BALLET / A Drastic Step: Times are tough in Russia. So Yuri Grigorovich, the Brezhnev of the Bolshoi, is putting on the biggest ballet season ever seen in London. And giving a rare interview

Anne Sacks
Sunday 23 October 2011 05:19

Yuri Grigorovich is artistic director and principal choreographer of the Bolshoi Ballet. Next year he will have been 30 years in the job; 30 years the most important figure in Russian dance. As artistic director, he is reputed to be a dictator. As choreographer, he is famous for the broad sweep of his work. Neither reputation is likely to be revised when he brings the Bolshoi to London next month.

The visit is on a scale never before seen in the West. In 1986, the company performed at Covent Garden and, when no other venue could be found, blithely occupied a huge tent in Battersea Park. In 1989, it performed at the Coliseum. That was the regular touring company: a few principals, a medium-sized corps de ballet and a sprinkling of the most popular works. This time, they are taking over the Albert Hall, for five weeks, and bringing the entire company: 160 artists, a full crew of technicians and designers, including the chief designer, Valery Leventhal, who will build a special stage. New sets will be packed into 16 articulated trucks; 60 wardrobe rails of new costumes will be shipped from Moscow in two truckloads, together with half a ton of musical scores. The Albert Hall will be rebuilt to simulate the Bolshoi Theatre: a facade replicating the Tsar's Box and audience boxes will be erected behind a proscenium arch hoisted from two 90ft metal grids.

'It is a colossal project,' Grigorovich says, 'and the biggest the Bolshoi has ever undertaken.' Never one for half-measures, Grigorovich's stylish, large-scale works are regarded as the indisputable ballet splendours of our age. These marvels will be performed in London virtually in the round on the largest stage in Europe, thrust half-way into the auditorium.

Because of the venue, Grigorovich has had to rechoreograph the 13 ballets that make up the programme, a showcase for the full range of the Bolshoi's repertoire. To do this, he has invented 'suites' - thematically linked highlights from each work. For example, Romeo and Juliet will comprise the ball scene where the couple meets, the balcony scene and Merutio's death scene. He has juxtaposed the suites with single acts, such as the White Act from Swan Lake. On any given night, the audience will see highlights from such epics as Ivan the Terrible and Legend of Love as well as an act from the classics such as Act III of La Bayadere. 'It is an experiment,' he says, 'that could change the ballet life of London and turn the Royal Albert Hall into a new venue for ballet.'

Yuri Grigorovich was born in St Petersburg, 66 years ago this January, the nephew of George Rozay, a sparkling character dancer with the Diaghilev Ballet. He started his dance training at the Leningrad Institute of Choreography, studying with Alexander Pushkin, who was later to teach Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov. He joined the Kirov in 1946, where he was a principal character dancer for 18 years. There, Fyodor Lopokov, the director, encouraged him to turn his hand to choreography, and in 1957, he created The Stone Flower to music by Prokofiev, his first big success. Next came Legend of Love in 1961. Three years later, aged just 37, he was appointed to his present posts. He developed the exultant style for which the Bolshoi is famous. He also created a leaner, younger company. He is known for his racing lines of male dancers in Spartacus, swathes of elegant women foxtrotting through The Golden Age, and exquisite reworkings of Swan Lake, La Bayadere, The Nutcracker, Giselle. His output is not great by Western standards but each work has reinforced the exuberant strength of the Bolshoi. His dancers are his muses, among them his wife, the prima ballerina Natalya Bessmertnova.

Peter Wright, director of Birmingham Royal Ballet, sums up how the Bolshoi is regarded. 'Their presentation is completely different from our own national companies. And when one sees the entire company, rather than the scaled-down versions that have been here before, they are simply great. '

Ever since the 1917 October Revolution when the seat of government moved from St Petersburg to Moscow, the Bolshoi has been one of the country's most respected artistic institutions and valuable cultural exports. But since the collapse of Communism, its security is being eroded. On a flying visit to London to supervise arrangements, Grigorovich is bewildered by the turmoil that has overtaken Russia. 'I don't understand what is happening in my country and I am not alone . . . The future of the Bolshoi is as uncertain as the future of the country. It is becoming more and more difficult to survive not only from an artistic point of view but also from an economic point of view. We have reached a dull page, a very dull page, in our country's history.'

Here is a man who should be reaping the rewards of an acclaimed canon but finds himself losing not only his stars to the West but his musicians too. 'The intelligentsia is leaving in droves,' he sighs. And Grigorovich now has to scour the world for venues - which, if he cannot find, he has to create - in order to make money. The Bolshoi still receives a state subsidy, 'but it is not enough'. He is concerned but unbowed: 'The Bolshoi is healthy and full of energy. I want everyone to see our strength.'

