MOSCOW — The audience awaits, bearing 300 years of experience. In the halls of the Duma next door, things Western are cause for suspicion. As the house lights dim on opening night, the uphill course confronting the American Ballet Theatre grows ever more illuminated — the stage is at a slope.
No matter. If America does not always play so well here, American does, even in the language of ballet native to Russians. By the time the ABT has left the stage, on this their first visit in nearly half a century, they have won the critics and charmed the spectators.
“The expectations here were very high,” Anna Galaida, a dance critic for the Vedomosti newspaper, said Wednesday. “And the ballet has lived up to them.”
ABT visited for the first time in a six-month State Department-sponsored European tour in 1960, and Nikita S. Khrushchev saw their last Moscow performance of that tour just days after he banged his shoe at the United Nations and called the Philippines delegate a toady of American imperialism.
Never mind. The Soviet premier clapped through three enthusiastic curtain calls and invited some of the company to a midnight supper of champagne and caviar. Khrushchev found the performance “quite good,” according to Seymour Topping, reporting for the New York Times.
The company made its last visit in 1966, when Soviet officials stayed away because the United States was bombing North Vietnam. These days the United States is bombing Libya, Afghanistan and Pakistan, relations are a little cool but not Cold, and neither president nor prime minister went to opening night at the new stage of the Bolshoi Theatre — no slight perceived.
While the 1960 visits were State Department-sponsored, this time ABT came at the invitation of the Mstislav Rostropovich Foundation, which is sponsoring an arts festival here to honor the memory of the great cellist, who conducted Washington’s National Symphony Orchestra for 17 years after he was exiled from Russia in 1974.
Rostropovich’s daughter, Olga, artistic director of the festival, said ABT brought not only the highest level of achievement, but an American presence that would have pleased her father.
“He loved Washington,” she said, “and he loved his orchestra, and it was a very special time.”
In his honor, Benjamin Millepied, of “Black Swan” fame, choreographed a new ballet, “Troika,” for three men dancing to selections from Bach’s Suite for Solo Cello No. 2 in D Minor and Suite for Cello No. 3 in C, music that Rostropovich famously played.
“It has a wonderful sense of male camaraderie and competitiveness and playfulness,” says Kevin McKenzie, ABT’s artistic director.
Well-received as they are, today’s troupe stands in the historic shadow of the 1960 tour, which forever transformed American dance.
Once a 22-year-old Rudolf Nureyev saw Erik Bruhn soaring through the air in the American company’s “Swan Lake” pas de deux, he defected to the West at the first opportunity, which arrived the following year in Paris.
“If this is male dancing in the West,” he said, according to McKenzie’s telling, “I’m going.”
Nureyev quickly became a household word, one that appreciative Americans soon learned to speak.
“Before Rudy, you could say ‘ballet’ to someone and they thought you said valet,” McKenzie observes.
“Nureyev and Bruhn upped the ante of what male dancing is,” McKenzie says. “All of a sudden, the onus changed. Men dancing could be talked about. Ballet became something to do.”
Other Russians followed. Natalia Makarova, in 1970, and Mikhail Baryshnikov, in 1974, joined the ABT. More went to world-famous companies in London, Paris and New York, influencing their new colleagues even as they themselves changed.
They made U.S. ballet not Russian, but, like other immigrants in so many other walks of life before them, they made it American. And American it remains, says McKenzie, as he describes ABT dancers from 20 nations, from China to the United States, a veritable melting pot of movement.
“We all do ‘Swan Lake,’ ‘Giselle,’ ‘Bayadere,’ ” McKenzie says of the 1,000 dancers who belong to the world’s best companies. “But we are set apart as Americans; we have a style not defined by training, but once you see it, you know it.”
Yuri Kragen, a middle-aged man at the opening night here with his wife, Galina, called the Russian style more static, more classical.
“The program was great,” he said, “just wonderful. I liked every minute of it, especially the movement, always continuous.”
Marcelo Gomes, a principal dancer who comes from Brazil, says each of the ABT dancers is an individual, but they learn from one another and together build a look for the company.
No one could mistake “Fancy Free’’ from Jerome Robbins and Leonard Bernstein, created for the ABT in 1944, as anything but American — only watch how the three sailors on shore leave walk.
“We work very hard on that,” says Gomes, who was one of the sailors Tuesday night. “There’s a certain look to that ballet, and you don’t want to be [Giselle’s] Prince Albrecht in a sailor suit.”
Ilya Lapin, a young artist in the audience, said a Russian version of the ballet would have been more serious.
“This one was easy, light and very cheerful,” he said, “a real American ballet. I think this is the American style.”
The dancers had to have been nervous, McKenzie says. Audiences here arrive with encyclopedic knowledge. The dancers would perform on a raked stage at the new stage of the Bolshoi, next-door to the historic theater, which is being shored up and remodeled. Stages here are sloped up and away from the audience — making dancers in the back a little higher — unusual in America.
“There’s no trick,” he advised. “Stand up straight. Don’t start messing with everything you know a few moments before you go onstage.”
The critics here, while appreciative, were not without complaint. Galaida said Balanchine’s “Theme and Variations” — also performed in 1960 — was not danced as cleanly as it would be here. Some members of the corps stood out, she said, when all should look alike — by Russian standards.
“Half of the corps would not have been even admitted to the Bolshoi troupe,” she said, “but they dance with such sincerity. The Americans really enjoy their dancing and you could feel it, of course.”
On the other hand, Galaida said, Russian dancers can find themselves suppressed by tradition. “It is very rare when a dancer here can find a balance between the tradition and emotions,” she said.
Maria Riccetto, a soloist from Uruguay who danced in “Theme and Variations” and “Fancy Free,” found the audience a little cool at first, unwilling to commit itself with too much applause. But by the end of program, people were shouting bravos and clapping with enthusiasm.
Cory Stearns, who was supposed to dance the main male role in “Theme and Variations,” became ill not long before the performance and was replaced by David Hallberg, who also danced “Seven Sonatas,” the piece choreographed by Alexei Ratmansky, a Russian, former Bolshoi artistic director and now ABT artist-in-residence.
Riccetto said Hallberg filled in gracefully at the last minute, and the other dancers fell in place around him easily.
“You just have to step up and do it,” she said. “We were all very excited to be here, and the theater was incredible.”
Anna Gordeyeva, ballet critic for Moscow News, was most taken by “Troika.” “I got very deep feelings when I watched it,” she said. “I don’t know what the choreographer wanted, but I felt it expressed the character of Rostropovich very well. I felt his purity, his cheerfulness, the simplicity of his genius.”
There’s a difference, McKenzie had said, between entertainment and art, which challenges assumptions. Ideally, they meld.
“We are here,” he said, “to make a statement.”
The Russians, thoughtfully, happily, collecting their coats before walking out into the wintry night, said they had heard.
As Gordeyeva put it, “Everyone was saying come back sooner next time.”