The so-called "highlights" program the Bolshoi Ballet introduced at the Kennedy Center Opera House Tuesday night underscored the awesome paradox the company incarnates.
How can such magnificent dance artists -- so wise in the ways of the theater, so phenomenal in technical development -- tolerate a repertory as monumentally corny and esthetically stagnant as what they've shown us? Is it merely a matter of a different, culturally conditioned taste, or is the Bolshoi really as artistically reactionary as it appears to be?
That the Bolshoi sells like hot cakes and thrills the crowds it draws proves only that there's always an audience for schlock, especially when it's schlock on such a heroic scale.
Nor is there anything the matter with schlock, which all of us enjoy in one form or another. Cecil B. De Mille made hugely successful movie epics using a formula -- a mix of action, sanctimony, schmaltz and massive spectacle -- that still works and always will, as the Bolshoi and its artistic director, Yuri Grigorovich, plainly recognize. Let's just not kid ourselves that it's "King Lear."
By the same token, let's be clear that the Bolshoi Ballet occupies a place altogether its own among the world's great dance organizations. Even in Soviet Russia, there's nothing comparable. The Bolshoi is poised in a unique and delicate balance between elephantine kitsch and authentic artistic expression that is virtually the troupe's defining trait.
Tuesday night's program was a perfect illustration.
It began with the first act of Grigorovich's "Romeo and Juliet." Grigorovich and his constant collaborator Simon Virsaladze came up with some invigorating ideas for this production. Instead of realistic crowd scenes, the confrontation between the feuding Veronese clans is distilled almost to the point of abstraction, and the decor likewise, with only a suggestion of era and place but lots of atmosphere. Most refreshingly of all, the balcony scene has no balcony, just the pair of lovers in a dark halo of space.
The trouble is that the lugubrious atmosphere and characterizations seem more suited to Victor Hugo than to Shakespeare, and the choreography bleaches the lovers into bland stereotypes. Grigorovich has no restraint -- the lovers' duet goes into floor splits and upside-down lifts by the second phrase, dooming the movement to anticlimax thereafter. Romeo and Juliet were danced by two of the company's newest, youngest stars, Andris Liepa and Nina Ananiashvili, who are clearly strong, talented dancers, though both rather stylistically mannered.
The main beneficiaries of Grigorovich's approach were Tybalt and Mercutio, danced with tremendous gusto by Aleksandr Vetrov and Mikhail Sharkov. It was also fascinating to see slender, patrician Aleksei Dovgopoliy tackling the role of Paris in an unaffected, unspoiled style. Dovgopoliy, like the impressive Yuri Posokhov, who danced in the "Divertissements" segment of the program, is one of a few younger dancers who have not succumbed to the grandstanding that seems the Bolshoi rule.
The "Divertissements" included duets from "The Sleeping Beauty" and "The Nutcracker," as well as Fokine's "Dying Swan," rather mechanically danced by Alla Mikhalchenko.
The evening's true highlights came with Natalya Bessmertnova and Yuri Vasyuchenko in the Waltz from Fokine's "Chopiniana," and Lyudmila Semenyaka and Irek Mukhamedov leading an ensemble in the "Grand Pas" from "Don Quixote."
Bessmertnova, 46, who is Grigorovich's wife, is an artist on a more exalted plane than any other in the company. Her long, elegant line, the floating quality of her movement, the spaciousness of her gesture, her bewitching musicality -- all this invested the overfamiliar phrases of "Chopiniana" with reborn mystery and romance.
The big hit with the audience, and understandably so, was the spectacular virtuosity of Semenyaka and Mukhamedov in the "Don Quixote" number. It was a performance that showed that the grand old style of bravura fireworks can still be convincing. It's not just technique. Burly Mukhamedov may be the Bolshoi's Brando -- he attacks this warhorse with a sullen, smoldering demeanor from which his outbursts of aerial power flare like blasts of a blowtorch. For her part, Semenyaka, whose aristocratic Kirov training still shows, takes on a kind of sang-froid that works perfectly in this context.
The program ended with Act II from "Spartacus," the 1968 opus to the lurid music of Aram Khachaturian that is the quintessential Grigorovich ballet, given its melodramatic mode, simplistic political subtext and hordes of galloping, vaulting gladiators. It's a ballet that looks as though it needs to be performed in Red Square, possibly flanked by tank squadrons.
Aleksei Fadeyechev, one of the company's fast-rising men, had not only the requisite musculature and elevation as Spartacus, but an enhancing intensity and conviction as well. Vitali Artyushkin was a fittingly brutal Crassus, and Semenyaka and Maria Bilova drew their corresponding distaff parts in sufficiently brazen strokes.
Something very peculiar happens toward the end of the act. All of a sudden the music, with the dance following suit, takes a turn into Xavier Cugat territory. How we got from Rome to Rio in the blink of an eye remains a mystery. Anyway, after Spartacus defeats Crassus in the obligatory duel, the final image is a tableau formed by the victorious hero and the massed shields of his loyal slave-gladiators, looking suspiciously like an ad for hubcaps.
The audience, at the termination of the three-hour evening, seemed relatively subdued. It may have been battle fatigue.