Grigorovich is widely seen as a dictator, a Brezhnev in the age of Yeltsin. It is somewhat surprising, therefore, to discover that he is actually a great schmoozer. He is charming, diplomatic, ready with an answer, eyes twinkling beneath grey spikes. We are in a suite in the Hilton Hotel; he's in jeans and a navy jumper, a smidgen over five feet, with a glow that comes from sleeping well. He seems to be enjoying himself, unruffled by having to disappear into the bedroom occasionally to minister to a slight cold. 'I like answering these questions,' he says, through the interpreter, when he returns. 'Come on, who do you want to talk about next?' How about Irek Mukhamedov, his muse for The Golden Age, a Bolshoi hero who left the company to join the Royal Ballet after the 1989 British tour? Mukhamedov said at the time: 'A dancer's time is short. I needed new material. Soviet ballet is stagnating; there is a lack of ideas.'

Was Mukhamedov's departure a betrayal? 'I don't consider him a traitor. He was my favourite but he did everything he could at the Bolshoi. He left not for artistic reasons but for complicated personal ones. We never quarrelled and we have

always had a good relationship. I can only say good things about him and I regret he is not with me.' To the claim (made not only by Mukhamedov but by others) that ballet has moved on from pageant to theatre, leaving Russian ballet 'lumpen', as one expert put it, 'compared with George Balanchine's irreverent classicism and Kenneth MacMillan's exploratory dance-dramas', Grigorovich merely says: 'That is their opinion.' He leans back on the couch, relaxed rather than defensive, indicating he won't be drawn further.

In one respect Grigorovich should be grateful to Mukhamedov, whose virtuosity and dramatic intensity keep the idea burning in Western minds that the Russians are a race of superdancers. The belief arose from the defections of the country's most brilliant dancers, Nureyev (1961), Natalya Makarova (1970) and Baryshnikov (1974), all of whom left not for political reasons but because they believed Russian ballet was moribund. Defection can hardly be viewed as an endorsement.

'I am not holding any artist by the hand. I am not forcing anyone to leave and I am not forcing anyone to stay.' Perhaps the dictator is mellowing, becoming more democratic, bending with the times. Lyudmila Semenyaka, another Bolshoi star before she retired, tells a different story. When Grigorovich refused to let her guest at the Royal Ballet three years ago, she did not protest. But at the end of 1990, aged 39, she had had enough. She accepted an offer of a contract with English National Ballet, and stayed until the summer of 1991. Grigorovich was said to be furious.

He chuckles at this. 'I never said a word about Semenyaka going to England. She was due to play the lead in a new production of La Bayadere. She has a son and a husband and said she was in a difficult financial position. She asked for a holiday, and was told she could not leave (because of the imminent performance). So she applied for retirement and we couldn't refuse her that right. Maybe she regrets it. She was a star; I will give her performances at the Bolshoi if she wants them.' The kind-hearted king doling out favours.

Semenyaka said before going back to Moscow that, to survive at the Bolshoi, you have to have 'the teeth of a tiger and the hide of a dinosaur'. He thinks this hilarious and shoots back: 'Her teeth were OK. I've always had a good relationship with her. Why should you have a thicker skin to work at the Bolshoi? Why should we be special?' he asks gnomically. 'There is intrigue in every theatre. Whether we like it or not, it is always there.'

Grigorovich's reign has provoked some criticism for the predominance of his stagings. 'Is this bad? I am the artistic director. Why should I be pushed aside? (Maurice) Bejart dominated, Balanchine dominated. It is not my fault that my performances have a longer life. When another ballet master comes, the Bolshoi will be his theatre and that will be a good thing.'

The phone rings, for the third time in an hour. This time the interpreter takes it in the bedroom and is out longer than before. We sit in silence, unable to communicate. To break the awkwardness, Grigorovich jumps up and shows me some publicity material. The interpreter rescues us from our wild gesticulation at photographs and we rattle on. The Bolshoi is Grigorovich's life, so it seems tactless to ask when the next ballet master is likely to take over. Retirement is such a bogey that two years ago Grigorovich he founded a separate company, made up of 60 young graduates of the Moscow Ballet School who perform at the Bolshoi Theatre and survive from money earned from tours abroad. 'I wanted to collect all my own works in one company,' he explains. 'If you think I dominate at the Bolshoi, just wait till you see the Grigorovich Ballet. I want to dominate it; this is my purpose.' The company is dedicated to keeping the Grigorovich oeuvre alive but, paradoxically, the balletmaker pooh- poohs his genius, insisting simply that he loves his ballets. 'I like to work. All I want is to remain me, to be ballet master and artistic director of the Bolshoi.'

There is no attempt to hide the sadness over so many stars deserting. The company Grigorovich is bringing this time is full of new dancers, moulded in the Bolshoi factory. He tips Nadezhda Gratchova and Yuri Klevtsov for stardom, and has high hopes for the season. 'The British public has always been very attentive to us . . . and I would like this to continue.' Impresarios from the Continent and the United States will be in the audience, sizing up the Bolshoi on behalf of their own public. The very future of Grigorovich's beloved company hangs on the success of the London season.

The Bolshoi Ballet is at the Albert Hall (071- 589 8212) 12 Jan-14 Feb. Ticket prices: pounds 15, pounds 25, pounds 35, pounds 40, pounds 50, pounds 65, bookable by phone (booking fee) or post: send SAE and cheque, payable to Derek Block International, to Bolshoi Gala Season, P O Box 501, South Harrow HA2 9DG. Information (48p per min, peak): 0898 866799.

(Photograph omitted)

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