The American public doesn't come by its partiality for the Bolshoi Ballet accidentally, as we'll see confirmed when the troupe returns to the Kennedy Center this week for the first time in a dozen years.
According to the company's official biography, "it was the circus and not the ballet" that first captured the childhood imagination of Yuri Grigorovich, the Bolshoi's 60-year-old artistic director and chief choreographer. "The sights, sounds, mystery and magic of the Big Top fascinated him."
Ballet is often said to be a "high" art, while the circus is commonly regarded as occupying a "lower" plane of public entertainment. Whatever one makes of such distinctions, the connections between ballet and the circus are ancient and honorable.
There's a circusy aspect to every ballet and it's seldom far from the surface (sometimes it is the surface -- remember, for example, Balanchine's elephant ballet for Ringling Bros. or Martha Graham's "Every Soul Is a Circus"?). Ballet, in a sense, is a circus, just as the circus, in a sense, is ballet, but it takes a company like the Bolshoi, with its historic emphasis on dramatic hyperbole, acrobatics and monumentality, to heighten awareness of the parallels.
Indeed, it's the circuslike side of ballet that's the key to understanding Grigorovich's approach to choreography, as well as the whole character of the Bolshoi phenomenon, its immense popularity in this country, and the bond between Russians and Americans from which it derives. However loath some may be to concede it, the two nationalities are very much alike when it comes to taste in mass theatrical diversions.
Audiences in both lands seem equally ready to embrace theatrical spectacle for its own sake; raw physical exuberance, and especially, distinctly masculine displays of sinew, might and daring; plebeian clowning and gross exaggeration; and emotions that gush forth like titanic Dons or Mississippis.
The United States and Soviet Union are called "superpowers," but there's a lot more to it than military clout. Enjoyment of sheer magnitude is something our two nations appear to have shared for a long time. The country that fathered P.T. Barnum and likes to argue about which canyon is the deepest and which skyscraper the tallest arrives naturally at an appreciation of a dance company -- the Bolshoi -- whose very name means "big."
The Bolshoi's two-week engagement at the Kennedy Center Opera House begins Tuesday night with the Washington premiere of Grigorovich's full-length "The Golden Age," set to music by Shostakovich. The center is the second stop (the first was New York's Metropolitan Opera House) on a nine-week cross-country tour, the Bolshoi's first since 1979. The company has seen a great deal of change since then, and comes to us now with an almost entirely new repertory and a multitude of new dancers.
But some things have stayed the same. Tickets for the Bolshoi were gone in a flash, for example -- clearly, the popularity factor is unaltered. And the company still goes in for ballet on a colossal scale -- "The Golden Age" requires a huge cast, sometimes thronging the stage with upward of 80 performers at once.
During the Bolshoi's last trip to America three defections hit the troupe -- Alexander Godunov in New York, and the Kozlovs, Leonid and Valentina, in Los Angeles. Unlike Leningrad's Kirov Ballet, which lost first Rudolf Nureyev, then Natalia Makarova, and then Mikhail Baryshnikov to the West over a 13-year period, the Bolshoi had seemed secure against such flights in nine U.S. tours.
It was after that time that rumors of various kinds of disaffection within Bolshoi ranks began to sprout profusely. The company was alleged to be split into three hostile camps, led by Grigorovich and erstwhile Bolshoi headliners Maya Plisetskaya and Vladimir Vasiliev.
Of late, such disputes have flared into unprecedented public wranglings, new to the Soviet ballet scene. Premier Gorbachev's vaunted glasnost appears to have opened closet doors upon more than purely ideological skeletons. Plisetskaya, who was guest-teaching for the first time in this country -- with Grigorovich's blessing -- at David Howard's New York ballet studio last month, took the occasion to accuse the Bolshoi's director (and hence, her boss) of ignoring talented young choreographers and playing favorites among dancers.
For his part, Grigorovich dismissed the charges as plaints endemic to arts organizations, inevitable but harmless.
In any case, one gets the impression that the Bolshoi's factionalism and linen launderings enhance, rather than detract from, the company's attractiveness to the American public. We understand politicking, and we like nothing better than backstage back stabbings as public melodrama, not to mention our insatiable fondness for ballet gossip. Look at how our own major ballet organizations -- the New York City Ballet and American Ballet Theatre, for example -- conduct themselves when it comes to internecine cabals, intrigues and conspiracies. Hard to tell the communists from the capitalists when it comes to professional bickering, and it's great theater on both sides of the fence.
