The Bolshoi Ballet, which opened a week-long engagement at Wolf Trap Tuesday night, did just what the Bolshoi is supposed and expected to do. Performing Artistic Director Yuri Grigorovich's full-length "Ivan the Terrible," it drew a large crowd, estimated at 5,000 -- gigantic by ballet standards -- and proceeded to thrill and bedazzle the patrons with its theatrical flamboyance and ostentatiously acrobatic dancing.
As a phenomenon of mass entertainment this is readily understandable, and accords with the long-established precedent of American appreciation of the Bolshoi.
In artistic terms, however, it is more than a little paradoxical.
There's no question that the advent of the Bolshoi in this country in 1959 helped ignite what came to be known as the "dance explosion." Ballet audiences had been exposed to the valiant pioneering efforts of such home-grown figures as Ruth Page and Catherine Littlefield and, later, Lucia Chase; to the tours by the various "Ballet Russe" companies that succeeded Diaghilev's enterprise; and eventually to major American companies founded by Russians -- Mikhail Mordkin and George Balanchine -- more or less patterned on Russian models.
The Bolshoi in 1959 was something else again -- a vision of grandiloquent theatricality, impassioned dramatization and Herculean virtuosity on so monumental a scale as to dwarf anything people had previously experienced as ballet.
The Bolshoi is still riding on the glories of its first 15 years of Western visits. In this country, it remains unique as a box office magnet. Three decades after its first U.S. tour, its repertory bears deep marks of stagnation, its dancers' morales have been severely challenged and its artistic leadership has been torn by dissension and petulant factionalism. Among the contingent of 111 dancers on the current tour (from a Bolshoi total of roughly 250), there are sterling veterans, interesting newcomers and, to be sure, a sizable number of formidable dancers. None, however, could be plausibly referred to as "stars," assuredly not in relation to name recognition among American audiences.
Yet the Bolshoi sells, to a degree unmatched by any other troupe. Clearly it attracts a public that goes well beyond the bounds of the habituated dance enthusiasts; it lures legions of people who don't show up for any other dance event. In the dance world, this puts it in a class by itself. The only "name" it needs to work its magic is the name "Bolshoi" itself. Among the world's leading ballet troupes today, the Bolshoi occupies the lowest slot if one measures according to creative vitality and artistic depth. To vast numbers of followers, however, the Bolshoi remains the embodiment of balletic spectacle, opulence and glamour.
Be all this as it may, the company began its Wolf Trap run by putting its best feet forward, so to speak. "Ivan the Terrible" is, it seems to me, by far Grigorovich's most distinguished ballet, and one of the best works to come from the hand of a Soviet choreographer.
It has several things going for it from the outset, among them the score drawn from works by Sergei Prokofiev (mainly from the music he provided for Eisenstein's film classic of the same title, but also, in some key scenes, from the composer's "Alexander Nevsky"); an imposing set of aptly ominous melancholy by the late Simon Virsaladze, Grigorovich's longtime collaborator; and a clear, compelling dramatic structure. And the story, based on Russian history, has more than sufficient elements of universal interest and appeal. In outline, it's the tale of the tyrannical Czar Ivan IV, his love for Anastasia, her murder at the hands of the scheming boyars, and Ivan's eventual triumph both over foreign enemies -- the invading Tatars -- and the treacherous boyars.
It also has the advantage of Grigorovich's finest choreographic inspirations -- in the forceful dance characterizations of Ivan, Anastasia and the jealous Prince Kurbsky; in the effective deployment of the Bell Ringers as a linking and unifying dramatic device; in a shrewd fusion of Russian folk elements with a modish neoclassicism; and in a number of particularly memorable solos and ensembles, among them Ivan's entrance scene, his first duet with Anastasia, the extended passage illustrating Ivan's anguish and rage over Anastasia's poisoning, the candlelit chorus of mourners and, not least, the final image of Ivan dangling menacingly amid the bell ropes, exultant in his grim victory.
The opening night, too, was fortunate in its casting. Aleksei Fadeyechev's Ivan was a prepossessingly powerful portrait, in the tradition of Bolshoi heroics at their best, and impeccably danced with true bravura fire in the leaps. Fadeyechev didn't stint on the more repellent aspects of Ivan's character, visible in the opening solo from the moment he's first seen coiled on the throne like a crazed tarantula, and carried through in the gargantuan strides down the steps of the royal dais and the subsequent huge, predatory jumps. But he also managed to enlist sympathy for Ivan with the tenderness of his love scenes with Anastasia and his emotional devastation over her loss.
As Anastasia, Alla Mikhalchenko didn't have quite the patrician austerity that was the hallmark of Natalia Bessmertnova -- Grigorovich's wife, for whom the role was created, and who danced it at the Kennedy Center in 1975, the year the ballet premiered. But Mikhalchenko invested the part with an elegance, ardor and beauty of line all her own, and her scenes with Fadeyechev were the more touching for the rapport the two dancers clearly shared. Mark Peretokin, one of the company's newer luminaries, gave a fine account of Kurbsky, making the character's ambivalence -- rived as he is between desire for Anastasia and hatred for Ivan -- quite convincing. One can imagine a more sinister Kurbsky, and one who would seem, by his looks alone, more of a threat to Ivan, but Peretokin's dancing was both fervent and sturdy.
Conductor Algis Zhuraitis led the Filene Center Orchestra in a boldly articulate rendering of the Prokofiev. In overall staging, the second act was far more effective than the first, for the elementary reason that the lingering daylight at Wolf Trap during the first detracted from the graphic melodramatic impact of the scenery and lighting.