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Bolshoi Ballet troupe
Wrapping up the first leg of its month-long U.S. tour, Russia's Bolshoi Ballet has mostly drawn rave reviews in the U.S. media. For thousands of ballet aficionados in the United States, the Bolshoi has held a special place in American dance history ever since the troupe's first U.S. tour in 1959. The Bolshoi, now led by the young and innovative choreographer Aleksei Ratmanskii, is performing in four U.S. cities after a five-year hiatus. Along with the classics such as "Don Quixote" and "Spartacus," the troupe is staging experimental works like "The Bright Stream," a Dmitrii Shostakovich ballet denounced by Stalin in 1935.
New York, 28 July 2005 (RFE/RL) -- Rumors of a crisis in the Bolshoi have run rampant following the exodus of six artistic directors in just 10 years, as well as a highly publicized lawsuit brought against the company by a principal dancer, Anastasia Volochkova, who was fired amid complaints she was overweight and difficult to work with.
But the upheaval has since settled. Bolshoi Theater General Director Anatolii Iksanov tells RFE/RL the company today is as strong as it has been during most of its 230-year history.
"Speculations about a crisis, I think, are ill timed because the Bolshoi ensemble today is in perfect order -- both the ballet and the opera. If there are talks about the 'Volochkova crisis' -- well, the unhappiness of a single ballerina with her situation within the troupe isn't something I would call a crisis," Iksanov says. "It is something else -- it is her personal crisis, but not a crisis of the Bolshoi Theater. On the contrary, I would say that the strength of the Bolshoi Theater is that it is empowered to make its own choices, to build the troupe with those artists who it decides are needed."
The Bolshoi made its North American debut in the spring of 1959 with the legendary ballerina Maya Plisetskaya. During 73 days of performances in major American cities, the Bolshoi presented the best of the classical Russian dance repertoire and has won legions of admirers.
Lyudmila Semenyaka, a former principal with the Bolshoi, is now a coach. She tells RFE/RL that the popularity of classical Russian ballet in America is no coincidence.
"The Russian ballet has always been accepted jubilantly here," Semenyaka says. "I do not expect otherwise, because the American audience is very receptive to everything new, to events in Russia. I think this time, too, we've brought something to make people happy -- we have very talented young artists and, of course, the very interesting new performance of 'The Bright Stream' staged by Aleksei Ratmanskii. This ballet combines an understanding of historic events with various dance innovations and surprises."
Shostakovich's ballet "The Bright Stream" had been almost forgotten since its doomed introduction back in 1935. But the 36-year-old Ratmanskii, the Bolshoi's new artistic director, is determined to revive a trio of Shostakovich's ballets -- "Bolt," "The Bright Stream," and "The Golden Age." Many ballet traditionalists are afraid that staging such works is a radical departure from Bolshoi's classical grand style. Ratmanskii, whose term expires in the summer of 2007, is nevertheless willing to experiment.
He tells RFE/RL that the company has been invigorated with a flush of younger soloists and a superb corps de ballet. Also, he says, he doesn't need to worry that some stars may leave the company.
"Now I am not concerned," Ratmanskii says. "In the late 1980s, early 1990s, a whole generation of [Russian dancers] left the country when the gates opened. Of course some are leaving now too, but just a few -- it's not a trend. Money-wise, [dancers in Russia] are comparable [with those in the West], they are paid sufficiently well. Repertoire-wise there is a variety, we are staging three new productions each season. Life in Moscow is exciting and what you can earn there is comparable with the West."
There have been rumors that Peter Martins, who inherited the leadership of the New York City Ballet from George Balanchine, would love to lure Bolshoi dancers to his company. But Ratmanskii dismisses such speculation and says established ballet companies rarely attempt to pilfer talent from each other.
"Even if he wanted to do it, he wouldn't tell me," Ratmanskii says. "Luring artists from one company into another is a very delicate thing. Big companies are trying to stay away from it."
One of the Bolshoi's brightest stars is Svetlana Zakharova, who moved to Moscow in 2003 after a five-year tenure with the Kirov Ballet in St. Petersburg. The 26-year-old ballerina has figured prominently in the New York media since the company began two weeks of sold-out performances at the city's Lincoln Center on 18 July.
Despite the fact that the Bolshoi has very few foreigners on its roster, Ratmanskii says he sees no problem with dancers from other countries joining the troupe if they fit the bill.
"I'd like to emphasize again on [Bolshoi] style, 99 percent of the troupe are graduates of the Bolshoi Ballet School," Ratmanskii says. "Any artist coming from another school will have to adapt. This is a lengthy process -- some may succeed, others may not. But I have nothing against dancers from other countries working in the Bolshoi. [Nikolai] Hubbe, [a principal dancer with the New York City Ballet], could have possibly worked in the Bolshoi, because he possesses this openness, emotionality, he has a direct contact with the audience."
While striving to preserve the Bolshoi's distinctive classical style, Ratmanskii has invited coaches from America who represent a very different style of dancing.
"The [contemporary] American dance system -- whose founder, of course, is Balanchine, is different from the Russian school," Ratmanskii says. "This is a unique American system of dancing -- rapid leg movements, extreme attention to the clarity, purity of the dancer's flexibility and poise. It is a kind of athletic dynamics, sport dynamics."
Former Balanchine dancers Adam Luders, Violette Verdy, and John Clifford are among those who have worked in the last several years with Bolshoi.
"When we are staging Balanchine productions we are always communicating with the George Balanchine Foundation and with American coaches who are invited to work on the choreography and style," Ratmanskii says.
Ratmanskii became the artistic director of the Bolshoi in January 2004. He says assuming responsibility for a company of the Bolshoi's status is difficult for a person, like himself, who is still relatively early in his career. But his gentle persuasiveness and willingness to listen appear to have paid off.
"I can say that I am very satisfied with our performances [so far]," Ratmanskii says. "They are conducted on a high professional level and all the artists are giving themselves 100 percent. We are presenting the Bolshoi as it is."
The Bolshoi will conclude its New York engagement on 30 July with "The Pharaoh's Daughter," a work first presented by legendary ballet master Marius Petipa in 1862. From there, the company will continue its U.S. tour with performances in Philadelphia and cities in Virginia and California. The tour runs through 14 August.