For Yuri Grigorovich and the Bolshoi, time stood still. No new productions, same old ballerina - that's his wife, Natalia Bessmertnova, he's putting through her paces. Then enter stage left, his successor Vladimir Vasiliev. LOUISE LEVENE reports on a Yeltsin coup. Photographs by LAURIE LEWIS
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When Yuri Grigorovich finally resigned from his post as artistic director of the Bolshoi on 9 March, it was no ordinary curtain call. It was the end of 30 years on the world's biggest ballet stage and it had taken the dictat of Yeltsin himself to remove him. And even then he did not go quietly. A group of loyal dancers, led by his wife, Natalia Bessmertnova, organised a strike, a performance was cancelled and the story went round the world. Bolshoi means big and, as far as the world's news agencies were concerned, it was a big story. Nobody doubts that the Bolshoi will survive. Grigorovich's future is less clear. But there is at least some news. It came to ballet correspondents in the form of a fax telling them that the former colossus could in future be contacted c/o The World Centre for the Performing Arts, 111 Portsmouth Road, Cobham, Surrey.

Yuri Nikolaievich Grigorovich, a former character dancer with the Kirov ballet in Leningrad and a fairly promising choreographer, became the artistic director of the Bolshoi in 1964. During his tenure, he created numerous ballets; at their considerable best they were masterpieces of theatre, exploiting the meaty machismo and sheer scale of the company and its celebrated stage. At their worst, they were trashy melodramas of balletic square- bashing.

The Bolshoi repertoire has been dominated by Grigorovich's choreography for the past 30 years. During that time, Grigorovich became notorious for promoting the careers of his pet dancers (his wife Natalia Bessmertnova, for instance) and thwarting the progress of others. As all this happened in Soviet Russia, it was seen as Stalinist megalomania. A little unfair. Choreographers and artistic directors and impresarios have always seen to it that their wives and mistresses and boyfriends get plum parts and guest appearances and other favours. Every company in the world is guilty. At least Bessmertnova was good. And as for Grigorovich's management style, well, Soviet ballet is no place for wimps - either on the stage or behind it. The redoubtable Ninette de Valois might perhaps have negotiated the political minefield awaiting anyone who took on the directorship of the Bolshoi in Khruschev's Russia but a shrinking violet like Anthony Dowell would have been eaten for breakfast. Grigorovich outlived six premierships.

As for his artistic stranglehold on the company's repertoire, dance companies all over the world are content to be the instrument of one choreographer. None the less, the papers have been rehearsing Grigorovich's obituary for the past month. Simultaneously slagging off his creations and complaining that he doesn't produce enough of them. Lousy ballets - and such small portions.

As Grigorovich dominated, so the repertoire remained unchanged. Spartacus, Ivan and Boris are all fantastic roles: dynamic, heroic with extraordinary power to move and even inspire audiences. But for a dancer to dance nothing else? It's like taking a fine actor and dooming him to a lifetime of Hamlet, Henry V and Coriolanus. The relentless type-casting was a soul destroying business. If the dancers could leave they did. Grigorovich sneered at the bourgeois materialism of these treacherous hoofers, insisting that they left him merely because they wanted cable TV and disposable nappies, not for the sake of a more exciting repertoire. And if all they wanted was to eat more fruit, why did Russian dancers sometimes leave for the West only to return a few months later? Bolshoi golden boy Andris Liepa left Moscow for the American Ballet Theatre in 1989 but returned shortly afterwards. "I missed my audience," he said simply. Not the Muscovite audience particularly, but that informed body of Russian ballet-goers who know their arabesque from their elbow. Yet though Liepa returned to Russia, Grigorovich was still the loser: it was the Kirov, not the Bolshoi that welcomed the prodigal.

Another complaint was that not only did they dance the same roles over and over again (and a lot of classical ballet dancers do this), they also got tired of dancing them with the same ballerina: Natalia Bessmertnova. The young Irek Mukhamedov, now with the Royal Ballet, was particularly aggrieved at having to act as a hormone replacement therapy on the brittle charms of Madame Grigorovich. But ballerinas are notorious for outlasting generations of men: women live longer and no one expects them to do one- armed lifts. And Bessmertnova was a remarkable dancer. When she was still a member of the corps de ballet in 1963, Alexander Bland of the Observer ear-marked her for greatness. Technically assured and with a sinuous beauty, she excelled in the roles her husband created for her. Unfortunately, his belief in her abilities allowed her to eclipse other equally gifted ballerinas (something the Bolshoi had in spades during the Seventies and Eighties).

