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A Fitting Celebration for a Grande Dame of Dance : Ballet: Despite friction with her former troupe, Maya Plisetskaya makes a triumphant return to the Bolshoi.

November 30, 1995|STEPHANIE SIMON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MOSCOW — She received dozens of roses for each minute she danced, earned cheer upon cheer of "brava!" Yet Maya Plisetskaya, the legendary Russian ballerina, spoke with sorrow after her triumphant return to the Bolshoi Theater.

Plisetskaya showed only joy during her graceful performance Tuesday night, when she celebrated her 70th birthday by reprising her famous "Dying Swan" before an adoring crowd. Her performance at a ballet gala organized by a Russian political party was only her third performance on her home stage since she quit the Bolshoi, and left Russia, in anger six years ago. In a news conference Wednesday, the red-haired star still flashed with frustration as she denounced the Bolshoi--and Russia as a whole--for squandering its rich potential.

"The Bolshoi deserves to produce its own, absolutely new shows both in opera and ballet, instead of just putting on what people in the West have been watching for 30 years straight," Plisetskaya said.

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That complaint seemed aimed at longtime Bolshoi director Yuri Grigorovich, who was known for adapting the standard Russian repertory and reviving his own productions rather than cultivating new ballets. It was because of disagreements with Grigorovich that Plisetskaya left the Bolshoi in 1989, after nearly 50 years of dancing and then teaching with the renowned company. Grigorovich was forced to resign in a power struggle last March, touching off months of tumult that threatened to tear apart the 219-year-old company.

To protest Grigorovich's departure, dancers staged a one-day strike, canceling a performance of "Romeo and Juliet." Plisetskaya condemned the strikers for disappointing ticket-holders. For her part, she withheld criticism of the Bolshoi until after her last curtain call.

Then, she let loose.

"I do not feel very cheerful" about the company's future, she said. With a new director aboard, the Bolshoi "cannot help but change," she added. "But which way will it go? That's not clear."

Voicing little confidence in the Bolshoi's new administration, Plisetskaya, who now lives in Germany and still teaches and performs internationally, noted that she had to personally invite dancers from around the world to participate in Tuesday's gala. The four-hour performance was organized by Our Home Is Russia, the political party of Russia's prime minister. It was directed by a former Bolshoi soloist who recently quit the company in disgust. "The Bolshoi Theater didn't help at all," Plisetskaya said. "To them, we can say 'Thank you' only for providing the stage."

The Bolshoi has launched a $370-million project to spruce up that stage and add new performance and rehearsal space. But while ballets now command Western ticket prices, the theater's amenities are distinctly Russian: A cashier totes up the bill for caviar snacks on an abacus and toilet paper has not yet made it into the bathrooms.

After a half-century of working at the Bolshoi, Plisetskaya has clearly learned to expect chaos. When a veteran dance photographer complained that he could not get into her show, she ruefully reminded him, "You're talking about the Bolshoi Theater, so that's standard."

Sighing not just for the Bolshoi, but for her entire homeland, Plisetskaya said that "life in Russia worries me." The ballerina added: "People cannot continue to live with the uncertainty of not knowing what will happen tomorrow."

Yet scores of Russians felt confident enough to fork over up to $500 apiece--several times a Bolshoi dancer's monthly salary--to watch Plisetskaya perform. They squeezed their money's worth from the ageless star by demanding encore after encore.

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Twice, Plisetskaya fluttered on stage in a stiff white tutu to dance a swan's graceful death.

She also performed excerpts from "Isadora" and the premiere of "Kurozuko," based on a Japanese legend. Both were choreographed by Maurice Bejart.

Then, a dozen times, she approached the footlights to curtsy and wave as fans tossed roses from the balcony and ushers staggered on stage bearing huge bouquets. Hailed with rhythmic applause, Plisetskaya described her dancing as "no less or no worse" than it was 50 years ago.

Her admirers agreed--lavishly.

Prime Minister Viktor S. Chernomyrdin took the stage to award a medal for exceptional service to the nation, telling her earnestly, "You embody great Russia." Ferociously clapping her adulation, former Bolshoi ballerina Svetlana Sherbinina declared, "It's pure joy to see her."

Equally impressed, 20-year-old dancer Dmitri Godunov predicted that Plisetskaya's appearance would inspire his fellow artists to build a better Bolshoi. "Now," he said, "we have hope."

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