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Vladimir Vasiliev: hauling the Bolshoi into the twentieth century - one of the great Russian dancers is now in charge of his home theater.

With his frank but wary gaze and piercing brown eyes, Vladimir Vasiliev looked like a man braced for important and delicate negotiations. Vasiliev, the former Bolshoi Ballet idol who last spring became the czar of the Bolshoi Theater, was in New York City last fall for a bit of ballet shuttle diplomacy. His mission: to snare ballets by George Balanchine and Jerome Robbins for the Bolshoi, and allow that esteemed but calcified ballet company to catch up with the twentieth century.

Last March Vasiliev was named artistic director of the Bolshoi Theater after a power struggle that in its political complexity evoked the old Bolshevik battles for political supremacy in the twenties. The players were Yuri Grigorovich, artistic director of the ballet company since 1963; Vladimir Kokonen, its general director; fifteen leading Bolshoi dancers who, at the beginning 6f a performance of Romeo and Juliet, launched a strike protesting Grigorovich's resignation under duress; ballerina assoluta Maya Plisetskaya, who some said was jockeying to succeed Grigorovich's the office of President Boris Yeltsin; and Vasiliev, the long-time Grigorovich danseur noble who fell from the director's grace in the eighties. No blood was spilled, but Grigorovich was for all intents and purposes purged and was last seen in England, attempting to start a dance school.

Vasiliev now finds himself astride the ballet equivalent of a dinosaur. As Dance Magazine contributing editor Lynn Garafola expressed it in a review of the company's 1990 New York City season: "Twenty years of [Grigorovich's] impoverished, undemanding idiom have left the Bolshoi in a sorry state. Turnout, balance, strength, control, timing, clarity, epaulement - all have gone. Whether the ballet is Swan Lake or Ivan the Terrible or the Grand Pas from Paquita, what the Bolshoi offers today is a show of big jumps, big turns, big poses - and dancers With an advanced case of boredom" [November 1990, page 741. Not much had changed by 1995, if one is to judge by Sergei Bobrov's Infanta and the Jester the athletic but artistically empty ballet the Bolshoi sent to San Francisco Ballet's United We Dance Festival last May.

While Vasiliev disparages some Grigorovich ballets, such as Romeo and Juliet and The Golden Age and his staging of Petipa ballets, he praises others, such as Spartacus and A Legend of Love. He also points out that if the Grigorovich canon were jettisoned light away, little would be left. "We are going to change the rep"' he says. "We just need time." The most ambitious repertoire change Vasiliev has in mind is the acquisition of works by such twentieth-century masters as Balanchine, Robbins, Jiri Kylian, and Maurice Bejart. The absence of their work (the exception is Balanchine's Prodigal Son) has left a gap in Bolshoi history, as well as in the education of its audience. "I want to fill that empty spot in the history of the Bolshoi Ballet with the names of today's world-renowned choreographers"' he says. "I don't want to have these works in order to bring them abroad on tour, but to show the masterpieces for Russian audiences at home."

While in New York City, Vasiliev met with Balanchine Trust executor Barbara Horgan and with Robbins. From the Balanchine repertoire, he would especially like to present Symphony in C (John Taras owns the rights), and perhaps Serenade. Of Robbins's works, he is most interested in 2 & 3 Part Inventions. The Russian was enthusiastic about the prospect of bringing Balanchine and Robbins to Moscow, but Horgan and Robbins were more cautious, saying only that the matter was under discussion. However, mounting a Balanchine ballet is a complicated proposition; you don't just buy it and stage it. The Bolshoi's dancers would have to be trained at least six months in the Balanchine style. When the Kirov Ballet performed Theme and Variations, Balanchine Trust repetieur Francia Russell worked with the dancers for six months; Suzanne Farrell did the same in setting Scotch Symphony.

