever-increasing animation. He didn't just intend to bring the Bolshoi back to America. He also repeated his much-publicized intention to bring some very famous former-Russians back to the Soviet Union.

He dodged some provocative questions with virtuosic suavity, answered others with striking candor. His eyes sparkled. His smile was quick and benign. The porcupine bristles of his slightly receding crew-cut, a Grigorovich trademark, seemed somehow to symbolize brash, wiry, enduring energy. He didn't look or act like someone who had just turned 60.

The gentleman in charge of what may be the most important, and most visible, cultural endeavor in his country obviously understands a lot of English. He chooses not to acknowledge that understanding, however, at least on official occasions.

Exercising introductory courtesies with an interviewer, he demonstrated an easy command of French. When the formal queries began, however, he reverted to his mellifluous mother tongue and called upon a translating virtuoso from New York who was part of the traveling retinue.

Warm, responsive and sufficiently gregarious to trample both his faithful interpreter and his impetuous interrogator, he talked like a man who had been waiting a long time for glasnost. He talked like a stubborn visionary who, finally having found a sanctioned opening in the Iron Curtain, wanted to use it as soon as possible for two-way traffic.

When the Bolshoi Ballet last appeared in Los Angeles, some enlightened observers feared we had seen the last of Grigorovich. He had been tending the barre , as it were, when first Alexander Godunov, then Valentina and Leonid Kozlov, defected to the West. He had been in charge when, at home, several of his most prestigious dancers attacked the company for its stifling, ultraconservative policies.

But Grigorovich is still here. Obviously, he is a survivor. Somebody up there in the Kremlin must like him. Somebody up there must be giving him unprecedented artistic freedom. Everything, of course, is relative.

Most writers attended his New York press conference on Jan. 19 expecting the usual platitudes and routine announcements. Cultural exchange was being resumed. The Bolshoi would be here for a total of nine weeks this summer, beginning in New York on June 30. It would play Lincoln Center, then the Kennedy Center in Washington and, very briefly, the Opera House in San Francisco before ending up in Los Angeles from August 11 to 30.

The repertory would comprise the U.S. premiere of Shostakovich's rarely staged "Golden Age" as choreographed by Grigorovich, in addition to his full-length productions of "Raymonda" and "Giselle." There also would be the inevitable mixed bill, this one including among other vaudevillesque attractions an act of his spectacular--some think spectacularly tawdry--"Spartacus."

Reasonable news so far, but not much to quicken pulses.

Then, almost laconically, Grigorovich dropped his sensational little bomb. Mikhail Baryshnikov, a non-person in Russia since his defection to the West in 1974, had been invited to return to the motherland for appearances at the Bolshoi. A similarly unprecedented invitation, it was later learned, had been extended to Natalia Makarova.

In Los Angeles, Grigorovich added yet another surprising name to the potential guest list: Fernando Bujones. Born in America of Cuban parents, the popular 31-year-old firebrand had been, until his unceremonious departure, Baryshnikov's foremost rival at American Ballet Theater.

At time of writing, neither Baryshnikov nor Makarova could decide whether or not to accept the invitation. Bujones, though eager to accept if his schedule permitted, said he had not received it.

Ultimately, the important development didn't involve specific invitations. It involved an apparent thaw in what had been a very cold and very long cultural war.

Ever the poet, Grigorovich preferred to think in terms of fresh breezes.

"I am very sad that things had worked out as they did," he said regarding the departure of some of the best dancers in the Soviet Union.

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