Bolshoi's big bang

Fifty years ago, on their first visit to the West, the Bolshoi Ballet came to Covent Garden and astonished audiences and dancers alike. John Percival recalls the season which transformed classical dance in Britain
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Not just overnight, but for three whole nights and days people queued when the box office opened for the Bolshoi Ballet's first visit to London, 50 years ago. Yes, breaks for food and the calls of nature were allowed, but not too long or you lost your place; sitting or sleeping on the footpath outside Covent Garden's Royal Opera House was where you had to be. There was never the like, before or since; can you imagine needing to queue even one night for this month's visits by both the Moscow Bolshoi and Russia's other leading ballet company, the Maryinsky from St Petersburg? But as one who ended up with good gallery seats for every single night of the month-long sold-out season in 1956, I can say it was worthwhile. It was one of those rare occasions (like first seeing New York City Ballet in 1950) that give you a new understanding of what ballet can achieve.

How did we know it was going to be so special? Well, concert groups brought over in recent years by the Anglo-Soviet Friendship Society had included ballet stars from Moscow, Leningrad and even Ufa (where the then unknown infant Rudolf Nureyev had studied), so we had an idea how good the dancers could be. And films had shown one or two of the ballets. Besides, the Royal Ballet had a Moscow-trained ballerina for ten years, Violetta Elvin, who joined in 1946 after her first marriage, to an Englishman, and left in 1956 on her second marriage to an Italian, and she ranked way beyond anyone else next to Margot Fonteyn. But none of this fully prepared us for the overwhelming effect of a full company on stage.

On opening night we were to see the famed Galina Ulanova for the first time, dancing Juliet. She was already nearly 47, and off stage looked rather dowdy, but in this role (and again as Giselle during the season) she looked truly a young teenager. If you think I'm exaggerating, consider Antoinette Sibley's description of the Royal Ballet attending the Bolshoi's stage rehearsal after their own performance in south London. They arrived while Raissa Struchkova was doing the balcony duet: "and then at the end this little old lady in the stalls got up, short greyish hair and wrapped in layers of wool - we all thought she was the ballet mistress. She went up on the balcony and said something to Yuri Faier, the amazing blind conductor. And then she took off her woollies and in front of our very eyes, no makeup, no costume, no help from theatrical aids whatsoever, she became 14 years old. I've never seen any magic like that in my entire life."

How she moved, too: when she ran to Friar Laurence's cell, Margot Fonteyn said to choreographer Frederick Ashton "Now I see what you wanted all these years". I am among those who found Ulanova the greatest ballerina we had ever seen: the most compellingly dramatic, the most expressive, the most musical. But even so, if anyone expressed sorrow that she was not dancing on the night they came, we could safely say "You won't be disappointed", because we knew that Struchkova, her alternate, was by any standards except Ulanova's also a very fine ballerina.

Besides, the important point was that the whole company showed the same qualities of integrity and conviction. In Swan Lake you could pick, at random, anyone from the corps de ballet of swans, and know that she would give a beautiful performance. What elegantly vivid use everyone made of their arms: that's something Dame Marie Rambert singled out as worth aiming for by British companies. And the character dancers - you never saw such totally satisfying accounts of a czardas or mazurka, nor such ideal playing of parents or servants, courtiers or jesters. Which reminds me that I haven't said anything yet about the men: my goodness, how they jumped, how they partnered, how they commanded the stage.

The Bolshoi Ballet gave four productions at Covent Garden that month; two classics and two Soviet creations. One might quibble about details of their Swan Lake, but their Giselle was by general consent incomparably better than any rival. Their Romeo and Juliet was a revelation and would remain arguably the best of all, particularly as danced then; it was certainly the most influential too. We might quarrel with the story and music of the other unfamiliar work, The Fountain of Bakhchisarai, but the performances it held were terrific. As a bonus, the company stayed on to give three evenings of virtuoso extracts at the Davis Theatre, Croydon, and to film part of that show and Giselle (the resulting movie would be well worth reissuing on DVD).

Not everybody here agreed about the Bolshoi's excellence. One of Britain's greatest dancers, Anton Dolin, wrote a long article entitled "What I did not like about the Bolshoi". Apart from the unmentioned fact that it was competition for his own Festival Ballet company, he seemed mainly to think it inelegant compared with the Diaghilev Ballet of his youth. And here in fact he comes near to the real comparison that should be made. The modern Russians and the leading British and American companies all took their being ultimately from the old Imperial ballet that was shaped in the 19th century by the great master ballet-maker Marius (Sleeping Beauty) Petipa and polished in the early 20th century by his successor Michel (Les Sylphides) Fokine. The difference is that we Brits and the Yanks took that influence via the so-called Ballets Russes (which never, ever appeared in Russia) of Serge Diaghilev, who put the emphasis primarily on choreographers, composers and designers including such greats as Stravinsky and Picasso. The post-revolutionary Russkies needed such creative artists too, and did notably well in music with Prokofiev and Shostakovich, while they also developed rather more choreographers than we heard of at the time. But the emphasis in Moscow and Leningrad was on the need for dancers to replace a lost generation - especially once the government, having moved to Moscow, decided that the Bolshoi had to be built up at the more northern city's expense.

