It would be hard to imagine a more mind-boggling combination of the glorious and the silly than the Bolshoi Ballet's "The Golden Age," the work that opened the company's two week run at the Kennedy Center Opera House last night.
The glory has to do with the spectacular dance prowess and colossal stagecraft of this renowned Moscow troupe, which last visited this country in 1979 and has been seen only once before at the Kennedy Center, 12 years ago.
The silliness devolves around the story, conception, characters, music and choreography of "The Golden Age," which has elaborate sets and costumes by Simon Visaladze, a score by Dmitri Shostakovich, and was choreographed for the Bolshoi in 1982 by the company's artistic director Yuri Grigorovich.
If the audience had any reservations, it kept them well hidden. When the evening's lead dancers -- the Bolshoi's vaunted new male juggernaut, Irek Mukhamedov, and glamorous-looking ballerina Alla Mikhalchenko -- joined the rest of the dancers for a bow, the entire sold-out house sprang to its feet.
It's always been this way with American audiences and the Bolshoi. It's the one ballet company in the world that's guaranteed to knock 'em dead, no matter what.
The spectators attracted by the Bolshoi are not just your usual run of balletomanes. If they were, the economic problems of domestic ballet troupes would be at an end. But there's no American company that can fill a house as quickly or as certainly as this Soviet import, and that, mind you, without well known stars. The Bolshoi has a small number of extremely distinguished dancers who appeared during the Washington engagement of 1975, among them Grigorovich's wife Natalya Bessmertnova (originally scheduled to dance last night but still nursing an injury received earlier on the current tour) and Lyudmila Semenyaka. But none of their names is really familiar to the general public, and the company's other front-ranking performers constitute a new generation of dancers not previously seen in this country.
The Bolshoi, however, uniquely among ballet troupes, engenders the the kind of public attention that accrues to such blockbuster museum shows as the King Tut exhibition. And just as many of those who have lined up for such ballyhooed displays might not otherwise be caught dead in an art gallery, thus much of the Bolshoi's public, one surmises, wouldn't dream of patronizing any other ballet performances.
The point here is that if artistic quality alone were the motivation, the major American companies -- the finest in the world by this yardstick -- would never stop turning them away at the box office. And by the same token, you'd have to pay cash money to get people to sit through a ballet as stupefyingly monotonous and sophomoric as "The Golden Age."
Does this mean that the Bolshoi's audience didn't get what it came for? Not necessarily. There is no other ballet experience quite like what the Bolshoi provides. The vast and heroic dimensions of the dancing have no match anywhere. These dancers have a way of stretching human figural proportions that's extraordinary in itself: Bolshoi dancers always look taller, more splendidly muscled, longer of limb, more arched in the back and instep, more pulled out to extreme arcs than any others. They launch into the air like rockets. They burst open the volume of a stage enclosure, turning it into an expanding universe. The dancers' preparations for steps -- the windups -- are often grander and more emphasized than the steps themselves. The showmanship of the Bolshoi is phenomenal at all levels.
Every time the Bolshoi has returned to this country, it has come with dancers of special magnetism and virtuosity. Such a one was last night's Mukhamedov, who blasts aloft into his leaps looking so powerfully propelled that one imagines it may be a close contest between him and gravity.
It was hard to tell what else Mukhamedov might do, artistically, besides leaping well, just as it was difficult to determine much about the qualities of other dancers in the cast, including Mikhalchenko and the evening's other principals, Vitali Artyushkin and Tatyana Golikova (another veteran of the '75 tour). This was because "The Golden Age" is so choreographically and dramatically emaciated there's just not much to go by.
The first ballet under the title "The Golden Age" was generated by the Shostakovich score, written while the composer was still in his early 20s. The original production, by the Kirov Ballet in 1930, was a choreographic collaboration that did not survive beyond a season or two. When Grigorovich undertook to revive it a few years ago, he revamped the libretto and also the music, introducing excerpts from other Shostakovich scores -- most notably, slow movements from the piano concertos to serve as adagio backdrops for love duets newly occasioned by the revised scenario.
The Grigorovich version is not so much a ballet as a gigantic floor show. The plot concerns the love of a fisherman, Boris (Mukhamedov), for nightclub dancer Rita (Mikhalchenko), pitted against rival affections coming from hoodlum Yahska (Artyushkin) and his sweetheart Lyuska (Golikova). The night spot, located in a coastal village on the Black Sea during the early 20s, is called "Golden Age"; hence the ballet's title. There's a halfhearted attempt, as apparently there was in the original, to equate Boris and fellow fishermen with the good guy socialists of the Russian Revolution, where Yahska, his thieving cohorts and their "decadent" nouveaux riches victims are the baddies, but the ideological borderlines are disastrously fuzzy and confusing. Beyond a certain point, any resemblance between the program notes and what one sees on stage appears to be mostly coincidental.
Grigorovich is an able craftsman -- things keep moving fluidly from scene to scene, and the focus shifts efficiently between a foreground of individuals and background ensembles of various types. But the choreography settles into ruts very early in the long opus and continues to sink deeper within them as the ballet unfolds. The primary formula is an alternation of stage-filling, propulsively pumping mass dances with bravura solos or saccharine duets. This shuttling persists like clockwork no matter where the story is headed at the moment, so that any one section of the ballet looks more or less the same as another as far as movement is concerned. When you come to the end of Act II and realize you've got yet another whole act to go, it's rather discouraging.
The ultimate irony is the historical perspective from which one can see that the true "Golden Age" in dance took place not in post-revolutionary Russia, but in the capitalist west, fueled largely by Russians who left because of the artistically stifling atmosphere at home.
"The Golden Age" will be shown, with alternate casts, all this week. Next week, the Bolshoi presents two additional programs -- a "highlights" assortment of repertory, and the full-length "Raymonda."