WATCHING THE Bolshoi Ballet and New York City Ballet dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov in close succession leads one to conclude that you can take the ballet out of Russia -- numbers of Russians have been doing just that, intermittently, for the past 70 years -- but you can't really take Russia out of the ballet. It would be like removing the Kentucky from bourbon.
Despite the Westernization that Russian-style dance has undergone since Serge Diaghilev and his entourage landed in Paris and began spreading the Ballets Russes gospel across the Occidental map, classical ballet in nearly all its contemporary guises remains ineradicably Russian in root and lineage. The public, moreover, continues to be mesmerized by the association -- Russian names still magnetize the ballet box office on an international scale.
Yet the tables have turned. It used to be that the Russians led and Europe and the New World followed. Nowadays, one looks primarily to the United States for new developments in the art, and contemporary Russian ballet has come to appear stodgy and antiquated.
Nothing could have illustrated these patterns more graphically than the recent chance juxtaposition of the Bolshoi and Baryshnikov. The Bolshoi Ballet of Moscow is currently making its first appearances in this country since 1975, in a month's engagement at the New York State Theater, which ends next Sunday and will be followed by visits to Chicago and Los Angeles. Coincidentally, during the second week of the Bolshoi engagement, the celebrated Soviet emigre dancer Mikhail Baryshnikov, Denmark's Peter Martins, and four of their dancer colleagues from the New York Ballet were presenting three performances to sold-out crowds (more than 8,000 opening night) at Philadelphia's outdoor Fredric R. Mann Music Center (Robin Hood Dell West).
The Bolshoi's 53-year old star Maya Plisetskaya and a number of other first-rank dancers are not here for the current tour. Their absence is a mark of an intramural esthetic battle that has raged for years and riven the troupe into warring camps. At issue are the efforts of Bolshoi artistic director and chief choreographer, Yuri Grigorovich, to revamp the tradition-encrusted classics of the ballet repertoire. (The present tour includes Grigorovich's own "updated" versions of "Swan Lake" and "Romeo and Juliet.") Those dancers who have been outspokenly critical of these "tamperings" are precisely those who are not appearing in the United States this time around.
Of course the Bolshoi's present touring unit of some 125 is hardly devoid of outstanding dancers. And the Bolshoi name alone can still pack houses. There's no surprise in this. Less than three decades ago the Bolshoi was regarded by nearly everyone as the Number One classical troupe of the globe. The company's first visit to this country, exactly 20 years ago, prompted more than 3 million ticket requests prior to opening night, and left an enormous impact on public and press.
The westward shift in ballet's center of gravity is largely a matter of the divergent paths taken by "our" Russians -- the ones who left the motherland -- and "theirs" who stayed behind. The Russians didn't invent ballet, of course; that honor belonged to Italian and French dancers and dancemasters of the late Renaissance, who exported the new art of classical theatrical dancing to other countries of the Old World -- including Russia -- and the New. For two centuries, the royally chartered Frence dance academy dominated the scene; we're still using its technical vocabulary. Then, with the rise of the Russian career of Marseilles-born ballet master Marius Petipa in the last third of the 19th century, and the simultaneous emergency of Peter Ilyich Tchaikovsky as a composer of ballet scores, Paris yielded as ballet capital to St. Petersburg and Moscow. The grandest staples of ballet repertoire as we know it today the world over -- "Swan Lake," "Sleeping Beauty" and "The Nutcracker" -- stemmed from these sources, as do the "standard" versions of such other balletic warhorses as "Giselle" and "Coppelia."
The transplantation was effected mostly by Diaghilev and his brilliant array of collaborators, who came abroad dedicated to radical innovations in choreography, music, design and dramaturgy, but also neither denied nor abandoned their traditional heritage. They, their successors and emissaries -- including Lifar, de Valois, Fokine, Massine, Mordkin and Balanchine -- provided the groundwork for the great flowering of 20th-century ballet in theWest. A second Russian exodus of the '60s and '70s -- including Nureyev, Makarova and Baryshnikov -- has infused Western ballet with a new and freshly invigorating draught of Russian flavorings.