So what should have been apparent at that first ballet exchange a half-century ago was that both parties had a lot to learn from the other. But here I must mention how easily none of this could have happened. First of all, the Russians threatened to pull out in protest at the arrest of a Soviet gymnast accused of stealing hats in Oxford Street, suggesting that she had been framed and the dancers were likewise at risk. Only just in time for the scheduled opening was this resolved. Then, once the Bolshoi had gone triumphantly home, the Royal Ballet did pull out of its reciprocal visit to Moscow, on governmental and British Council insistence that Russian actions in Hungary, after uprisings there, made the journey inappropriate at that time. Talks to find alternative dates began within months, but it was almost five years before a mutually convenient occasion could be agreed.

All the same, some benefits from the Bolshoi's visit quickly became apparent here. Only two months after that season, the Royal Ballet premiered The Prince of the Pagodas. Publicity at the time centred on this being the first full-evening British ballet created from scratch - story, score, the lot - and on its being Benjamin Britten's first ballet score. But with hindsight it became apparent that John Cranko's choreography had been much influenced by what he saw from the Bolshoi: high lifts in the partnering, high jumps in the solos. There was scarcely time for the Russian invasion to have affected his dramatic approach, but that came soon afterwards when he staged his own version of Romeo and Juliet, notably in his treatment of the older characters. This then greatly affected Cranko's other widely successful dramatic ballets, notably Onegin and The Taming of the Shrew. Kenneth MacMillan in turn, when he began tackling full-evening ballets with his Romeo and Juliet, was strongly influenced by having seen the Bolshoi and Cranko productions. He too in most of his works included complex and difficult partnering which would have been unlikely without the Russian example, and also set out to demand higher leaps from the male dancers. Ballet-master Peter Wright began modelling his productions of Giselle on the Bolshoi's, and it wasn't long before the influence spread - even if it was to be Rudolf Nureyev's settling here six years later that completed the Russianising process, above all in the dancing. Lately, I'd say, something of the passion has been lost, but that seems a worldwide problem.

It took longer for Western influences to take root in Russia; the earliest manifestation was probably Yuri Grigorovich's introduction of pure-dance scenes at the expense of drama in his creations, first in St Petersburg, then Moscow. But against the virtues of his ballets (big male roles, spectacular ensembles) must be set his deliberate killing off of character-dancing in his dreary revisions of the classics. The Maryinsky Ballet this summer will demonstrate, in a Shostakovich triple bill, how much experimental work was being done during the 1960s, but in styles that led on from earlier Russian traditions rather than Western examples. Only more recently has the Moscow and Petersburg repertoire included a number of ballets by Western choreographers including Frederick Ashton, George Balanchine, Kenneth MacMillan, Roland Petit, Jerome Robbins and Antony Tudor. Some of those are coming here this summer, but perhaps more interesting is the inclusion this time of two Russian choreographers who went abroad to work.

One of these, Yuri Possokhov, has been for some years a leading dancer with the San Francisco Ballet and will continue there as a resident choreographer when he stops performing this summer. He began his career at the Bolshoi but gives credit to San Francisco's director Helgi Tomasson for his development into making ballets; now he is amused that Russian audiences see his American side while Americans still think of him as very Russian. Best, perhaps, to emphasise that for Cinderella, his first three-act production, he says the music is his inspiration and has introduced two new characters, Prokofiev himself as storyteller and his wife as muse. Obviously this is going to be very different from earlier Russian stagings of Cinderella.

The other unfamiliar long ballet in this summer's Bolshoi programmes, however, quite deliberately evokes the company's past. This is The Bright Stream, a new version of a ballet created in 1935 but withdrawn because of political objections to the way its amusing plot represented the workers on a collective farm. What survives from that earlier staging is the highly attractive score by Shostakovich. Working from accounts of Fyodor Lopokov's original creation, the company's present director Alexei Ratmansky has devised a convincing impression of what must have been intended.

Ratmansky is another Bolshoi-trained ex-dancer who went to work abroad, enjoying great success in Copenhagen, but went home after graduating to choreography and was invited in 2003 to become director. The company he took over had been through difficult times in recent years, but the standard of dancing had been lovingly polished under his predecessor Boris Akimov. Nowadays their dancers look more like ours but they still act differently. Early indications are that with a combination of Ratmansky's own works and a judicious choice of outside influences resulting from his wider experience, the Bolshoi Ballet will find itself flourishing again - but for sure it is no more going to reproduce the qualities it enjoyed in that unforgettable 1956 season than today's Royal Ballet could match its own peak period which came a decade later. m

The Bolshoi Ballet will be at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London from 31 July to 19 August. The Maryinsky Theatre will be at the Coliseum from 20-29 July.