MOSCOW -- It could almost form the plot for one of Yuri Grigorovich's epic ballets. Some Bolshoi theater employees, claiming they are treated like slaves by a tyrannical management, decide to revolt. The rebellion is crushed, but the luster of the world's most celebrated ballet company is tarnished.
The feud between Artistic Director Grigorovich and many of his former stars of the Bolshoi Ballet, which opens a guest season at Wolf Trap tonight, has been going on for years, providing Muscovites with a seemingly endless supply of gossip. Last month, it reached new levels of bitterness with an unprecedented 24-hour hunger strike by six Bolshoi artists, led by Yuri Grigoriev, secretary of the theater's Communist Party committee and a former Bolshoi Opera singer. Two of the protesters are dancers; the total number of Bolshoi personnel, including members of the ballet and opera companies, is 2,500.
"Grigoriev only wants to attract publicity to himself," Grigorovich said later in a phone interview with Washington Post dance critic Alan M. Kriegsman. Grigorovich spoke from New York, where the Bolshoi was soon to perform. "He is trying to hold on to his power, which is slipping, in his position as party secretary. But he and other party functionaries have done more harm than anyone to the Bolshoi and have driven away numbers of distinguished artists."
"Grigorovich behaves as if the Bolshoi is his personal property and we are all his slaves,"
said Alexander Bogatyryov, a ballet soloist and one of the hunger strikers. "We're opposedto slavery. Our aim is to win freedom for the slaves."
The immediate reason for the hunger strike was the introduction of a new contract system that critics say destroyed the job security traditionally enjoyed by Bolshoi artists. But the rebels used the protest to voice other grievances against the present Bolshoi management, including the widespread perception of a sharp decline in artistic standards.
The most serious charge against Grigorovich is that, after more than a quarter of a century as the Bolshoi's artistic director, his creative juices have dried up. He made his reputation in the late 1960s and early '70s with blockbuster spectacles such as "Spartacus," but he has failed to produce a significant new work for six years and refuses to make way for younger choreographers.
"The Bolshoi is not an experimental theater," said Grigorovich. "We only invite established choreographic masters but we have had numbers of new recent productions including ballets by Roland Petit and John Neumeier. And next season John Taras will stage George Balanchine's 'Prodigal Son' for us. I myself am at work on two productions -- 'The Bolt,' a ballet with music by Shostakovich, and a new production of 'Cinderella.' "
The dissidents complain that a stifling creative atmosphere at the Bolshoi has forced many of the best dancers to leave the company. One recent defector is Irek Mukhamedov, who has joined England's Royal Ballet. Bolshoi dancers long at odds with Grigorovich include such stars as Maya Plisetskaya and Mikhail Lavrovsky, who said that the Bolshoi had turned into a "one-man show."
Probably the most vociferous critic is Vladimir Vasiliev. He leaped to stardom in a role created specially for him by Grigorovich: the leader of the slave revolt in "Spartacus."
"Perestroika is taking place all over the Soviet Union, but not at the Bolshoi" said Vasiliev in a recent interview. "The hunger strike was an act of despair. What is happening at the Bolshoi is not just a crisis, it is a catastrophe."
At the age of 50, Vasiliev has virtually given up dancing in favor of choreography. Seldom working at the Bolshoi because of his feud with Grigorovich, he has moved to the Stanislavsky Theater down the road. His recent production of Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet" won critical acclaim here, in part because it represented a sharp break with the "socialist realist" style favored by Grigorovich.
According to Vasiliev, the key to Grigorovich's power is his alliance with the director of the Bolshoi ballet school, Sofia Golovkina. By controlling admissions to it, Vasiliev claims, Grigorovich and Golovkina have been able to build an influential network of friends and patrons who want their children or grandchildren in the school.
Soloists at the ballet school are "selected by height," Soviet ballet critic Irina Dezikova was recently quoted as saying in a Moscow magazine. "People with relatives in high places have the best chance of making it."
The Communist Party committee at the Bolshoi became a focal point for dissent after objecting to "an atmosphere of moneymaking" at the 247-year-old theater, which traditionally has relied on state subsidies. A contract signed last year gives a British company, Entertainment Corp., the exclusive right to arrange foreign tours for the Bolshoi, market its name abroad, and use the theater for any purpose it considers "useful."
The contract also gives the British company a hefty 42.5 percent share of the non-performing revenues. The dissident party committee, which has officially been disbanded on instructions from above but continues to function, argues that the deal amounts to "cultural colonialism."
"I'm all for private property, free markets, even capitalism, if that's what people want. But I'm not an idiot. They are trying to rob us," fumed Grigoriev, the opera singer, who has starred in "Prince Igor," "Otello" and "Rigoletto" in addition to being the party secretary.
The Bolshoi management has defended the deal with Entertainment Corp. by arguing that it will help raise much-needed hard currency. An article in the Communist Party newspaper Pravda this week said the money would help the company address such problems as a chronically leaking roof, aging technical equipment, and poor salaries and housing conditions for many theater workers. It said the high fee paid to the British partner was justified by heavy expenses, particularly in legal fees defending the Bolshoi trademark.
For the moment, Grigorovich's position seems secure enough. Rather than challenging the artistic director, the dissidents are leaving the theater one by one. When the question of Grigorovich's own departure is raised, his supporters point out that he won a vote of confidence from the Bolshoi collective two years ago by a margin of four to one.