DANCE / One step forward ..

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YURI GRIGOROVICH, artistic director of the Bolshoi Ballet, has a reputation for controversy. In bringing his company to the Royal Albert Hall, he has shown that his appetite for contention has not diminished. The Bolshoi's five-week season opened last weekend, and by now most people will have heard about the stir it is causing. The company stumbled when it opened, but I have seen it three times, and by Thursday night, the Bolshoi had found its feet again. The verdict: the dancing is great, the spectacle marvellous, the 'suites' misconceived, the sightlines not universally good - and the jury is still out over the novel staging.

The Albert Hall has been transformed into a replica of the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, turning it into a venue unrivalled in London for grandeur. The stage has been specially designed to project halfway into the arena, affording a cabaret-style presentation. The design is very clever: most ingenious are the long concave ramps along the sides, which solve the problem of getting dancers on and off without them cluttering the view.

Do the ballets work on this stage? Some do, some don't. Ballet is an art form designed to be framed by a proscenium arch with the audience as a central focus. When that focus is stretched around a semi-circle, sharp lines can be diffused. Grigorovich has rechoreographed the pieces, but not all lend themselves to change. The

Golden Age is an example: on the first night, I sat to the side and was shocked that the pleasing lines of Covent Garden in 1986 had turned into a hodgepodge at the Albert Hall. On the second night I sat near the front, and the piece was much better: long arrows of dancers in their beautiful Gatsby-style costumes were discernible. So it is not the case that the much-touted 'new' venue has good sightlines for all. Romeo and Juliet, however, worked from both the side and the front.

The other controversial aspect is Grigorovich's invention of 'suites'. There are no full-length ballets (apart from Giselle on Saturday afternoons) but a Reader's Digest of condensed highlights, packed into 45-minute segments. The results are mixed. Both The Golden Age and Ivan the Terrible, two of Grigorovich's finest ballets, are reduced to series of pointless sequences that cry out for their narrative contexts to be restored. The suites demean the pieces, which have strong storylines anyway: the confrontation between idealistic young revolutionaries and the decadent bourgeoisie (The Golden Age) and Ivan's 16th-century struggle for power.

Act III of Swan Lake, the ballroom scene, stands alone structurally, but presented alone as drama only dilutes the main characters, so that we have no sense of Prince Siegfried's imminent betrayal of Odette and no build-up to the Black Swan's dramatic entrance. Here, Siegfried becomes just another bloke attracted to a pretty girl, and Odile's entrance falls rather flat.

The other suites - Romeo and Juliet, Le Corsaire, The Nutcracker and Legend of Love all succeed - but for different reasons. The Nutcracker, perhaps because it is so well known, stands alone quite happily, releasing a grand and enjoyable spectacle.

Grigorovich uses Le Corsaire as a vehicle for his star dancer, Nadezhda Gracheva, and although I have not seen the ballet, I didn't long for the context. Gracheva is a young dancer of exceptional beauty and grace; she has a perfect build for a ballerina with more suppleness than most in an art in which that quality is a sine qua non. She also has the easy confidence of natural talent, a goddess moving through her whipping turns as though born to it. The amazingly airborne Alexander Vetrov sparkles as Conrad in Le Corsaire, is an appealingly bumptious Tybalt in Romeo and Juliet, and as a forceful Ivan is spellbinding at times.

Vetrov embodies the Bolshoi man that is Grigorovich's hallmark: virile, powerful, robust, the beefcake of dance. Again, it is difficult to know what the full-length versions of Romeo and Juliet, Ivan the Terrible and Legend of Love are like, but even as suites they are a showcase for Grigorovich's wonderfully zestful, daring, unsentimental style and spectacular presentation.

Legend of Love, one of Grigorovich's early ballets, fizzes with ideas. Up to 30 dancers in beautiful costumes with an Ottoman flavour swarm across the stage, dancing with breathtaking precision. The piece works as a suite because of the fiery pas de deux and solos. A man and a woman dancing together make a story anyway, and Maria Bylova as the Queen and Yuri Klevtsov as Ferkhad are an impassioned pair who pour everything into the boldly intricate sequences. Elina Palshina as Shirin is luminous in her cerise catsuit, bringing an acrobatic edge to the dance's geometric curves.

By Thursday night, the Bolshoi that we know was back: Grigorovich's theatrical marvels with long lines of powerful dancers moving in perfect harmony over vast spaces, building to strong climaxes, had returned with intensity. On the whole, the company is very good, even great, but its stars, who have retired or left for the West, leave a gap. Although the principals are good, none apart from Gracheva has that je ne sais quoi. The cabaret presentation is novel, and I do not want to dismiss it simply because it is different. The Bolshoi has laid on a visual banquet, but I came away feeling peculiarly unsatisfied: the suites are movement stripped of their meaning. Grigorovich may be despairing over the critics who complained last time that his ballets were too long and now say they are too short.

I hope the season succeeds so that one of the world's greatest companies can insulate itself from what Grigorovich describes as 'a dull page' in Russia's history, which is starving the Bolshoi of funds. Just as Nureyev popularised ballet, so Grigorovich is taking it out of the opera house and into the arena. If he extends the audience for dance and creates a demand for short ballets, then dance in this country will be in his debt.

Meanwhile, one of Grigorovich's former stars and favourites, Irek Mukhamedov, is causing a sensation with the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden. Mukhamedov is the foreman of a London building site in The Judas Tree, a role he created for Kenneth MacMillan as part of a triple bill with George Balanchine's Apollo and Symphony in C.

Into a bleak set with graffiti on the walls and a pile of scrap cars, MacMillan throws a pert girl (Viviana Durante) as a live pin-up for the 14 or so labourers. Mukhamedov tries to save her from the lustful men - and from herself - but, in her bathing suit and bare feet, she spurns him. He flares up like a wounded bear, virtually chewing the scaffolding, ego splattered. On his own, Mukhamedov sizzles: with his fusilli turns and exposed nerve-endings, he is an actor-dancer of huge charisma. With Durante, he forms what the PRs would call dance's hottest couple, except that it's true. The sexual tension between them is almost unbearable.

Around them the men of the Royal Ballet, never naturals for Baywatch, explode in a great tribute to male dancing. It is thrilling that the Royal Ballet is presenting this social realism, with its gang rape and gallows ending, and ironic that MacMillan will be feted more after his death than in his life for taking ballet in Britain into a new dimension.

Bolshoi: Albert Hall (071-589 8212), to 14 Feb (not Mons). Triple Bill: Covent Garden (071-240 1066), Thurs & 27-28 Jan.

(Photograph omitted)