Having dispatched the foolish and tarnished modernism of "The Golden Age" at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion--and not a moment too soon--the mighty Bolshoi Ballet turned this week end to vaudeville.
At least it was very high-class vaudeville.
Although the details changed from performance to performance, the formula remained the same. As generous balletic book-ends, Yuri Grigorovich offered the first act of his lavishly steam-rolled "Romeo and Juliet" and the second act of his outrageously kitschy "Spartacus."
The middle portion of the inevitably long programs accommodated showy snippets and star turns. Multiple stars. Multiple turns.
Say this for the Bolshoi dancers: Even if they cannot make the tawdry look profound, they can dance with what looks like total dedication, unerring conviction and disarming flamboyance. They understand their mission and their tradition. They certainly mind their stylistic manners. And they know how to get out there and sell.
Choreographic trivia be damned. Or, if you will, choreographic trivia be elevated.
It can be no accident that Grigorovich wants to send us home with delirious visions of the ancient Roman Empire spinning in our heads. In other seasons, he has given us the whole hyper-vulgar super-spectacular quasi-historical mess that won him maximum Soviet acclaim in 1968. Perhaps we should be grateful that the current tour comes up with only a third of that awful and awesome totality.
A line in Grigorovich's program biography may be significant: "It was the circus and not ballet that first captured his imagination."
That may explain his fondness for acrobatic pyrotechnics. It also may tell us something about his aesthetic priorities.
"Spartacus," in any case, tells it all. Looking for all the world like a crazed fusion of Tarzan and Superman, the indomitable slave-hero clenches his teeth and his fists, strikes defiant poses and gobbles up the air. Phrygia, his faithful ever-lyrical wife, melts upon command and clutches her mate's shoulders while soaring, ramrod stiff, in the symbolic glory of the one-arm lift. Meanwhile, the pit band grinds out a tacky and catchy Khachaturian tune that sounds for all the world like "Stormy Weather."
The evil Crassus strides about, one hip permanently askew, scowling primitively and leaping like a confused gazelle. Aegina, the cruel royal vamp, sports a strategically placed jewel on her breast and stalks the boards \o7 en pointe\f7 in an energetic elegant slink. She also kicks the back of her pretty head at the slightest provocation, and, aided by her muscular consort, rises heavenward in a triumphant crotch-lift when erotic and political triumphs beckon.
Before the curtain mercifully falls, we are subjected to bevy of pretty, prancing shepherdesses, a gaggle of goose-stepping warriors and a communal dance of triumph that resembles a rumba.
All this might be beneath serious contemplation, if not contempt, were it not for the dancing.
On Friday night, Irek Mukhamedov brought feverish intensity and blanket sincerity to the title role, not to mention gasp-producing embellishments in the much-elevated barrel turns. On Saturday, Alexei Fadeyechev, son of the fondly remembered Nicolai, toned down the bravura, toned up the nobility and turned on the power.
As Crassus, Vitali Artyushkin stressed muscle where his most illustrious predecessor, Maris Liepa, had stressed dramatic insinuation. The great Natalia Bessmertnova, under-employed as Phrygia, epitomized finesse. Maria Bilova, defiantly appealing as the nasty Aegina, actually made the cliches seem compelling.
The "Romeo" chunk that opened the program revealed a more artful side of Grigorovich. The 1978 production, somewhat simplified since last seen here, tries to deal with Shakespeare and Prokofiev in busy, semi-abstract, almost cinematic terms.
Pure dance, preferably aggressive, supercedes such old-fashioned concepts as mime and narrative cohesion. The pace is desperately brisk, the patterns fascinating, the feats rewarding, the dramatic images striking.
Still, one misses lyrical repose, not to mention such minor theatrical niceties as an initially reticent Romeo, a really demure Juliet and a balcony for their great pas de deux.
At the end of that crucial encounter, not incidentally, Prokofiev's magical score clearly describes the ecstatic Juliet running up a flight of steps. In this version, however, there are no steps. While the music rises, the star-cross'd lovers sink in an admittedly effective but contradictory embrace.
Here, again, the dancing--not the dance--was the thing. Andris Liepa--son of Maris--introduced a chronically blond, sweet and innocent Romeo. He was earnest in demeanor, gentle in articulation, modest in flight. Nina Ananiashvili, his fragile, long-limbed Juliet, exuded airy purity and generalized innocence despite the screaming contradiction of a long red tutu.