From this perspective, the contrasts between the recent performances of the Bolshoi and those of Baryshnikov, Martins and company seem all the more revealing and ironic. Beside the controversial "Swan Lake" and "Romeo and Juliet," the Bolshoi touring repertory includes three Legend of Love" and "Spartacus." Apart from the last, these ballets are peopled by queens, princes and courtiers, or fairyland creatures like swan-maidens and a Fire Spirit -- this from the bastion of proletarianism. The Grigorovich "Swan Lake" even manages to banish the peasant dances of the conventional stagings. And if the content is pure 19th-century in its romantic fancies and folkloristic aspects, the productions are still more so -- huge, elaborate, gradiose, flamboyant. "Bolshoi" means "big," and lavish spectacle, long a company hallmark, still reigns supreme.
But old-fashioned as it may appear from our Western standpoint, this represents the most "progressive" side of the Bolshoi enterprise. Grig enterprise. Grigorovich, in his way, has been trying to modernize and streamline the stylistic contours he inherited from his artistic forbears, and as a direct result he's been taking lumps at home from the more conservatively oriented members of his company -- thus the flap over his "meddling" with the classics. (See deatils, this page).
Though Mikhail Baryshinikov was reared within the more esthetically fastidious Kirov troupe rather than the gaudier Bolshoi, it's still not difficult to perceive his distincly Russian attributes, even if he has spent half a decade in this country, as a principal of American Ballet Theatre (to which he's now slated to return in the fall of 1980 as artistic director) and the New York City Ballet. He has also, like Nureyev before him, experimented with every Western idion he's had access to. The Russian traits can be seen in the virtuosic propulsion, the powerful thighs and back, the full lyric sweep and gestural largesse. But equally visible are the qualities spawned or accentuated by his American experience -- the snap, the speed, the humor and sleek efficiency. Then there are those things which are pure Baryshnikov, beyond all nationality, such as the way his body carves through air like a flashing scimitar, and the way he has of intensifying his center, at every moment of stillness or flight, to a point midway between pain and ecstasy.
The Philadelphia program he danced, along with Peter Martins and their NYC Ballet cohorts, also had its complementary Russian and American facets. "Appollo," and the duets from "Agon and /rubies," were works by choreography Geroge Balanchine and composer Igor Stravinsky, two more Russian expatriates of an earlier generation. Even the pieces by America's Jerome Robbins -- "Afternoon of a Faun" and "Suite from Chopin Dances" -- owed much of their conception and style to Nijinsky and Fokine. Only Balanchine's "Stars and Stripes" pas de deux, with its Yankee imagery and Souza score, seemed removed from things Russian -- and yet, by virtue of its steps, positions and athletic brilliance, not really all that far away. Just the same, the program as a whole, in its structural concision, its choreographic and musical astringencies, its stylistic impudence and originality, stood forth as a polar opposite to the Bolshoi offerings (though even here there were perverse ironies -- on the surface, the Baryshnikov-Martins fare looked like one of the Bolshoi's old "highlights" programs, featuring star turns and trick acrobatics).
"Apollo" was the most illuminating case of all. Choreographed originally for the Diaghilev troupe in 1928, this crystalline idealization of neo-classicism has been whittled down by Balanchine through a multitude of productions, shorn of its earlier sets, props and costumes, and now even deprived of its introductory scene, to a point where it has become an abstraction. (It's hard to know if there's any sense in retaining the last few fleeting allusions to the myth.) Baryshnikov's riveting performance in the title role epitomized the intermingling of Russian and Western elements within his artistic core. He was obviously striving hard to attain, and with a good measure of success, the nearly deadpan, expressionless concentration that typifies the Balanchine dancer in the context of the master's abstractions, as if to keep the cool, neo-classic exterior of the choreography free of emotional display, and to leave it up to the dance movement alone to stire the audience's affections. Yet, perhaps, subconsciously and despite himself, Baryshnikov couldn't seem to refrain from a certain sense of personification -- he wasn't just some abstract force incarnate in human form, but a definable individual; not only a symbol, but a character. And in this sense, it was as if his Slavic self had reasserted its right to expression. The end result was a most curious combination of Baryshnikov as, somehow, an "outsider" within the performance, not entirely on the same wavelength as his three female partners, and yet, at the same time, a devastatingly forceful embodiment of Balanchine's own description of the role: "a wild, half-human youth who acquires nobility through art." Perhaps the uniqueness of the Baryshnikov interpretation may be due, as much as anything else, to that extraordinary conjunction of East and West of which his art is so memorable an example.