As the curtain came down Saturday on the Bolshoi's last performance of its run at the Kennedy Center Opera House, the company stood on stage in the final tableau of "Raymonda." Precisely spaced rows of classical dancers, character dancers, mimes and marchers converged on a set of stairs atop which the premier danseur had just lifted the ballerina into the air. There she'll remain in memory, grandly poised, the glittering apex of the pyramid that constitutes academic ballet as it has been handed down from the last century.
This traditional image of the Bolshoi is a true one, but it is just one of several equally true facets. The company, the largest dance ensemble in the world, cherishes many of its conventions. Others, though, are being changed and this is particularly noticeable in some aspects of the dancing.
Not that the strength and power for which these Moscow dancers have been famous have disappeared. Irek Mukhamedov, who made his only appearance in "Raymonda" at the Saturday night performance, maneuvers like a large jet in the air -- there's little apparent effort. Yet he performs incredibly. Without adding new steps to the classical role of Jean de Brienne, the Christian knight who rescues the beautiful princess, Raymonda, from an infidel warrior, Mukhamedov uses his propulsion to position his legs so high and move them so resolutely that the movement is transformed. Indeed, there are times when he seems to soar parallel to the ground.
Entire groups of dancers in the Saracen, Spanish, Hungarian, and Polish numbers have an impact that -- as in the past -- makes the character movement of most other ballet companies seem tame.
What's new at the Bolshoi is on the classical side. Overall there is greater precision, more nuance, less flamboyance. Stretch, cushioning and body unity are still the cornerstones of the training, but the women's backs are not as exaggeratedly curved, their feet are more beautifully arched. The shadings of the female ensemble in Raymonda's dream were a lesson in how subtly varied the Petipa manner can be, and yet the degree of stylization with those slightly bent knees hinted at distancing, at a touch of irony.
The men's classical line showed in the air turns and beats of the infamously difficult jumped quartet of the last act and in deportment during large ensembles. Aleksei Fadeyechev, who had been de Brienne in the first "Raymonda," effectively subdued his attack in one of the troubadour's roles at subsequent performances. Fadeyechev wasn't the only principal cast in a smaller part. The use of Nina Ananiashvili, Maria Bilova, Alla Mikhalchenko, Aleksandr Vetrov and others throughout the repertory was another departure from the Bolshoi's previous custom of strict typecasting.
Nina Semizorova, Friday's Raymonda, was dancing against the grain. Yet she was creditable, particularly in Act 1. She's long-armed, long-legged, delicate, almost piquant. Speed, continuity and rhythmic variety are her strengths, but not the weighty emphasis or hard-edged clarity the role demands.
Yuri Vasyuchenko, on the contrary, should have relaxed a bit to give his brusque de Brienne some variety. Andrei Shakhin, as the Infidel on Friday as well as Saturday afternoon, is an actor of considerable nuance in what can easily become a stereotyped role, yet he's not as supple a dancer as his alternate, Aleksandr Vetrov.
At the Saturday matinee, Ananiashvili and Andris Liepa took the starring roles. They were young, beautiful and in love. His leaps as the music heralded Raymonda's entrance weren't just perfect arcs but expressions of mounting excitement. And she danced more expansively than she had earlier during the Bolshoi's visit here. A big style suits her.
Lyudmila Semenyaka, who danced Raymonda on both the opening and closing nights, was a ballerina first and foremost, with her partners -- Fadeyechev and Mukhamedov -- following suit as danseurs. To suggest rather than impersonate the characters is an accepted way of performing "Raymonda." The emphasis, particularly with so consummate a classicist as Semenyaka, is on Marius Petipa's style and choreography and the elegant parts of Aleksandr Glazunov's music.
Curtain calls on the Bolshoi's final night were taken not only by the dancers and artistic director Yuri Grigorovich but by the company's coaches, including such ballerinas of former days as Marina Semyonova, Galina Ulanova and Rimma Karelskaya.