A Bolshoi dream The ballerina: A young girl's dream came true, but now at age 29 she is dancing in a system nearly demolished by the fall of communism.

August 18, 1996|By CLARA GERMANI

MOSCOW - On tryout day for the Bolshoi Ballet School, an assembly line of Soviet classical perfection, 9-year-old Irina Zebrova was rejected at first because she was 2 inches too tall.

A thousand other little girls that day in 1976 quietly accepted similar fates for being too fat, too short, too stiff - never likely to be good enough for the five-tiered, gold-encrusted crown of Soviet culture, the Bolshoi Theater.

But Zebrova did not go quietly. A burst of dramatic tears somehow won her a reprieve - an audition.

The director admonished Zebrova not to bore the judges.

She recalls the inexperienced advice her father gave her: "Do something the school has never seen before - a gypsy dance."

"It was crazy," she says with an ironic cock of her theatrically tweezed eyebrow. "Imagine this small, skinny girl with goose bumps shaking her shoulders, stomping her feet, rolling on her knees and screaming 'Ha!' The director just fell off her chair laughing."

The moment of boldness was enough to win her one of only 40 slots that day in the Bolshoi school. With it came the real possibility of a future dancing in the gilt glow of the legendary Bolshoi Theater.

With a lot of sweat and endless hours of practice, the daughter of a welder and a nurse from provincial Ukraine could leap into the Bolshoi elite - the ballet and opera performers who have been coddled and displayed like royal jewels ever since the aristocracy in the Romanov dynasty created the Bolshoi as an imperial plaything in 1776.

In the Soviet era when Zebrova came of age, the hard-as-rock, precision-tuned Bolshoi dancers were paraded around the world symbols of superpower achievement. To be a Bolshoi performer was to be one of the "beautiful people." Performers were given big apartments with more bathrooms than most people had bedrooms. They were the sophisticates permitted to travel abroad, the few who got American jeans - and looked good in them.

After 10 grueling years of training - and reaching the very average height of 5 feet 5 inches - the Bolshoi dream did come true for Irina Zebrova.

But now she is dancing in the shabby remains of the once-great Soviet theater and ballet system. The fall of communism was the end of lavish support for the arts, and what's left of meager state subsidies isn't enough to make the theater run.

Behind the red brocade curtain - with its gold-embroidered hammer and sickle too expensive to replace - stagehands curse old wiring and unsafe scaffolding.

The Bolshoi stage - bigger than its seating area - has a river of sewage flowing through its crumbling basement. The ticket office has practically ceded its business to unsavory leather-jacketed scalpers. Bolshoi tickets are relatively cheap at face value, ranging from $2 to $60. But the bulk of tickets are sold by scalpers, who take from $50 into the hundreds. And their money doesn't go to support the theater.

Bolshoi's 'Last Tango'

Some ballets are danced to taped music. Dancers who haven't defected to independent theaters or gone off to rich foreign companies are at the mercy of a new contract system so vague they don't know from month to month exactly what their salary will be.

Today Zebrova is a working ballerina. While not a star, she is a soloist who dances regularly. But, as Richard Philp, editor in chief of Dance magazine, puts it, no matter how troubled the Bolshoi is, its dancers are still "extraordinary, at the top of the heap."

This past spring at the age of 29, Zebrova danced her first principal performance as the obsessed and sensual Jana in a new ballet based on the once X-rated movie "Last Tango in Paris." It was the crowning moment for Zebrova's long years of spinning and sweating in the mirrored and chandeliered practice rooms in the bowels of the Bolshoi.

Zebrova has a fascinating body, a 100-pound assemblage of willow and steel, dyed-black hair, porcelain white skin and a Tinkerbell voice. She has exactly the otherworldly effect you'd expect in a Bolshoi ballerina.

But it's her childlike spunk - a devotion to the "sacred" halls of the Bolshoi, balanced by self-deprecating humor and irreverent slang - that brings her down to earth.

While she's not famous in Russia, Zebrova became a minor celebrity in Japan, where audiences fell in love with her look and style when she performed there as a teen-ager. When she tours in Tokyo she still hears adoring fans call her name on the streets.

Zebrova's arms are particularly expressive, flowing like liquid into forms as impressive in the practice rooms as they are in the glow of the main Bolshoi auditorium. While Western ballerinas are known for their more accurate and quick footwork, Russian ballerinas are known for making arm movements as important as footwork.

Zebrova's life over the past 20 years has been defined by the Bolshoi in both mundane and momentous ways.

There was the battle over her height, and later, she had a pubescent bout with five extra pounds that threatened her career.

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