Vasiliev himself planned to stage Swan Lake in December and says he would also like to change the Bolshoi's production of Giselle. Also this season, he will direct a new staging of La Traviata at the Bolshoi Opera. But with Vacheslav Gordeyev and Alexander Bogatyrev actually in charge of the ballet company, Vasiliev, who with Kokonen is responsible for the ballet, opera, and theater companies, is looking at the big picture. Chief among hit tasks is instituting a contract system for the ballet's 220 dancers, and raising the money necessary to keep the Bolshoi at a world-class standard.

The government currently provides the Bolshoi Theater $12 million per year, Vasiliev says, and the Bolshoi needs it to cough up $45 million. "When we get this money, we will be able to live by the standards of the whole world," he promises. He is not just waiting for the government to come through; the company is soliciting support from Russian and international corporations. In addition to operating costs, $350 million is being sought to renovate the deteriorating Bolshoi Theater and add a second theater. [See sidebar, page 77] When the Bolshoi's $1 million production of Mussorgsky's opera Khovanshchina opened in November, Vasiliev says, contributions came from corporations and some Russian banks. For its campaign to pay for renovating the theater, the company has received support from the Russian Elbim Bank, and newspapers Commersant and Commersant Daily, as well as KPMG, an international accounting and auditing firm. "Until we have the guarantee from the government that we will have a certain amount of money, we just look around for these sponsorships," says Vasiliev.

Of course, more cash is not all the Bolshoi needs. Vasiliev also wants to give the repertoire an infusion of youth: "I think we should give young choreographers an opportunity to start working, which they have never had before." He likes the idea of making a stage an dancers available for experimental work, agreeing that the stagnation of the Bolshoi arose in part because young choreographers were not encouraged to create work on the company.

He would also like to bring the Bolshoi school more under the wing of the theater. "The future of the Bolshoi is the school of the Bolshoi," he says, "and the closer the contact between the school and the Bolshoi, the better for the company, for the theater." Vasiliev acknowledges that to effect changes at the school, and to bring it under closer supervision of the company, he will first have to finesse longtime school director Sophia Golovkina. "She's like a fortress," he says.

While winning Golovkina's loyalty is important, securing the support of the dancers is even more critical. According to Vasiliev, there is little bitter residue remaining from last spring. On March 10, following word of Grigorovich's resignation, Bolshoi balletgoers expecting a performance of Romeo and Juliet were met by an astounding sight: when the curtain rose, it revealed a group of dancers in jeans and T-shirts who announced they were go on strike to protest Grigorovichi's ouster.

"Most interesting in that strike vote," says Vasiliev, "was that nobody said they were against Vasiliev - they were very careful. All of them said they were against Kokonen. They said they wanted Grigorovich to stay with them. Some of them, maybe about ten or fifteen, understood that with Grigorovich leaving the theater, their artistic fate could be ruined. These dancers did stay against Vasiliev." Vasiliev pauses and adds with more than a bit of knowing cynicism: "But, you know, that is always going on with a big troupe, and I absolutely did not worry about that because I knew that those people who were against me will be for me after I come to power." He concedes that "a lot of people do not like that Gordeyev is the artistic director of the ballet troupe, but I believe that he is the necessary person for the theater now." Gordeyev, he reports, is a good organizer who used to have his own company, Russian Ballet. Vasiliev concedes that the Bolshoi has not seen the end of dancer discontent. "We will have a lot of problems in the future, I believe, because by our transferring to a contract system a lot of people will lose their jobs."

Not likely to lose their jobs are several dancers who Vasiliev points to when asked whom to watch in the Bolshoi's future: Nadezhda Gratcheva, Galina Stepanenko, Andrei Bubarev, and Yuri Gritsov. "Right now the male cast is stronger than the females," he says. He also says the corps has become more disciplined than it was a year ago.

