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THE RUSSIANS CAME, : THE RUSSIANS CAME! : Afterthoughts on the Bolshoi Ballet

September 06, 1987|MARTIN BERNHEIMER

The mighty Bolshoi is back in the lap of Mother Russia now. Aeroflot has reclaimed our soaring balletic benefactors. But the exquisite hysteria engendered by the Soviet visitors may still be raging at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion.

Last Sunday, after the final performance of the vastly popular three-week season, the Music Center resounded with the sort of cheering, yelling, stomping, crying, ooh -ing, aah -ing and whistling one normally associates with rock orgies. The furor didn't want to end. (The well-meaning whistlers apparently didn't know that their acts of ear-piercing homage would have been regarded as the equivalent of booing back in the Old World.)

During the performance, there had been even more sighing, gasping, bravo -ing and bravi -ing than usual. Massive ovations--standing and sitting, spontaneous and calculated, deserved and undeserved, timely and premature--had punctuated the valedictory outing of Yuri Grigorovich's "The Golden Age."

It was an interesting phenomenon. A modern American audience had paid up to $67 per ticket in order to register wild approval for Russians performing a primitive period-saga that celebrates the triumph of Soviet purity and strength over capitalist decadence.

The audience watched enthralled as the humble but muscular hero persuaded the idealistic if not-so-innocent maiden of his choice to join him as a member of the Komsomol--the League of Young Communists. The crowd went crazy when, at the final curtain, the good guys and girls dashed around the stage waving red banners to the thumping tunes of the young Shostakovich at his most banal.

It could be argued, of course, that it was the dancing per se that had ignited the emotions out front, not the vehicle. Who cared if the Russians thought this ludicrous indulgence represented a significant social statement, a fierce satire or a step toward meaningful modernism? It didn't matter.

The wondrous Irek Mukhamedov had flown and flipped through the air with impossible nonchalance. The lovely Ludmila Semenyaka had defined the duties of the dancing damsel in distress with marvelously cheeky bravado--bravado cloaked in silken, sexy finesse.

It also could be argued that the resident enthusiasts responded to the frantic, redundant, athletic, cliche-oriented choreography as if the Bolshoi were just another purveyor of show-biz glitz and circus stunts. The sponsor of the local season, after all, was Civic Light Opera, and choice tickets had been sold as part of a package that also included "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum" and "Cabaret."

Fun, da . Art, nyet .

Los Angeles certainly loved the Bolshoi. The bona-fide aficionados--some might even include critics in that minority--may have insisted on making distinctions between the dancers and the dance. Loved them, hated it. The majority, however, embraced the glamorous visitors and their fancy product in toto , with unabashed gusto.

When the curtain finally fell on that last performance of "The Golden Age," the house all but caved in. When the curtain rose again, the "Golden Age" principals shared the applause with other members of the company dressed in elegant mufti, with technicians and coaches. Grigorovich, the controversial paterfamilias , brought out Galina Ulanova, the prima ballerina assoluta in excelsis who had captured American hearts as Giselle and Juliet back in 1959. Now 77, she serves her alma mater as a ballet mistress.

Dwight Grell--the Bolshoi's foremost Western archivist, self-appointed cheer-leader and curator of a splendid memorabilia collection that had graced the upper foyer throughout the season--tossed bouquet after bouquet at the adored ones. Everyone beamed, blew reciprocal kisses and waved.

Mukhamedov, possibly the most quietly potent export from Moscow since vodka, showered his colleagues with Grell's flowers and clasped his appreciative hands above his head, Rocky style. Somehow, he garnered special, private ovations in spite of himself and the chaotic surroundings.

Your faithful but tired scribe left after 19 minutes of blissful pandemonium. There was no end in sight.

The press did not respond to the Bolshoi with inevitably unanimous fervor. Many ungrateful skeptics of the Fourth Estate found the company more shallow than was hoped and less refined than was expected. The leading dancers were deemed uneven. The "new" ponderous choreography, often teetering on the brink of mindless abstraction, was labeled old-fashioned, vulgar, frenetic and, worst of all, dull.

The cavils didn't just come from this newspaper. They came from other Los Angeles papers, and they came from New York, Washington and San Francisco.

Grigorovich acknowledged the slings, arrows and contradictions. He told Army Archerd of Daily Variety that he was most happy with Los Angeles audiences even though "some critics poured acid on us."

It is possible to explain the discrepancy.

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