DANCE / So, how was it for Yuri?: 'You don't like my art? The public's out there so you must be wrong.' At the end of the Bolshoi's controversial London season,

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The Independent Culture
Yuri Grigorovich interviews on autopilot. One more question and you expect him to confine himself to name, rank and serial number. Weary of press criticism and pathologically contemptuous of journalists, he is never the ideal subject. After six weeks of largely hostile reviews, a frosty reception seemed inevitable. I was led into his den in a warm basement bunker below the Albert Hall where he sat flanked by his smiling interpreter and his impresario Derek Block. This was their chance to point out that the Bolshoi's season has been a financial and popular success.

Derek Block shrugs off the bad press 'The critics? We discounted them before we started. Yuri has past experience with the London critics.' Both men adhere to the fiction that all critics hate Grigorovich, despite the fact that several leading dance writers (Clement Crisp, Mary Clarke, Jann Parry) are keen proponents of the Bolshoi style and most others have a definite soft spot for epics like Spartacus and Ivan the Terrible. What seemed to finish even the Bolshoi's keenest admirers was the attempt to present chunks of full-length ballets on a thrust stage in the middle of the Albert Hall. Those who weren't crazy about Grigorovich to start with were apoplectic with disdain: 'The productions themselves are excerpts hacked from the same tawdry emasculated versions of the classics' (Edward Thorpe London Evening Standard).

Derek Block's response to this particular review was swift: 'I said to him. I'm withdrawing your press tickets. On health grounds.' Thorpe's version of events is slightly different. 'He said that my second review ('circus vulgarities . . . mechanistic joylessness') had precipitated his anger. He made a huge commotion. Rang my home. Insisted on speaking to my wife. When I came home I rang him. He told me he was withdrawing the tickets and then went into a long diatribe about how upset he was, how upset the company was by my reviews. So I said 'I assume you won't mind if I purchase two pounds 15 pound standing tickets. I'm sure my readers will be very interested to learn what the audience can see from that position'.' According to Thorpe, Block slammed the phone down but reinstated his ticket allocation an hour later.

Block, of course, claims to be unfazed by critical reactions. 'Apart from one or two we are happy with the press. Yuri worried about the critics more than I did. He's an artist. It doesn't matter whether you're Des O'Connor or Pavarotti: artists can't take criticism - 'You don't like my art? The public's out there so you must be wrong'.' This may be a spurious artistic defence, but it's an unanswerable demonstration of the Bolshoi's pulling power and Block's marketing genius. By his estimation, 75 per cent of the audience at the Albert Hall had never once been to a ballet before. I ask where he acquired this remarkable statistic.

'Well, we aren't doing a head count but we know from the pattern of buying and from the people we're speaking to' he explains airily. Block is fond of this psychic approach to ballet marketing. 'I always knew that word-of-mouth and public opinion had a very good feel about the way the event developed.' And he seems to have guessed correctly. 'We're going to play to 92, 94 per cent business over the whole season. We have a few tickets left.' Estimated attendance over six weeks was 110,000.

Both men are vigorous in their defence of the Albert Hall, a patently unsuitable venue for ballet. Grigorovich insists that 'Each place that one's company performs needs special theatrical solutions. These premises are surprisingly interesting. We now see a dancer on stage from all dimensions. It creates a special atmosphere where the audience is a participant in the performance. It's a wonderful, wonderful venue. With great perspectives.'.

But hadn't the punters moaned about the bizarre views from the sides of the hall? 'Maybe 20,' says Block. The pop promoter, now a born-again ballet fan, enthuses about the sight lines: 'I've sat in 20 positions. You get a completely different perspective each time. Until I got involved with Mr Grigorovich I hadn't even been to the ballet.' Grigorovich doesn't see the problem: 'If somebody is sitting in a side box what can they see in any theatre? At the Bolshoi, say, or Covent Garden?' He is unimpressed by purists who insist that ballet's geometry demands to be seen through the frame of a conventional proscenium arch. 'It doesn't matter. You can look at ballet through a frame. You can look at it without a frame. You have to think about the premises where your company is performing.'

But surely his own ballet spectaculars gain a great deal from being delivered as a full-frontal assault. What about the armies in Spartacus? 'We have changed the choreography quite a bit. This gives you a good view from all the positions. Old choreography was the most difficult thing to adjust to this stage because old choreography was designed specially for the theatre, but we have done the maximum of possible adjustments.'

The major 'adjustment' has consisted of cutting three-act ballets down to juxtapositions of scenes and pas de deux to create a series of often unsatisfying and sometimes downright confusing 'suites'. He is very tired of answering this one, and trots out tried and tested soundbites: 'When I brought full length performances to London the wonderful British media always said 'Why full length performances? So long]' '. Surely not. Who said that? When? If I come to Moscow he'll show me his clippings, he replies.

Why did he butcher his own work and the 19th-century classics in this way? He is patient, but the frayed end of his tether is clearly in sight: 'Because this is not a theatre. This is not a theatre. It is NOT a theatre. That is why. How can we change the scenes? It is impossible. Give us the theatre, say Covent Garden, and I will show you full-length ballets. I take the repertoire of the Bolshoi. I bring it here. No problem at all for me. It is hundreds of times simpler for me. At the Albert Hall we had to do something else and those who know those 13 ballets we have brought here will see what a great job was done.'

But surely the narrative of ballets like The Stone Flower and The Legend of Love is lost in the process? 'I have seen so many ballets. Not suites, full-length ballets where there was no content at all, where it was impossible to understand anything, so please don't tell me about it.' He grows sarcastic in his irritation. 'I presume British people read Shakespeare? Perhaps they know that Romeo and Juliet finishes with death?'

Critics trying to look kindly on the way the Bolshoi has had to sell itself at the Albert Hall have regarded this season as a temporary measure enforced by financial circumstances - what Clement Crisp has called 'ballet for a time of crisis'. Nonsense, says Grigorovich. 'As if somebody doesn't have eyes. What crisis? Look how many young dancers we have. Look at the way they dance. Where could you find another company that can demonstrate at the same time so many dancers, so many soloists? I am not going to justify myself. The house is full. The artists are dancing well and I am very happy. Very happy'.

Block is happy, too. Very happy. 'They took on a task which possibly no other company in the world could. They came to a new venue that had never been used for dance.' Oh yes it has, I protest. Oh no it hasn't, he insists, 'not like this. Uniquely staged. He's re-choreographed 13 of his ballets. Right? He's brought many new dancers that could have attracted all sorts of criticism. Right? The public have had the Royal Ballet and English National Ballet on in London at the same time but the word of mouth is that people have chosen to come here.' Mr Block's crystal ball is pressed into action once again to conjure some more unknowable figures: 'We know there's an above-average percentage re-booking. We know. We know that in the final week we may turn away five or ten thousand people.'

And what's more, it's all been fun. 'There's a great atmosphere backstage. It's my first experience with a ballet company, but they are very happy and (I hope I speak for Yuri) we have a warm glow. We have worked for 15 months on this. We have had sleepless nights. Many people told us we were crazy. But in the end it has worked out exactly as we hoped. You are talking to two very happy men.' Very happy.

The Bolshoi continues at the Royal Albert Hall until Sunday (071-589 8212)

(Photograph omitted)

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