Anyone who thinks that dance is the universal language hasn't gotten into a fight with a balletomane over the Bolshoi. Although communicating with movement rather than words avoids problems of semantics and dialect, the way people move is so basic, so personal, it can evoke passions as strong as any stirred by rhetoric. And the way we look at movement, whether on the stage or on the street, has been so shaped by culture and experience that we may instinctively react with distaste when confronted by something different.
Yuri Grigorovich's pounding spectacle "The Golden Age," which continued its week-long run at the Kennedy Center Opera House Wednesday night with cast changes in all four major roles, is not what we're used to seeing in a ballet. Although it's in the classical tradition, it's evident that, after Petipa, Russian and western choreographers have chosen different steps as well as different formulas. We're used to seeing "steppy" dances -- those that stress beats and footwork -- and we want the connections between those steps to be subtle. They like big, open jumps and, although those jumps do vary in shape or by embellishment, the dynamic of the step gives the same impact, and so they all look alike -- to us.
In a way, the Bolshoi is a balletic Galapagos. Fifty years in isolation, Soviet choreography evolved differently from ours. We say they're simple and old-fashioned, needing story ballets that we've grown tired of; they say we're cold and mechanical, concerned only with athleticism. And so we don't speak, even in dance.
The Bolshoi dancers transcend this nonlanguage barrier by dancing with such conviction that we're swept along on the crest of their leaps. Wednesday's cast -- Lyudmila Semenyaka as Rita, the cafe' entertainer who is saved, body and soul, by the people's hero Boris (Yuri Vasyuchenko); and bad guys Yashka (Aleksei Lazarev), Rita's dancing partner who moonlights as a thief, and his girl Lyuska (Maria Bilova) -- gave such incredibly believable performances that the ballet, for its stage life, made sense.
Semenyaka, who has absolutely gorgeous legs and feet, seemed almost deliberately unglamorous, becoming beautiful only in the last, happily-ever-after act, when she was reunited with her lover in a positive frenzy of supported somersaults and spins. Vasyuchenko -- big, blond and brawny, with the face of a clean-cut thug -- was not as flashy a technician as Irek Mukhamedov had been opening night, but sustained his heroic role more evenly throughout the ballet. Both Lazarev and Bilova were Bad, in the tradition of silent-movie villains. Bilova, gamin and tramp, seemed especially appropriate as a symbol of the Golden Age of the '20s -- that time in Soviet, as well as American, history when art was experimental and everyone lived for the moment.