With the resignation on March 10 of Yuri Grigorovich, for more than 30 years the most powerful force at the Bolshoi Theater, the curtain should have risen on a new era in Russian ballet.
In fact, when the curtain finally did rise 20 minutes late at what was once one of the sacred places of Soviet art, it was on a very different scene – a group of dancers and theater workers, dressed in everyday clothes, apologizing to the audience for the fact that they had called off the evening’s scheduled performance of “Romeo and Juliet” in sympathy with their former chief. With cries of “shame” ringing out around the theater, the audience was in no forgiving mood. Months of turmoil at the Bolshoi (Variety, Dec. 5-11) have left both the company and its audience dispirited, not to say disenfranchised from one another.
A week later, Russian President Boris Yeltsin announced the appointment of famed dancer Vladimir Vasiliev as the Bolshoi’s artistic director. Grigorovich himself was well out of the way, having flown to France that morning to take part in a festival of Russian ballet.
The strike of March 10, the first such event in the Bolshoi’s history, has been followed by a bitter emotional and legal wrangle – as well as an involved political struggle as to who will finally control the theater.
The most drastic consequence of the strike evening has been the temporary dismissal of 14 of its instigators, including conductor Algis Zhuraitis, former ballet star and chief repititeur Natalya Bessmertnova (Grigorovich’s wife), as well as Yuri Vetrov, leader of the theater’s collective. They are due to go before a Moscow judge next week in proceedings that could hold them responsible for the theater’s resulting financial losses. Simultaneous with Grigorovich’s departure came the resignations of the Bolshoi’s chief conductor, Alexander Lazarev, and chief designer Valery Leventhal.
The standoff has been long brewing, dating back to major reforms in the Bolshoi’s artistic and administrative system announced last September, principally the introduction of a contract system to be applied to the theater’s staff of 2,200. The new system was heralded by similar unrest last December, when a performance of “Giselle” was held up – though not canceled – by company unease with the changes, as well as with the personality of the Bolshoi’s general director of the past seven years, Vladimir Kokonin.
Kokonin is becoming increasingly a cause of conflict. Seen as the official representative of Russia’s government at the Bolshoi (the theater is one of the few artistic bodies directly overseen by Yeltsin, rather than by the Ministry of Culture), Kokonin has been criticized for the way he has dealt with the company through the ensuing crisis.
At least the question of who will succeed Grigorovich has been decided. Vasiliev, 55, was one of the Bolshoi’s most brilliant soloists for two decades from the 1960s.
“When I heard about my appointment from a television announcement, I felt no joy at all, even though I had been waiting for this news (for) some months,” Vasiliev said.
Another aspect of the same decree, regarding Kokonin, only complicated the situation. Kokonin’s post, general director, was abolished – leading some to assume that he was being sacked, too, even as he stayed on as executive director. But in a surprise move on March 24, the government reinstated Kokonin’s original title, suggesting a split with Yeltsin on the matter.
The post of chief ballet master, vacated by Grigorovich, will be filled via a competition open to all – including, theoretically, Grigorovich himself. Kokonin’s popularity is at an all-time low, and despite the reappointment, he is being attacked in official circles, too: Russian Minister of Culture Yevgeny Sidorov recently strongly criticized him for “having managed to acquire an independence that borders on dictatorship.”
Vasiliev may be regarded as a brilliant dancer, but he lacks experience as a choreographer, the result of Grigorovich’s refusal to allow him to create work for the Bolshoi’s company through the early 1980s. Also, he has limited experience in running a theater, with only two years as artistic director of the Rome Opera’s ballet company to his credit.
Meanwhile, Vasiliev’s formal introduction to the Bolshoi company, originally planned for March 22 and due to be held in the presence of Yeltsin’s personal representative, vice premiere Yuri Yarov, was postponed until March 24. One of the reasons appears to be Vasiliev’s insistence on hard guarantees that Kokonin’s position will be secure – guarantees, apparently, that he finally won.
“The Bolshoi’s reputation today is in tatters, strained by strife and squabbles,” Vasiliev said. “The theater has been going through a huge upheaval, which is finally finishing. We will make the transition gradually to new plans. What is certain is that it will take a lot of work.”