Can the Bolshoi Regain Greatness?

April 05, 1995

Years after the collapse of communism, the Bolshoi Theater, one of its last glory symbols, has finally been freed from authoritarian clutches. Yet the firing of Yuri Grigorovich, the artistic director who ran the theater with an iron hand for three decades, may have been the easy part. Recreating the Bolshoi and returning it to artistic greatness is certain to be much harder in the chaotic conditions of Russia's newly found capitalism and runaway democratization.

Just how good was the Bolshoi and its famous ballet in its glory days?

It was capable of spectacular productions like "Spartacus" and "Ivan the Terrible." It was also blessed with some extraordinary teachers and had many wonderful dancers. Yet this theater, which dates its origins back to the 1770s, often had trouble with artistic arbiters and political censors, whether under czars or communists. In the end, it increasingly chose the safety of the predictable with time-worn classics such as "Swan Lake" and "Giselle." Incredibly, it managed to go for 15 years without launching a brand-new production.

In its stagnation the Bolshoi reflected the decay of its sponsor, the Soviet state. But while communism, under Mikhail S. Gorbachev, made one last effort to renew itself (and failed), the Bolshoi under Mr. Grigorovich did not even do that. As travel regulations relaxed, it began losing more and more of its best talent to foreign companies. At home, the Bolshoi, which had always been a snake pit of intrigue and backbiting, increasingly became the home of time-servers and mediocrities more worried about retaining their lifetime jobs and perks than about creating memorable art.

During the past few months, the Bolshoi was virtually paralyzed. As Mr. Grigorovich tried to save his job, general manager Vladimir Kokonin embarked on a sweeping restructuring of the theater. Its bloated payroll was to be cut, sinecures replaced with short-term contracts. When these moves became known, the ballet's dancers staged an unprecedented strike. The logjam was broken by President Boris N. Yeltsin, who sanctioned Mr. Grigorovich's firing.

The task of Vladimir Vasilyev, the new Bolshoi director, will be almost impossibly difficult. The staff is in disarray, the theater's home near the Kremlin is crumbling because of maintenance delayed for decades. Most critically, both the theater and its sponsoring state are out of money. Again, the Bolshoi is a symbol for its homeland.

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