80 Years Young
By Glenn Walters
The second day of 2007 marked the 80th birthday of Yury Grigorovich, balletmaster of the Bolshoi Theater for more than three decades, and without much doubt the most important choreographer at work in Russia during the second half of the 20th century.
To celebrate the anniversary, the Bolshoi started off January with a festival of specially-prepared performances of four of the nine Grigorovich-choreographed works that form the backbone of the theatre’s ballet repertoire. A short time later, it honoured the choreographer with a gala evening of single acts from three of his ballets.
Twelve years ago, Grigorovich was unceremoniously dismissed from his post at the Bolshoi. Under the theatre’s new management, headed by Grigorovich’s former star dancer, Vladimir Vasilyev, most of his ballets were removed from the repertoire. But with Vasilyev’s own dismissal from the Bolshoi in August 2000, a rapprochement began to develop. The spring of 2001 saw a return of Grigorovich’s “Swan Lake,” to take the place of a mediocre version choreographed by Vasilyev. Then came “Giselle,” “Legend of Love,” “Raymonda” and, just last March, a stunning revival of Dmitri Shostakovich’s “The Age of Gold,” in honour of the 100th anniversary of the composer’s birth.
Trained as a dancer in his native Leningrad, Grigorovich made his debut there at the Kirov (now Mariinsky) Theater in 1947. Soon, however, he developed a bent for choreography and began to hone his skills with stagings at a children’s school. His first foray into the world of adult ballet occurred at the Kirov in 1957, in the form of Sergei Prokofiev’s “Stone Flower.” The success of “Stone Flower,” both there and as produced by the Bolshoi two years later, led to a second, entirely original creation at the Kirov called “Legend of Love.”
In 1963, the Bolshoi invited Grigorovich to choreograph Tchaikovsky’s “The Sleeping Beauty.” A year later, he was appointed artistic director of the theatre’s ballet company. His first work upon taking up the post was Tchaikovsky’s “The Nutcracker,” in a highly original but strictly classical production that has continued to delight Bolshoi audiences ever since.
Next, in 1968, came “Spartacus,” perhaps Grigorovich’s most important and enduring work, and the ballet which, more than any other, brought the choreographer international acclaim. The tale of a heroic slave rebellion in ancient Rome had previously appeared at the Bolshoi a decade earlier in other choreography and without notable success. Grigorovich revised the scenario and filled it with a stunning array of dance, ranging from bombastic crowd scenes to intimate love episodes. “Sparta cus” also proved a perfect vehicle to display the Bolshoi’s powerhouse of male dancers, above all Vladimir Vasilyev and Marius Liepa, as well as the marvellously expressive dancing of such female stars as Yekaterina Maksimova and Grigorovich’s wife, Natalya Bessmertnova.
In “Spartacus” can be found evidence of practically everything that Grigorovich has contributed to the world of Russian ballet. Like “Legend of Love,” it represented a sharp turn away from the so-called “dramatic ballet” that had reigned supreme on the Soviet stage since the 1930s with its realistic depiction of “socialist” themes, its frequent disregard for the strictures of classical ballet, and its replacement of real dancing with large helpings of pantomime.
Grigorovich insisted that everything be danced and that every dance movement either further the action or act to define a character’s thoughts and state of mind. His dance vocabulary remained firmly classical, though he nevertheless brought to it many original and innovative touches. And, unlike most of his latter-day counterparts, he was a master at handling large-scale scenes involving the corps de ballet.
In the years following “Spartacus,” Grigorovich created three entirely original works: “Ivan the Terrible” (1975), set to music written by Sergei Prokofiev for Sergei Eisenstein’s Second World War-era film of the same title; “Angara” (1976), a tale of the struggles and joys of a group of construction workers on the Siberian river of the ballet’s title; and “The Golden Age” (1982), the first of Shostakovich’s three ballets, which had remained unperformed since its debut in Leningrad half a century earlier, and which Grigorovich set to an entirely new story telling of greed, violence and love in a Soviet seaside town during the free-wheeling days of the so-called New Economic Policy of the 1920s.
Otherwise, the choreographer concerned himself with bringing a fresh approach to the classics. First came “Swan Lake,” in a production that now, nearly four decades after it first appeared, probably ranks as the most popular of any on the Bolshoi stage; then an altogether new “Sleeping Beauty” that reached back to the original choreography of its 1890 St Petersburg premiere, Prokofiev’s “Romeo and Juliet” and, in his final decade at the Bolshoi, “Raymonda,” “Giselle,” “La Bayadere” and “The Corsair.”
As time went by, Grigorovich became the ruler not only of the Bolshoi’s ballet company, but, in effect, of the entire theatre. And rule he did, in autocratic and often iron-fisted fashion. With the coming of Perestroika and the break-up of the Soviet Union, many at the Bolshoi yearned for greater freedom. Dancers, in particular, were keen to connect with styles of dance from outside the Soviet and former-Soviet orbit and to have greater opportunity than Grigorovich allowed to accept higher-paying engagements abroad. Eventually it became apparent to Russia’s cultural authorities that the Bolshoi needed new management and new artistic direction.
The day of Grigorovich’s dismissal in March 1995 ended dramatically in the first and only strike ever to take place at the Bolshoi. I vividly recall settling happily into my seat at the theatre in anticipation of my first encounter with Grigorovich’s “Romeo and Juliet.” The house lights dimmed and the conductor entered the pit. But before the orchestra could play a single note, the curtain rose to reveal a horde of people on stage, some in costume, the rest in street clothes. One from the costumed group immediately stepped forward and announced: “There will be no performance.” Perhaps sensing that the audience hadn’t gotten the message, he repeated the words in a louder voice. With that, the curtain fell, the house lights rose and pandemonium broke loose.
Most of the bewildered audience soon made for the exits. But staying behind for many minutes to follow were knots of ballet devotees, vigorously arguing the case for and against Grigorovich and, at times, even threatening to turn violent.
Peace, however, quickly returned to the theatre. And Grigorovich had no trouble finding employment elsewhere, both in other parts of Russia and abroad. Most notably of all, he went on to create a first-rate ballet troupe of his own in the southern city of Krasnodar.
At the Bolshoi, Grigorovich still remains a controversial figure. The ballet company’s current artistic director, Alexei Ratmansky, has repeatedly expressed a desire to wean the company away from its attachment to the Grigorovich style and aesthetic. Nevertheless, Grigorovich’s ballets are almost certain to remain a part of the Bolshoi repertoire for many seasons to come. It seems hard to imagine the theatre without “Spartacus,” which consistently plays to a packed house and remains one of the Bolshoi’s principal calling cards on foreign tours. Both “Legend of Love” and “The Age of Gold” are wonderfully unique creations, likely still to find a host of new admirers. As for the Grigorovich-choreographed classics, it will take some quite extraordinary alternatives and some no doubt highly unpopular decisions on the part of the Bolshoi to replace any of them.