at the Civic Center for Performing Arts

May 25-27

There was a strong sense of deja vu about the program that the Stars of the Bolshoi Ballet presented last week. It reminded me of Geraldine Freund’s international dance festivals, which offered one dazzling star turn after another by one glittering balletic personality after another. My memory is even longer, going back to the many highlights programs Soviet troupes used to present. They followed the same general format–one act from a beloved classic ballet, complete with costumes and sets, followed by a series of high-flying, bravura pas de deux excerpted from the Bolshoi’s repertory.

The Bolshoi Ballet, which has an enormous roster of dancers of breathtaking quality, frequently sends on tour smallish complements of dancers headed by one or two of its world-famous stars. This tour, headed by ballerina Natalya Bessmertnova and several other principals, was planned along the same lines but with a boost from glasnost.

When the 30-member troupe arrived in Chicago, they discovered that their sets, costumes, and toe shoes were still languishing somewhere in Moscow. Chicago and Milwaukee ballet people supplied costumes, seamstresses, and sewing machines, and happily the custom-made toe shoes arrived in time.

The program opened with the second act of Giselle. Bessmertnova was so poetically eloquent in her body line, so technically perfect in her batterie of brises across the stage, and so loving and tender during the pas de deux with Yuri Vasyuchenko, that one forgot that the set–the familiar ghostly forest scene–was missing. Marina Leonova, a strong, vengeful Wili, was accompanied by Tatiana Bessmertnova (Natalya’s sister), Irina Prokofiev, and a small corps of Wilis, who illustrated the fabled Bolshoi corps discipline and technique. Wonderful ghostly creatures boasting an elegant uniformity of style, they crisscrossed the stage with apparent ease in the arabesques penchees for which the Wilis are noted.

Vasyuchenko is a tall young man with good elevation, if a little heavy-footed when landing. He is a strong, considerate partner, which one expects of Bolshoi-trained men. He was even more effective with Bessmertnova during the second half of the program, in the passionate complexities of the love duet from Yuri Grigorovich’s Romeo and Juliet.

The ten divertissements of the second act were skillfully balanced between the old classical showstoppers and contemporary pieces with greater emotional content. But such programs are much less satisfying than they used to be. The American dance public is mature and sophisticated–it wants more from a program than bits and pieces, no matter how well-chosen, how daring and virtuosic. I’m not knocking the Stars of the Bolshoi. I enjoyed the gorgeous dancing as well as the thrilling technical tricks. But although there was an embarrassment of riches, curiously it was not enough.

The duet from Spartacus remains a moving expression of doomed love and life, while the sculptured patterns of Gliere Adagio, choreographed by Lapauri, demonstrates the Bolshoi’s own form of neoclassicism. Taken out of context, Fokine’s waltz in C sharp from Les sylphides is still a pretty variation, but it cannot create the romantic atmosphere of the complete ballet.

The second half of the program opened with the familiar Le corsaire pas de deux. Evgenia Kostyleva imperturbably traversed the entire Opera House stage in a series of dazzling fouettes on pointe, while her partner, Boris Yefimov, tossed off equally striking leaps and pirouettes. But they weren’t the only ones to dazzle. In the pas de deux from Flames of Paris, a delightful charmer, Marina Kotova gave us another set of fouettes as well as little jumps on toe, while her partner, Mikhail Tsivin, added his own tours en l’air and barrel turns. The Don Quixote grand pas, which concluded the program, contained another 32 fouettes for the heroine and similar spectacular leaps for the hero. But by this time we’d seen so many fouettes and tours en l’air, so many cabrioles and complicated, risky leaps and catches, that they had become run-of-the-mill. In the complete Don Quixote, the dancing is nonstop; but Marius Petipa, the choreographer, was smart enough to save the fouettes for the knockout finale. Frankly, I’d had enough of fouettes by the end of the evening.

The missing costumes forced certain omissions and substitutions, and so as a special treat we were given The Dying Swan, danced by Bessmertnova. Created by Fokine for Anna Pavlova, this short solo has acquired a mystique of its own, representing the spirit of Russian ballet through the swan’s grace and indomitable spirit. Unfortunately, Bessmertnova added no new dimension to our appreciation of the dance.

A major handicap for Stars of the Bolshoi was the canned music. Of course the program’s producers saved money this way, but the Bolshoi has an international stature that demands it show itself off to best advantage. That means dancing to live music, with a conductor who’s receptive and sensitive to their needs. Pickets from the Chicago Federation of Musicians rightly protested the use of taped music in a theater the size of the Opera House.

But why picket only the Bolshoi? Dance Theatre of Harlem, Hubbard Street Dance, Alvin Ailey, who all appeared in Chicago recently, also sinned with canned music but were never picketed. Fair is fair–right?

The program was, in many ways, a calling-card performance, reintroducing its extraordinary dancers to a new American generation. Now that the acquaintance has been renewed, let’s hope that next time we get the full Bolshoi treatment of their legendary masterpieces–a good-sized roster of dancers, complete costumes and sets, and a conductor and orchestra in the pit.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Snowdon.