Testimony that the Soviet government used ballet to distract the Russian people from terrible living conditions informs both halves of "Dancing for Dollars," a two-part documentary being telecast on the Bravo cable channel this Sunday and next. Vintage film clips and anecdotes from members of the Bolshoi and Kirov companies detail the realities and ironies of life under Communism and display facets of the art that flourished under government patronage.
Unfortunately, the emphasis is on Russian ballet after Communism, and here the documentary grows factually unreliable and even misleading. Part I examines the disastrous 1996 Bolshoi engagement in Las Vegas, alternating clips of "Swan Lake" and slot machines to emphasize the incongruity of soulful Russian art in a soulless American landscape.
However, as director Angus Macqueen manipulates his footage to turn Nevada into ballet hell, the Russians into victims and the Oklahoma sponsors of the tour into fools, lots of issues pertinent to the engagement's failure get ignored.
Nobody mentions, for example, that the Las Vegas public might have found the engagement's $300 ticket price unprecedented and outrageous, or that the ruinous fake-Bolshoi tours that milked American audiences in the recent past were officially sanctioned by Moscow. And, of course, there's not a whisper about Las Vegas supporting its own ballet company plus a wide range of serious touring dance events--including Russian dance. Might spoil the simplistic anti-Americanism on view. . . .
Part II looks at the Kirov as the touchstone of classicism and the crisis occasioned by the 1995 arrest of its artistic director, Oleg Vinogradov, for soliciting bribes--charges later dropped. Nostalgia for the Soviet era pervades the flashbacks and interviews, with Vinogradov remarking, "I became who I am under Communism. Democracy may be the end of me."
But, again, when the filmmakers prove ill-informed about what they're showing, can you trust their conclusions? At one point, a Kirov stage manager speaks about the enduring greatness of Marius Petipa's "Sleeping Beauty," and, as illustration, we're shown the Lilac Fairy's solo in the Prologue--with choreography Petipa would never have recognized. As every St. Petersburg balletomane knows, his Lilac Fairy was a mime role.
* The Bolshoi episode of "Dancing for Dollars" premieres on Bravo cable at 4 p.m. Sunday, the Kirov segment at 4 p.m. Oct. 12.