As she has so many times before, prima ballerina Nina Ananiashvili walked confidently out on the stage and struck a pose, her arms out in front of her in a graceful, inviting circle.
But this time, the dancer who portrays the star-crossed Juliet for the famed Bolshoi Ballet Company of Russia would have no dashing leading man leap into her arms.
No, her co-star on Monday was none other than Shamu, the 5,000-pound media darling at Sea World who rose out of his huge saltwater tank to plant a wet kiss on the visiting dignitary's cheek.
"I'm enchanted, totally enchanted," Ananiashvili, 24, gushed through an interpreter after she dabbed her face and hands with a handkerchief. "Shamu? I really, really like Shamu . . . . I'm going to remember it for a very long time."
Anxious to relax, Ananiashvili and 79 of her colleagues from the world-renowned Bolshoi were treated to a visit to the San Diego aquatic park Monday during a break in their two-month, four-city American tour--their first here since 1979.
Sea World officials said they arranged the visit after a road manager for the ballet company called late last week and said that the Bolshoi members were interested in checking out the park--even before next week's visit to Disneyland.
So under the watchful eye of two FBI agents and an officer from the Los Angeles Police Department, some of the world's best classical dancers rode down in three chartered buses from Los Angeles--where the company will wrap up its tour on Aug. 20--to frolic and lose themselves among the tourists at Sea World.
In that sense, the day was only a limited success. They laughed when a Sea World employee, dressed as an otter, threw his hands up in an attitude, the basic pose of classic ballet.
They oohed and leaned forward in their seats with others in the capacity crowd at Shamu's new pool when the killer whale rocketed his trainer out of the water on the tip of his nose, or slapped his left flipper on the water in imitation of a human swimmer.
Later in the day, four of the dancers stepped inside the 22-degree Penguin Encounter. One of the male dancers drew quite a noisy response from the penguins when he flapped his arms as if to say he was one of them, a la Dick Van Dyke in "Mary Poppins."
Acrobats Not on View
Sea World officials were careful, however, not to invite the Russians to watch the Chinese acrobats from Taiwan.
"We don't want to start a war," quipped Daniel LeBlanc, of the park's public relations department.
Yet the day had its strained moments, too, especially when Bolshoi members were besieged by local reporters who wanted to record their observations about everything from glasnost (a Soviet policy encouraging more openness in foreign relations) to American culture.
The clamor for feedback reached a crescendo after the Shamu show, and interpreters with the group stopped interpreting, to allow the dancers and musicians more privacy.
"I think it's getting a little intrusive," one woman road manager huffed about press inquiries. "They (dancers) have to think too much."
Added John Pendleton, interpreter with the Metropolitan Opera Assn. of New York, the agency sponsoring the Bolshoi's American tour: "They work so hard and then they have 40 cameras following them. . . . It's sort of like they're the zoo."
Most of the tourists were oblivious to the Bolshoi visitors.
Asked if he knew what the Bolshoi Ballet was, Chris Berry of Tucson looked at his printed schedule of park events. "Who are they?" he said. "I don't see them on here. What show is it?"
When told who the dancers were, Berry said he thought they would learn a lot about America by visiting the park.
"At least everyone gets along in the park; it's a good model," he said. "The behavior, the peace that goes on here. They will see that Americans are warm and welcome them."
And Chester Casmir, a Cleveland retiree now living in Sun City, Ariz., said he was glad the Russian artists were visiting one of Southern California's hottest tourist attractions.
But he had a sobering observation when asked how the Bolshoi's version of "Romeo and Juliet" would play to the park's crowd.
"What would an American want to see?" he said. "I'd say Shamu."