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Bolshoi clings to classical ballet - despite reformist touches

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The Imperial Russian ballet lives. Despite the Soviets' efforts to purge all the arts of their monarchist connotations, ballet's pivotal teaching institutions in Leningrad (the Kirov) and Moscow (the Bolshoi) survived the revolution. Through them, classical virtuosity was preserved against efforts to democratize the theater. Acrobatics, cabaret, vaudeville, agitprop, and signature gestures of the Common Man all make their contribution to Yuri Grigorovich's reformist choreography, but these modernisms remain subordinate to the ongoing idiom, which is classical ballet. Somewhere during the four performances of the Bolshoi Ballet I attended at the Metropolitan Opera House, I realized that not only does the company excel in pyrotechnic dancing, it's laden with the creaky devices and affectations that prompted Americans to develop truly modern alternatives.

The Bolshoi is a big company. The 30 principal dancers and 87 corps de ballet members touring the United States this summer represent only one unit of the larger aggregation, and that circumstance underscores ballet's inherent class differences. The chorus members are doomed to anonymity, while the stars indulge in subtle privileges, like wearing their own jewelry even though impersonating slaves. In ``Giselle'' Act II, while the ghostly Giselle was dancing to save the remorseful Albrecht from being slaughtered by the Wilis, both Albrecht and Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis, wandered offstage as if looking for something more interesting to do. Extravagant bows followed every solo or duet of consequence, breaking the stride of the scene and encouraging the audience to applaud even more ostentatiously. The cuckoo-clock bowing could backfire as a dancer rushed on for the second or third time, only to freeze in a ghastly grin because the mini-ovation had run out.

The productions were attractive, even in scaled-down touring versions, but chief designer Simon Virsaladze has an irritating preference for splitting the body vertically and making each half of the costume a different color. This jester effect appeared in every ballet I saw. Lighting at the Met was primitive - schematic flat blue for fantasy scenes, amber for broad daylight, follow-spots for the stars.

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