But why do we care what happens at the Bolshoi? John Percival, the veteran dance critic who has been watching the Bolshoi since 1956, confesses to abject bewilderment at the close media interest in events unfolding in Moscow. "I would have thought there were more important things quite frankly. But people who know bugger all about ballet have heard of the name Bolshoi. If I were given the choice of the Bolshoi or the Paris Opra Ballet I know which I'd rather see."

British veneration of the company can be traced back to the explosive force of early visits. The fabled 1956 tour was remarkable not only for Galina Ulanova's transcendant Giselles and Juliets but also for all those gorgeous men. This was five years before Nureyev's arrival and the full impact of such virile dancers can only now be guessed at from the slavering reviews of the period. Regular visits followed, show- casing dancers such as Liepa, Vladimir Vasiliev and Ludmilla Semenyaka. In 1986, London got its first taste of beefy Irek Mukhamedov. By 1989, the company was more familiar but the thrills remained. The queue for tickets stretched down St Martin's Lane long before the Coliseum box office opened. And no wonder. Twenty- nine and at the height of his physical powers, Grigorovich's protg soared across the stage one memorable night in three incredible leaps. The young star surprised even himself and whooped out loud after his third grand jet. So did we.

Mind you, not all foreign tours went as well as the British ones. One of the company's small-scale tours took it to Paris, where Grigorovich cooked up the unlikely double bill of Spartacus Act II and Giselle Act II. It may have had Irek dancing his heart out but the flinty Parisians at the Thtre de Champs Elyses didn't raise a single bravo. Up the road they could see Sylvie Guillem and Charles Jude dancing in Nureyev's productions any night of the week - who needed the Bolshoi? In London, it was quite different. The Bolshoi's hold on British audiences is partly explained by the enduring belief that good ballet is Russian ballet. However, even British Russophilia was gradually eroded after a series of disastrous breakaway tours, Grigorovich's excruciating "Stars of the Bolshoi" barnstormers - mere hard currency raids in which Dartford and Sunderland were treated to tough old birds in Swan Lake and enough fouetts to bore a hole in the floor.

Yet the company still had enough clout to fill the Albert Hall in 1993, thanks to Derek Block's marketing sledgehammer: £750,000 in advertising. Fellow impresario Lilian Hochauser dismisses the success of this season of incom- prehensible ballet extracts or "suites" as "a masterpiece of marketing. At that point wherever the Bolshoi had been the public would have gone." Dazzled by the financial success of the five-week visit to the Albert Hall, Derek Block fondly assumed Grigorovich, "the Maestro", as he referred to him, possessed the Midas touch.

Block's over-confidence led to the demented notion, in 1994, of "ballet on a summer's day". What on earth made Block think that canny north country folk would pay £55 to sit in the gardens of Castle Howard on a chilly Yorkshire evening to watch a bag of suites that had been critically crucified? Even Block, new to the ballet game, must have had a few doubts about the proposed al fresco fiasco. The painfully late abortion of this absurd outdoor ballet season, which cost Block more than £1 million (not to mention his reputation for good sense), has meant that edgy impresarios will no longer regard the company as automatically bankable. And for the Bolshoi that really matters.

If a major Western company goes through a period in the artistic doldrums it's an embarrassment, but it's not the end of the world. Loyal (or merely ignorant) audiences will continue to come in respectable numbers and funding carries on regardless. Since the collapse of the Russian economy and the ending of their massive state subsidy, the Bolshoi is literally falling apart and the restoration can only be acquired with hard currency. Unfortunately, touring (the most obvious source of revenue) is not an option for a company in chaos.

However, the Bolshoi is bigger than any of its members. It's certainly bigger than Grigorovich. Hochauser is optimistic about the company's prospects: "Obviously there will have to be a period of adjustment. They will have to work out their own modus vivendi but the name Bolshoi still has the ring about it. I think it'll take a year."

Her company is bringing the Kirov to London this summer, would she consider bringing the Bolshoi, as she has in the past? "Certainly, give them six months and then think about it. Not to do bits and pieces but to do good solid ballets. The Bolshoi is strong enough to withstand upheaval." If Vasiliev can command the loyalty of the company he has known for more than 40 years and if his own choreography is enough to sustain them for the time being, then the Bolshoi should live to fight another day.

Grigorovich is another matter. Over the past few weeks the papers have chronicled, the Maestro's rise and fall. Little did they know how far the fall would be. Grigorovich will be in charge of formulating the ballet course at the projected World Centre for the Performing Arts, an ambitious venture that hopes to create centres of excellence in Belfast and London. "I will give you your own Bolshoi," said the Maestro. Grigorovich's partners in the Cobham-based venture are his wife and two former administrators of the Italia Conti stage school, the august academy that produced Bonnie Langford.