he Bolshoi Ballet company, the cultural jewel of Russia, has come under blistering public criticism here as the bastion of "false traditionalism" and stands accused of having produced nothing creative or innovative for the past 50 years.
A newly published book here has described all Bolshoi artistic directors since 1924 as incompetent or mediocre at best. It asserted that the only real contributions to the ballet world have been made by George Balanchine, director of the New York City Ballet, and M. Bejart, the leading Belgian choreographer.
The book, "Divertissement--Fate of Classical Ballet," was written by Vadim Gayevski, an established Russian ballet critic, and published by Moscow's Iskustvo publishing house a week or so ago. It was immediately sold out, creating a major sensation in the arts world here.
The sharp criticism is reported to have produced unprecedented tension and hostility at the Bolshoi, where artistic disagreements are said to have brought the company to the verge of collapse.
It takes a leap of imagination for a Westerner to comprehend the gravity of these charges, which are without precedent in the 205-year history of the Bolshoi.
The published charges against the Bolshoi and a vigorous defense of the ballet company that subsequently appeared in a major government publication sharply underscore the close relationship that prevails here among government, the Communist Party and the arts--a relationship that often lends a political overtone to debates over the arts. Publication of such an attack on a major national institution would have been unlikely without approval from within the ruling elite.
The book, by implication, also criticized restrictive cultural policies and it has been suggested here that the recent defections to the West of numerous Soviet ballet stars--including some from the Bolshoi--were caused not by grievances against the Soviet government but by the cultural dictatorship of a small group of people now holding top positions in the Soviet ballet world.
The Soviets are intensely proud of the Bolshoi's long international preeminence and the fact that most of the world's greatest dancers have graced the Bolshoi's stage. Officially, the company is regarded as the brightest symbol of Soviet cultural achievements.
Although Gayevski's manuscript--as all other books published in the Soviet Union--had been approved by cultural watchdogs and Communist Party censors, its appearance produced sharp reaction in the authoritative newspaper Sovyetskaya Kultura, which denounced the author. The editor of the publishing house that brought out the book reportedly was dismissed.
The book directly assailed the Bolshoi's present artistic director and chief choreographer, Yuri Grigorovich, for allegedly stifling the company with a conservative repertoire, squandering its formidable talent and failing to introduce any innovation.
It described his predecessors--Rastislav Zakharov and Leonid Lavrovsky--as men without talent. And it concluded that the Soviet ballet for the past 50 years was, in artistic terms, "an empty place."
The long and detailed rejection of Gayevski's argument in Sovyetskaya Kultura yesterday ended by posing the following rhetorical question about artistic innovation: "Should our ballet develop on the foundation of its precious traditions or should it reorient itself toward Balanchine and Bejart?"
The Bolshoi's great national and international prestige is the obvious answer, the paper said.
Gayevski's book, the paper concluded, "denigrates Soviet ballet and pushes it on a false road" with its arguments that identify socialist realism with "traditionalism and stagnation," by "discrediting a whole series of best ballets of the Bolshoi" and by focusing on "contradictory creative work of foreign artists."
Sovyetskaya Kultura is a newspaper of the Soviet Central Committee and as such speaks with authority on cultural and artistic issues. Hence the article was presumably intended to portray Gayevski's wholesale attack on the Bolshoi as the opinion of one man rather than as a reflection of a deep split in the Soviet ballet world.
The appearance of the book seems to indicate, however, that even cultural authorities are in disagreement over how to secure the Bolshoi's artistic survival and renaissance. Those who had approved its publication appear to be siding with Bolshoi dancers who, as the company's top dancer, Slava Gordeyev, put it recently, regard it as a "tragedy" that they have no ballet master such as Balanchine.
"We are all ready to move on to a higher plane of achievement, we are waiting to be discovered, brought out," Gordeyev said.
On the other hand, as the Sovetskaya Kultura article indicates, others support the present artistic management.
At the center of the feud is Grigorovich, 54, the brilliant, austere and autocratic Bolshoi chief who has scored numerous triumphs over the past 15 years.
Ranged against him are five top stars of the Bolshoi, including the aging prima ballerina, Maya Plisetskaya, and the leading male dancers, Vladimir Vasilyev and Mikhail Lavrovsky.
Both sides are said to have powerful allies within the political elite. The publication of the Gayevski book presumably indicated that the five stars have managed to persuade the authorities to publish the unprecedented attack.
The authorities now face the problem of how to deal with a demoralized company. Some expected that Grigorovich would be dismissed. But he has done much for the company, staging, among other things, the much acclaimed version of "Spartacus."
Yet Gayevski's criticism has touched a raw nerve here and may foreshadow changes in the company.