at Arie Crown Theatre

August 1-5

The Bolshoi Ballet, which returned to Chicago for six performances after a ten-year absence, remains one of the glories of the civilized world. Yet despite the unmatched virtuosity and elegance displayed by principals and corps in both Swan Lake and Romeo and Juliet, something was missing from the performances.

My disappointment may be due to the memory of the legendary Bolshoi roster of superstars that first dazzled American audiences 30 years ago with daring leaps and spins and uninhibited, passionate projection. It made ballet unforgettably exciting and had a remarkable impact on Western ballet technique, as our dancers discovered that such virtuosity was possible.

Today’s Bolshoi dancers can still do just about anything. The men are disciplined and strong–they can leap lightly into the stratosphere and land silently. The women are their match–their arms are lovely and their feet so beautifully positioned that every step or spin is clearly defined. Their backs are wonderfully supple, their legs rise effortlessly, and their spins stop precisely with the music.

The Bolshoi today is a young company that has acquired a more refined look. In the process, however, it has lost some of its old flamboyant, frequently exaggerated romanticism. It has a more homogenized look–not unlike that of major classic American and western European companies. The recent political opening to the West, which has encouraged closer professional contacts and exchanges of artists, may be responsible for part of the new look. In some ways the new elegance is a healthy development, but it would be a pity if the Bolshoi lost its idiosyncratic vitality.

This engagement featured only Swan Lake and Romeo and Juliet, both staged by artistic director Yuri Grigorovich. In Swan Lake, which received three consecutive performances with three different sets of principals, Grigorovich was quite faithful to Marius Petipa and Lev Ivanov’s historic choreography, and his changes were for the most part more intelligent and sensitive than those Mikhail Baryshnikov made for American Ballet. Apparently out of a desire to keep the action and dancing going, Grigorovich eliminated much of the mime we associate with this ballet. The queen mother is now little more than a walk-on. He also changed the tutor’s personality, emphasizing his aging pathos rather than his bibulousness. For some reason, he also eliminated the bow and arrow that traditionally leads the prince (Mark Peretokin) to the fateful meeting with the swan queen (Nina Semizorova, Peretokin’s wife).

Grigorovich also altered the character variations in the third-act ball and gave the five bridal candidates from five countries–Olga Suvorova, Elvira Drozdova, Yulia Akopyan, Erika Luzina, and Nina Sperenskaya–brilliant star turns in classic adaptations of their national dances. He kept the jester, who is traditional in Soviet versions, which allowed Mikhail Sharkov to show off his breathtaking spins, barrel turns, and campy comedy.

Semizorova was an authoritative if cool swan queen–her every movement was technically perfect. She and Peretokin danced their second-act pas de deux smoothly, but somehow they never touched the heart. Her control was outstanding, and in her demanding solo variation, during which conductor Algis Zhuraitis set a ripping pace, a lesser dancer would have had serious problems. In the black-swan pas de deux the two dancers caught fire and dazzled–her fouettes were clean and sharp, as were his spins and leaps.

There was nothing ragged about this corps de ballet. Arms and legs were exquisitely unified, and the cygnets–unidentified in the program–made a precisely coordinated, delectable quartet. Grigorovich’s major dramatic contribution was to present the villain Von Rothbart (Yuri Vetrov) as the alter ego of the prince. This gave hero and villain some exciting opportunities for canonic dance, in which the villain echoes in distorted form the hero’s classic line. Yet the final battle between the two was disappointingly insignificant. Like many Soviet ballets, this Swan Lake has been given a happy ending, and I sort of missed the lovers, united in death, floating off to eternal happiness in a magical boat.

The following night Nina Ananiashvili and Aleksei Fadeyechev, whose father had danced the prince in the Bolshoi’s American debut, were the leads. Ananiashvili is exotically beautiful, with a mobile face that reflects the emotions of her character. She is also a bravura artist–a fine actress and an outstanding technician. Fadeyechev, who bears an amazing resemblance to his father, is a remarkably accomplished soloist and partner, if a bit heavy-handed in interpreting emotions. The two electrified the stage with their intensity and conviction. The great surprise was Peretokin’s amazing transformation from the prince the night before to Von Rothbart, especially given that his classically handsome face and lean body would seem to make him an unlikely villain. When he and Fadeyechev were alone onstage, it crackled with excitement and marvelous dancing.

The entire performance was stronger, as the cast was accustomed to the stage. The colorful, sparkling costumes were by the late Simon Virsaladze, as was the basic set, which, despite the massive dark towers, had the look of a traveling production.

Grigorovich’s Romeo and Juliet was as disappointing as it was when it was performed here in 1979. Numerous ballets have been created about Shakespeare’s doomed teenage lovers. Grigorovich’s version, which substitutes nonstop dancing for plot development, is curiously inert and sexless. The set, also by Virsaladze, consists of a deep-red backdrop, in front of which the entire ballet is danced; some minor props are occasionally added. The ballet is thus deprived of any sense of place or period: the balcony scene lacks a balcony; the marriage-night pas de deux lacks a bed; and sunny Italy is for the most part gloomy.

The production is saved by Ananiashvili as the tender young Juliet, Yuri Vasyuchenko as Romeo, Aleksandr Petukhov as Mercutio, Andrei Shakhin as Paris, and Peretokin as a wonderfully hateful Tybalt. The principals, assisted by a large cast, struggled bravely to bring the requisite passion to the tragedy, but they were given little help by the choreographer. The ballet goes on too long, and several pointless divertissements–Syrian and Moorish dances–have been inserted.

Grigorovich has created some touching moments and splendid dance, but they are infrequent. And why does Juliet wear an incongruous, romantic pink tutu rather than draperies that might remind one of Renaissance Italy? It was ridiculous in 1979, and it is just as silly today.