The Bolshoi is a highly touted brand name, and an exotic one at that. If it dances and it is big and and it is Russian, the reasoning goes, it must be great.
The infectious spirit of glasnost makes everyone want to admire ambassadorial gestures these days. The Bolshoi dancers, furthermore, are dazzling salespersons. They know how to score points, and they milk applause even better than they execute grand jetes.
Although Grigorovich has toned down some of the overt theatricality that once, for better or worse, made the company famous, the Bolshoi still exults in showy effects. This still is the home of the climactic one-arm lift, the spectacular crotch lift, the dizzying fouette marathon, the kick administered by a dancer to the back of her own head in moments of supreme agitation, and the gasp-producing running catch of the ballerina in rapid transit.
This still is the company where the men--well, most of the men--are oh-so-manly, and the women, for the most part, are preening, weightless sylphs.
Even Ed Sullivan liked that sort of thing.
The leading Bolshoi dancers, moreover, project personalities. Los Angeles lost its heart to Mukhamedov, as did the rest of the country. Everybody loves a superman. Still, he wasn't lonely here. There were plenty of advocates for the noble, muted power of Alexei Fadeyechev and for the somewhat mannered, boyish elegance of Andris Liepa.
Grigorovich does not tend to give the women comparably glamorous or revealing opportunities. Nevertheless, it was easy to surrender to the mercurial charm and technical perfection of Semenyaka, not to mention the soulful lyricism of young Nina Ananiashvili.
Sophisticates may have been a bit confused when the crowds went equally wild over the rather bland Yuri Vasyuchenko, the rather bluff Alexander Vetrov, the rather brittle Nina Semizorova and the rather pallid Alla Mikhalchenko. Enthusiasm in this special context, however, is contagious.
Bolshoi means \o7 big\f7 . The cliche definition fits.
One may not like the new inventions, and one may regret the current fashion of streamlining and steam-rolling the classics. Even so, one can be impressed by the shear magnitude of the operation.
The Bolshoi doesn't have to worry about financial tribulations or the restrictions of labor unions. That is a fine political paradox. It can afford huge casts, elaborate (usually literal and ugly) decors, generous rehearsal schedules, a huge staff of technicians and teachers. Audiences accustomed to the great American way of cutting corners in the arts must appreciate that.
After seeing the rival Kirov Ballet of Leningrad in the dark, dispiriting, gargantuan ambiance of Shrine Auditorium, we also had to appreciate the relative sophistication and intimacy, not to mention the advantageous sightlines, of the Pavilion. The dancers complained--they invariably do--that the floor was too hard and the stage too small. They would have preferred to dance on a rake, as they do in Moscow. Nevertheless, the Music Center turned out to be a welcome and reasonable home away from home.
The Bolshoi did give us two unforgettable "Raymondas" with Semenyaka in the title role, once opposite the noble Fadeyechev and once opposite the passionate Mukhamedov. There was at least one memorable "Giselle," thanks to the poignant Ananiashvili and Fadeyechev. For all its theatrical oversimplification and gotta-dance-dance-dance mentality, the first act of Grigorovich's "Romeo" exerted a certain propulsive urgency.
During the divertissement sections of the mixed bills--sections drastically shortened and refocused since the opening of the tour in New York--audiences could catch a tantalizing glimpse of Natalia Bessmertnova in the waltz from "Les Sylphides." Later she danced Phrygia in the "Spartacus" love duet. The senior ballerina had to relinquish her more strenuous assignments because of an injury, but her authority and delicacy of phrasing illuminated these token appearances beyond the appeal of mere nostalgia.
In another vaudeville pas de deux, Mukhamedov--partnering either Semenyaka or Ananiashvili--ignited the flashiest of "Don Quixote" sparks.
Such pleasures were offset, however, by a shameless junk duet from "The Talisman," by a subdued "Dying Swan" that did a horrible disservice to the memory of Maya Plisetskaya, and by the monstrous kitsch of "Spartacus" itself. This year, we got only Act II of Grigorovich's outrageous ode to selfless Roman slaves, strutting aristocrats, slinking courtesans and slurping strings, but that was one act too many.
The "Spartacus" strings were slurped splendidly, it should be noted, by an unusually inspired pit orchestra that enlisted Bolshoi musicians in key spots and local recruits in others. The veteran conductor Alexander Kopylov enforced solid routine when he was in charge. More galvanizing, however, was Alexander Lavrenyuk, who brought incisive wit to the platitudes of "Golden Age" and quasi-Wagnerian grace to "Raymonda."
Lavrenyuk's special sympathy for the stage may be traced to his unusual background. Before taking up the baton, he happened to be an imposing caracatere specialist at the Bolshoi. In 1974, he danced Rothbart in "Swan Lake" at Shrine Auditorium in company with Maya Plisetskaya and Alexander Godunov. This is one conductor who has paid his dues, and paid them handsomely.
It was a long season by local standards, a season with long ballets, long waits at the metal detectors in front of the doors, long waits between the acts.
It was a season marked by aesthetic disappointments, hype, hysteria, endless cast shifting, strange artistic compromises and dubious local management (did anyone who speaks English bother to proof-read those programs?).
It also was an exotic and exciting season. Amid the puffery, the inequities, oddities, distortions and absurdities, the Bolshoi offered hints of greatness--greatness involving the past and greatness pertaining to the future.
Perhaps next time. . . .