As far as ballet is concerned, there are not only temperamental affinities between Russians and Americans to reckon with but concrete historical links as well. Since impresario Serge Diaghilev's time, Russian expatriates have played a large role in ballet establishments within every western nation, but nowhere a larger role than in this country.
In recent times, the impact of Nureyev, Makarova and Baryshnikov has been obvious to the most casual of observers. In earlier decades, it was Diaghilev alumnus George Balanchine -- at the invitation of America's Lincoln Kirstein -- who came to these shores in 1933 to establish what was to become the New York City Ballet and its school. And from the company founded here by former Diaghilev dancer Mikhail Mordkin, in the late '30s, there evolved American Ballet Theatre.
Mordkin was Bolshoi-trained, and in a broad-brush way one might say that America's two leading classical troupes -- the NYCB and ABT -- developed along the contrasting lines of the Kirov Ballet (known as the Imperial Russian Ballet in the czarist past), and the Bolshoi, the one more formalistic and stylistically homogenous, the other more eclectic and histrionic.
The analogy, by its very nature, is far from exact -- the two American troupes have much more in common with each other than with anything in Moscow or Leningrad. Still, the correspondence is suggestive. Just as ABT has always given precedence to dancers and dancing over choreography and NYCB has done the reverse, so the Kirov has always emphasized stylistic refinement where the Bolshoi has put the accent on monumentality of effect.
It's a bit ironic, therefore, that ABT should end up currently in the artistic hands of Baryshnikov, the ultimate model of Kirov style among dancers, just when a Danish dancer -- Peter Martins -- finds himself sharing with America's Jerome Robbins the directorship of NYCB, in succession to Balanchine, a product of the St. Petersburg (i.e., Leningrad and the Kirov) tradition.
In a way this is but a further reflection of history. Through most of its two centuries of existence, the Bolshoi has acquired many of its luminaries from the Kirov and languished in the shadow of its rival troupe. The Moscow company began as a St. Petersburg offshoot, with orphanage dancers trained by an Italian ballet master from the imperial capital. Even during its more recent ascendancy over Kirov, the Bolshoi has been led primarily by choreographers trained in St. Petersburg-Leningrad, from Alexander Gorsky, who brought the company to an early peak in the first quarter of the 20th century; to Grigorovich's predecessor Leonid Lavrovsky, whose version of Prokofiev's "Romeo and Juliet" was long a Bolshoi trademark; to Grigorovich himself, who got both his training and his first choreographic opportunities from the Kirov Ballet.
So, too, it has been with dancer celebrities of the Bolshoi, many of whom had their beginnings in Leningrad, among them the legendary Galina Ulanova, Lavrovsky's Juliet, now retired from dancing and coaching current prodigies as a Bolshoi ballet mistress; and also Lyudmila Semenyaka, at 35 still in her prime years as a Bolshoi principal dancer -- many may remember the lyrical luminosity of her 1979 performances in Washington, for which she was coached by Ulanova.
Semenyaka and Grigorovich's wife Natalya Bessmertnova are among the few Bolshoi principals prominent in the company lineup since the Bolshoi's last Kennedy Center visit. Among the newer generations of Bolshoi stars is a reportedly magnificent male contingent, including the company's 27-year-old Tartar powerhouse, Irek Mukhamedov. Also sharing the Bolshoi limelight recently are two sons of illustrious dancer fathers -- Andris Liepa, son of Maris Liepa, and Aleksei Fadeyechev, son of Nikolai Fadeyechev.
A final ironic turning of tables is illustrated by the case of the Bolshoi's youngest gem among its present day ballerinas. It used to be that American dancers, along with those of many other lands, felt obliged to try their fortunes at international ballet competitions headquartered in Moscow (or Bulgaria's Varna) in order to firmly establish world reputations. To counter this, a group of American ballet enthusiasts established an international competition in this country a number of years ago. Hence, Nina Ananiashvili, the Bolshoi jewel in question, makes her Kennedy Center debut with the added distinction of a gold medal she won in competition last summer -- in Jackson, Miss. Sic transit gloria ballet!