The repertoire those dancers have recently danced or will soon dance includes John Cranko's Taming of the Shrew, a new production of Leonid Lavrovsky's Romeo and Juliet, and Winter Storm, a one-act ballet by Gordeyev based on a Pushkin short story and set to the music of Georgi Sviridov. Vasiliev would also like to produce an evening of masterpieces of Soviet choreography, including the works of Vasily Vainonen and others. Asked if he might consider reviving the work of Leonid Jacobson, lately neglected by Russia's major companies, he mentions that this year is the ninetieth anniversary of the birth of Dmitri Shostakovich, a good occasion to revive a Jacobson miniature set to Shostakovich.

The company will not bring its repertoire to North America before 1998, Vasiliev says. "If we come here we should bring a completely new repertoire. We should bring new quality. I want to bring back the image of the Bolshoi which used to be, but which has been lost." That image, he says, is of "first of all, great artists - not sportsmen. The great artists are not the dancers who can make sixty-four fouettes. And of course to bring ballets having some plots behind them - more powerful, more able to reach people, more visually rich ballets."

The classics will still be represented among those ballets, but Vasiliev would like to modernize them. He contends the Kirov Ballet's Oleg Vinogradov is interested in preserving classics as museum pieces: "I would like to breathe new life into them. He's for the classic but in preservation; I'm for the classic but in development. If we keep, say, Don Quixote like it used to be in the last century, it would be dead theater, it would be nonsense." Vasiliev also maintains that "the technique of male dancers has never been developed by the new ballets. It has always been developed by bringing the new technique into the old ballets."

Indeed, dancers say working with Vasiliev on a ballet like his staging of Don Quixote is exciting. "He's so different, it's great to work with him," says American Ballet Theatre principal Paloma Herrera, who performed in Vasiliev's Don Quixote at the Kremlin Palace last fall. "He's always adding another detail here, another detail there. Maybe he'll say, `In the pas de deux, instead of offering this hand, offer the other hand, it makes more sense.' Little details like that. It was an incredible experience to work with him."

Asked about his long-range plans for the Bolshoi, Vasiliev says he would like to foster more international exchange of dancers. "I would like to increase contacts between the companies - American, French, British - like it's never been before."

Besides bringing American and other foreign dancers to Russia, Vasiliev, the ballet diplomat, would also like to take more Russian work abroad: "I want that the Russian classic and even Soviet classic works will appear again on the world stage, and recapture that place which they had thirty years ago. I want to create that image again. That is the ideal, which may not be created but which I want to try".



Maybe it's something to do with ozone layer: Around the world, ballet companies are fixing up their houses. Now, the Muscovites are following in the footsteps of San Franciscans who are renovating the War Memorial Opera House, home of San Francisco Ballet, and Londoners who will be doing likewise to the Royal Opera House.

The Bolshoi Theater has launched a $350 million campaign to repair its main theater and add a second building. As it stands (or barely stands) now, the building's foundation needs work to prevent the theater from flooding and possible structural collapse; lighting and other technical systems need to be updated. Theater officials would also like to build underground technical facilities and a parking garage in front of the house.

The second theater, to be located near the first, would house the company while the main theater is being renovated, and ultimately would give the Bolshoi two stages.

UNESCO, which is helping the Bolshoi raise money, organized a reception at the theater on November 24. Approximately 300 Russian and foreign businesspeople attended the $500-per-ticket affair, which was held in oen of the theater's gilded, cupid-adorned ceremonial halls. Other sponsors were the Russian Elbim-Bank, Russian newspapers Commersant and Commersant Daily, and the international accounting and auditing firm KPMG. Among those corporations represented at the party were AT&T, ConAgra, Mitsubishi, MOST Bank, and Tatoil.

The reception was followed by a performance of excerpts from Mussorgsky Boris Godunov, the Kingdom of the Shades scene from La Bayadere, and the Polovtsian Camp Scene from Borodins Prince Igor.
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Author:Ben-Itzak, Paul
Publication:Dance Magazine
Article Type:Interview
Date:Feb 1, 1996
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