Russian ballet gets overhaul -- Soviet style The Bolshoi's Next Act

April 01, 1995|By Kathy Lally | Kathy Lally,Moscow Bureau of The Sun

Moscow -- The Kremlin's Italianate walls are only 500 yards from the Grecian columns of the Bolshoi Theater, a proximity that has invited dictator and democrat alike to regard the great hall as if it were his own personal stage.

So Russians have found it only natural that President Boris N. Yeltsin has handed out the choice roles himself. Last month he installed Vladimir Vasilyev, a much-admired dancer, as the Bolshoi's artistic director.

Mr. Vasilyev, it seems, has only one enemy. That was Yuri Grigorovich, the choreographer who ruled the Bolshoi for 30 years. Enraged by the appointment of his former protege, Mr. Grigorovich resigned as director March 9.

An era was over, and Western critics are hoping a new one will begin. They said the once-legendary ballet had fallen sadly behind the times, with a tired repertoire and weary dancers. Indeed, the Bolshoi and its decline tell the story of how Russia's cultural institutions suffered from years of intellectual and artistic repression. And perhaps the Bolshoi was subjected to the most scrutiny, for the Kremlin leaders saw it as an extension of themselves and their rule.

"It was one of our symbols," says Ludmilla Merzhanova, a 77-year-old former ballerina. "We had the Bolshoi, black caviar and the birch tree. With the Bolshoi, we showed the world our grandeur."

Miss Merzhanova remembers the intense gaze of the Kremlin quite well.

Josef Stalin liked the prettiest ballerinas to sit on his lap. Members of the Politburo used to send a car, and young dancers would be bundled off whether they were interested in a liaison with their masters or not.

Miss Merzhanova started dancing at the Bolshoi in 1936, when she was 18 years old. She danced for Stalin, and affectionately called him "Papa," as many did.

"One time he came for the last act of 'Don Quixote,' " Miss Merzhanova recalls. "I had to make three big jumps, finishing directly opposite where Papa sat. I felt so nervous because he was there.

"I was fine until I got to the third jump. Then I fell right down on my bottom. I looked straight at him and threw my arm up with a flourish. Everyone applauded. It was a very big success. Of course, I could have been shot."

Miss Merzhanova led a relatively privileged life. Now a widow, she was married to a war hero 20 years older than she. She is small -- about 5 feet tall -- and because she was younger than her husband's friends and very pretty, she was always admired and fussed over. So her memories of the Stalin years are very different from the horrors recounted in history texts.

"I knew Stalin very well," she says. "Once I was sitting on his knee and embracing him -- everybody loved him -- and I admired his watch.

"He said, 'Should I give it to you?' I said, 'No, you don't need to.' And I picked up a piece of candy and gave it to him. 'Give me that,' I said. He gave it to me, and I tucked it into my bra."

Miss Merzhanova took it home to the apartment where she still lives on Tverskaya Street, a few blocks from the Kremlin and Bolshoi. She pointed out the place of honor where she displayed it in her china cabinet.

A few years later her young daughter, alone in the room, noticed it. She ate it and threw away the wrapper.

The members of the Bolshoi always had special comforts -- as long as they were in favor with their bosses. They had good apartments and fine furniture, and those who were especially well-behaved or connected could tour abroad.

They all understood the limits: art was intended to glorify communism and the state; it was not to be a means of individual expression, which was seen as a threat to the totalitarian state.

No one understood this better than the longtime director, Mr. Grigorovich, who by all accounts possesses great talent but still churned out the approved versions of the old classic ballets year after year. The dancers who felt stifled artistically kept silent, or defected. There was no middle ground.

A delicate balance

Some of the younger dancers say that their colleagues are afraid to this day to take any risks that might threaten the system.

"The whole country is in transition," says Gedeminas Taranda, who was one of the Bolshoi's best character dancers, "but in the Bolshoi they still have a Soviet-communist way of doing things." He was fired last year after he dared to go on a well-paid tour of the Netherlands that his bosses had not officially sanctioned.

"It's all very political," says Mr. Taranda, who now runs his own company. "The Ministry of Culture and the government try to influence the theater as much as possible. Everyone is trying to push his own man.

"In the end, no one is really responsible. In the last three years, 30 talented dancers have left the Bolshoi -- not only for the West but for other theaters in Russia. It's just like the society in the communist system -- no one is responsible for anything."

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