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Bolshoi doing Chekhov?

Finally, after 2 1/2 years of waiting, preparing, and anticipating, Chekhov's "The Seagull" has been brought to the stage of the Bolshoi Theater here -- not as an opera but as a ballet.

The conception of Chekhov without words is a challenge in itself. IT's a challenge that prima ballerina Maya Plisetskaya, who choreographed the performance and stars in it, has accepted - but has only partly won.

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The performance as a whole is a refreshing change from the constant Giselles and Nutcrackers that have been staged this year. Plisetskaya has captured the mood of Chekhov's characters and their emotions. She has made them real.

But the criticism that one hears here in Moscow now is that the ballet is not a ballet, but a mimed play. There is so little dancing in the production that the lasting impression is of dancers who move very little and very slowly, with only the occasional outburst of activity.

"Of course, I don't want to see 32 fouett turns as in 'Swan Lake,'" one dancer told me, "But I would like to see some long sequences of real danding. Even the pas de deux didn't satisfy me -- too much lifting and carrying and no opportunity to show the techniques of the two dancers."

Plisetskaya actually dances two leading roles -- Nina (the actress who wants to break free and show her own style) and the Seagull itself.

Renowned for her undulating, winglike arms in "Swan Lake,' she is magnificent as the bird, seen rising majestically above a lake, dressed in a white lycra costume. She soars and dives behind a thin curtain with the spotlight on her upper torso (though at the rehearsal I attended, the light fell too low and showed the heads of the men tossing her from below. All was corrected for the premier May 27.

As Nina, however, she becomes an actress, and one forgets it is a ballet. Plisetskaya has been the top ballerina at the Bolshoi for decades. Several times in recent years her retirement from dancing has been rumored, but she continues to appear, although somewhat rarely, in "Anna Karenina" (which she also choreographed) and "Carmen Suite."

In "The Seagull" ("Chaika" in Russian), unlike these other two productions, she has appointed young, lithe, gold-medal-winning ballerina Alla Mikhalchenko to dance the lead alternatively with her.

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Very noticeable was the fact that Plisetskaya has steered clear of anything that would compare her choreography with that of the overall artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet Company, Yuri Grigorovich.

She is said to have disagreed with his fast-moving, athletic, emphasis-on-men-dancers style (seen in "Spartacus" and "Ivan the Terrible") and was one of five top dancers to demand that the 1940 classical version of "Romeo and Juliet" be kept in the repertoire when Grigorovich produced his own and much more modern version last summer.

When the new "Romeo" was in New York last August, Plisetskaya lost her regular partner, Alexander Godunov, who defected. She has since had a series of new young partners, none of whom have been able to produce the magnetism Godunov generated with her.

In "The Seagul" the young Bolshoi-trained Alexander Bogatyryov is the dreamy, temperamental playwright (Treplyev).

The music was composed by Plisetskaya's husband, Rodion Schedrin. Those uneducated in his polyphonic style find it discordant and choppy. He is said to have had no particular style in mind when he composed the music but has tried to use the Chekhov prose, where every tiny episode has its own subtle mood.

"It is like the flow of water," said the critic of Sovietskaya Kultura, the main arts newspaper here, who seemed to reserve her overall opinion, "sometimes rushing and then suddenly stopping as it hits an obstacle."

The young conductor, R. Lazarev, handles the hard task well. But it did not seem memorable music, and I for one tended to shut it out as I watched.

Scenery by V. Leventhal and costumes by Pierre Cardin of Paris are beautiful, and the overall production gives one a real sense of Chekhov.

But a ballet it isn't. Many people here are saying, "Well, I've seen it once , and I don't have to go back again."

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