Out of Russia: Stalin of the ballet ripe for a fall in the Bolshoi revolution

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MOSCOW - Russia has been - more or less - a free country for some time now, but little islands of dictatorship persist. One is at the Bolshoi ballet where, critics say, the artistic director and choreographer, Yuri Grigorovich, still rules with a Stalin-like grip. Even here, it seems, the winds of democracy may be about to start blowing.

Earlier this week President Boris Yeltsin signed a decree doing away with the old Soviet system of jobs for life at the Bolshoi and introducing Western-style employment contracts, which may or may not be renewed depending on performance. Dancers think this is the beginning of the end for the authoritarian Mr Grigorovich, 67, whose reign spans 30 years.

It appears Mr Yeltsin was spurred into action by a scandal in St Petersburg recently. The veteran prima ballerina Maya Plisetskaya, who left the Bolshoi some years ago after bitter artistic disputes with Mr Grigorovich, organised an international dance competition in the former imperial capital with the aim of encouraging new developments in ballet.

Russia is the home of ballet and Russians would certainly have shone in the competition. But Mr Grigorovich banned his young dancers from taking part, with the result that they had to sit on the sidelines while foreigners took all the prizes. Mr Grigorovich has commented neither on the row with Ms Plisetskaya nor on the presidential decree and what it might mean for his future.

The maestro's admirers say all good artistic directors are tyrants and his style is just a measure of his talent. Yuri Vetrov, the Bolshoi company director, said in a recent press interview: 'I have never worked with a choreographer so strict. But look at Grigorovich ballets. They are as contemporary today as when he created them. That is the difference between the classical and the merely trendy. Yuri Nikolayevich is involved in the quest for something permanent in art.'

But critics say Mr Grigorovich's cult of personality has led to a depressing stagnation which threatens the very future of ballet on the soil where it first grew. Chief among the critics is Ms Plisetskaya, who has likened the Bolshoi to the old Soviet Union itself, 'held together by slavery and fear'.

In the 1980s, Mr Grigorovich's conflicts with his dancers were mostly over repertoire. The artists knew of the development of contemporary dance in the West and wanted to do more than endlessly repeat Swan Lake, Giselle and The Nutcracker, gorgeous as these are in their Bolshoi productions, or perform ideologically-inspired ballets such as Spartacus, which Mr Grigorovich created in the Communist period.

Irek Mukhamedov, widely regarded as the artistic heir to the late Rudolf Nureyev, fled the Bolshoi for the Royal Ballet in London in 1989 because he was sick of dancing Spartacus. 'If you do Spartacus all the time, your legs change shape,' he said. 'I realised that if I was to develop my art, I simply had to defect.'

Lately, Mr Grigorovich has faced a dancers' rebellion over money. Although work at the Bolshoi brings an artist great prestige, the wages are low, as little as pounds 65 a month, which is just slightly more than the cost of a ticket to a foreign tourist. Not surprisingly, the dancers are keen to go abroad as often as possible.

Mr Grigorovich has taken them on tour. In January 1993, they went to London and were savaged for a show of ballet highlights at the Royal Albert Hall. But this is not for some dancers, who have started organising freelance tours. The maestro does not like this and recently made an example of Gedaminus Taranda, who took sick leave to perform in the Netherlands, by sacking him after 13 years at the Bolshoi.

Now Mr Grigorovich's own job seems to be on the line. Speculation is rife as to who might succeed him and the Bolshoi is no doubt in for a night of the long knives. Ballet lovers can only hope that any change will be for the better.