The Bolshoi Ballet, flagship of Soviet culture around the world, is deep in its worst crisis of modern history, with five defections in the last five months.
As a result of the latest defections, which rob the company of one of its most famous teachers and her son, sources close to the Bolshoi expect a sweeping crackdown on security staff and dancers alike.
The company will be kept home of several months, perhaps until the end of the year, it is predicted. Already a visit to Paris at the end of March has been canceled amid fears both of new defections and possible demonstrations because of Soviet troops in Afghanistan.
And basic divisions within the company, pitting old ways against new and hurting morale, are more clearly revealed than ever. Director Yuri Grigorivich is opposed by some of his top dancers.
Sources link last year's defections with the fall in morale, saying that superstar Alexander Godunov, and the younger pair Leonid and Valentina Kozlov, who defected in September in the United States, wanted to be free to dance more often and in more varied roles.
The latest defectors are both members of one of the company's best-known and most respected families.
Not only is Sulamif Messerer renowned as a teacher, but also she is the sister of Asaf Messerer, premier Bolshoi teacher and a mainstay of the company. Now 76, Mr. Messerer was a leading dancer in the 1930s (often appearing with Sulamif before Joseph Stalin) and continued to dance until he was 51.
He was in Tokyo with the Bolshoi company, but decided not to join his sister in her flight to the US. Sulamif Messerer is also an aunt of prima ballerina Maya Plisetskaya. Now the KGB will be looking with suspicion at the entire family.
The other defector was Mrs. Messerer's son, Mikhail, who was a soloist with the company but was not considered a star. The Messerers, from a Jewish family that moved fron Latvia to Russia in the last century, is plugged deeply into the Moscow cultural scene: Mikhail's brother Boris, for example, is married to the well-known poet Bella Akhmadulina, who just came to the defense of exiled dissident Dr. Andrei Sakharov.
Events befere the Bolshoi company left for Tokyo on its current tour indicate the turmoil following last year's defections. Sources say securiy checks were more stringent than ever, and at the last minute a number of dancers were refused permission to go.
Sources says as many as 10 dancers, several of them younger ones, were refused permission to leave. One was Vladimir Derevyanko, one of the new wave of younger dancers. Another was Sergei Solovyev, also a young dancer of talent. Both attracted interest in the Moscow ballet world by premiering in "The Nutcracker" Feb. 2, to great applause.
Apparently they were told to stay home because the Bolshoi could not afford the risk of losing them as well.
The Tokyo tour was to have been led by Vladimir Vasilyev, who is moving from performing to directing. [words omitted from source] was to have staged his own production of the ballet "The [words omitted from source] Charming Sounds." When so many dancers wre eliminated [words omitted from source] at the last minute, Vasilyev said his own production [words omitted from source] ruined. He and his wife, Yekatearina Maximova (star pupil [words omitted from source] the legendary Galina Ulanova), decided to stay home as we [words omitted from source]
In circumstances not yet clear, another superstar, Mari [words omitted from source] Liepa, was also told he would not be going to Japan, and he [words omitted from source] still in moscow.
When Godunov defected in New York (the first Bolsh [words omitted from source ] star ever to defect, the Soviet press accused US officials [words omitted from source] "enticing" him with "mountains of gold and an ocean [words omitted from source] whiskey." Then came the Kozlovs, described by ball [words omitted from source] sources here as good but not great. Then two veteran [words omitted from source] skaters defected, and rumors swept Moscow that all foreign [words omitted from source] tours were under stricter scrutiny.
Meanwhile, argument continued backstage at the Bolsh [words omitted from source] about Mr. Grigorovich's desire to make Bolshoi ballets m [words omitted from source] modern, more abstract, less traditional. his new producti [words omitted from source] of "Romeo and Juliet," with music by Prokofiev, does away [ words omitted from source] with much of the tradition and the acting of the 1940 version [words omitted from source] It has been criticized by Vasilyev, Maximova , liep [words ommitted from source] Plisetskaya, and Mikhail Lavrovsky, whose father Leon [words omitted from source] starred in the original production with Ulanova.
Mr. Liepa wrote an article in Pravda Dec. 9, 1978, plea [words omitted from source] ing for a less "disrespectful attitude" toward the classic [words omitted from source] ballets of the past. In another newspaper he doubted the ne [words omitted from source] for new versions of "Swan Lake" and "Romeo and Juliet [words omitted from source] "There is no need to strike out what has already been do (words omitted from source] and done excellently."
Miss Plisetskaya is so critical of Mr. Grigorovich that s [words omitted from source] no longer dances in his ballets; She dances only in new on [words omitted from source] staged by herself and her composer husband, Niko [words omitted from source] Schedrin. Miss Plitsetskaya has clashed openly with M [ words omitted from source] Grigorovich during one recent Bolshoi meeting.
The company has also been searching hard for excellence [words omitted from source] new young dancers to replace men like Vasilyev and Liep [words omitted from source] Recent graduates from the 600-pupil Bolshoie ballet scho [words omitted from source] have been of high standard, but the company badly need [ words omitted from source] more dancers of the caliber of Godunov, who is now with [words omitted from source] American Ballet Theater.
The loss of Mrs. Messerer is particularly hard for [words omitted from source ] company, since she represents decades of Bolshoi tradition [words omitted from source] and has trained many outstanding stars.