The Bolshoi is showing signs of falling on its face

August 30, 1994|By Michael Specter | Michael Specter,New York Times News Service

For what appears to be the first time in the long, famously divisive history of Russian ballet, a jury presented an award for bravery last week: to young Yekaterina Kovmir of the Maryinsky Dance Theater in St. Petersburg. Miss Kovmir received the prize for defying her autocratic bosses and entering the First International Maya Dance Competition.

Nobody who knows the histrionic and increasingly intrigue-ridden world of Russian classical dance, which above all means the world of the Bolshoi Ballet and its iron-fisted artistic director, Yuri Grigorovich, doubted that Miss Kovmir earned her award.

She participated in the competition named for and founded by Maya Plisetskaya, the Bolshoi's legendary ballerina, even though jealous officials of the Bolshoi expressly ordered Russia's leading dancers not to.

"This is embarrassing," said First Deputy Culture Minister Konstantin Sherbakov, who noted ruefully that the Bolshoi artistic directors report not to his office but directly to President Boris N. Yeltsin.

Mr. Sherbakov made a point of attending a party last week for Miss Plisetskaya's new memoir, in which she brutally denounces Mr. Grigorovich and the Bolshoi.

"Can you imagine this?" Mr. Sherbakov continued. "Our most famous cultural institution is falling apart, and yet its leaders act as if they can dictate the terms of dance in Russia. Clearly there is no creativity at the Bolshoi. They are stuck in the past. Something must be done."

If that seems like a harsh assessment of what is perhaps still the world's most famous dance company and certainly the most visible cultural institution in Russia, it is no more severe than the letter that the Bolshoi's three artistic directors -- in choreography, opera and music -- recently sent to Mr. Yeltsin about their boss, the theater's general director, Vladimir Kokonin.

"His passivity in facing most problems, his incompetent administration, his interference into the creative sphere are ruining the business," they wrote to the president, who has agreed to resolve the bitter standoff. "And they form an abyss of misunderstanding between the creators and the bureaucrat."

Mr. Kokonin, the "bureaucrat," has made no secret of his desire to dismiss the "creators": Mr. Grigorovich; Yevgeny Raykov, the opera director; and Alexander Lazarev, the orchestra leader, whom many people here consider the last tyrannical remnants of a dictatorial past.

Mr. Kokonin declined to discuss the increasingly public feud, and so did the men he is feuding with. They are all waiting for Mr. Yeltsin to issue an edict and resolve the battle, which has paralyzed the Bolshoi's giant creative community of more than 2,000 employees, helped delay its fall opening (along with repairs to the crumbling stage) and made it impossible for dancers and musicians to know when or whether they will work again.

Mr. Kokonin's decision to introduce a contractual system for Bolshoi employees, which is the practice at most similar institutions throughout the world, has enraged the artistic directors, who held unchallenged authority there for decades.

Last month, in the Moscow newspaper Vecherny Klub, or Evening Club, Mr. Kokonin explained at great length why he abolished the old system and the power of the specialists who ran it.

"The Bolshoi, with its archaic strictures, is still living according to the blueprint of the past," he said. "Who are these 'chief specialists'? Are they lifelong appointees? They were appointed in the days of the Communist Party."

He went on to say that they still act as if Communists run Russia, that they take little initiative and that they drive creativity from the theater.

Under communism, the rulers lavished attention on the Bolshoi, providing perquisites to its world-famous stars that ranged from luxurious dachas to imported cars.

In return, the government took 75 percent of the theater's hard currency income. That financial arrangement remains essentially unchanged, although the support available to the theater has withered to almost nothing.

Just at the time when freedom has officially returned to the artistic enterprises of Russia, dozens of major Bolshoi stars have left in recent years to work for other theaters, here and abroad, where they receive better pay and far more artistic liberty.

Bolshoi performers still earn little more than $100 a month, about the same as a factory worker. If they are lucky and tour abroad -- and the company increasingly conceives all performances so they can be marketed in the West and earn dollars -- they earn far more. But in truth, according to several dancers who refused -- out of fear -- to be identified, money is only part of the problem. They say the lack of creativity is far more threatening.

"It is one of the most complete moral, psychological and artistic crises I have ever seen," said Vadim Gayevsky, one of Russia's best-known dance critics, whose book criticizing the Bolshoi caused such a stir in 1981 that its editor was dismissed, the press run was stopped, and Mr. Gayevsky was shunned by the elite of which he was a member.

"If you are young, talented and capable now, you don't want to dance at the Bolshoi. It is a hollow symbol, like the Kremlin. Nothing happens there. But it is the last place where the Iron Curtain stands."

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