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BALLET REVIEWS : Bolshoi Brings ‘Ivan’ the Tawdry

TIMES MUSIC/DANCE CRITIC

The Bolshoi is back. The mighty, exotic Bolshoi. Gosh. Whoopee. Jeer. Sigh. Sob.

No other ballet company inspires such mixed or such passionate reactions. No other ballet company has endured such grandiose vicissitudes.

The general public here was conditioned long ago to equate this ensemble from mysterious Moscow with athletic bravura in aesthetic excelsis. Told by press agents that the Bolshoi is “immortal,” audiences that normally avoid tutus and toe shoes respond to these visitors with push-button ecstasy.

The masses obviously respond to the extravagant ads. Never mind that the lay-outs feature a flying matinee idol who no longer happens to be with the company, or that the texts carefully avoid the dirty word ballet . The Russians, we are assured, still “soar above the rest!”

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The American press has responded with a certain skepticism. The only champion turned out to be Anna (a wag might call her Polly anna) Kisselgoff of the New York Times. Mustering a brave semblance of enthusiasm, she wrote that “The Bolshoi was much better than expected, not quite as excellent as hoped.”

Tobi Tobias of New York Magazine, on the other hand, found the company “in a pitiable state.” Dale Harris of the Wall Street Journal lamented “a level of mediocrity that even undiscriminating audiences are bound to notice before too long.”

“The company has got weaker,” observed Arlene Croce of the New Yorker “American audiences,” she added, “don’t seem to have noticed the drop in quality--they go on celebrating the mystique.”

Reviewing the recent opening at Lincoln Center for the Village Voice, Deborah Jowitt complained of being “gradually numbed” by Yuri Grigorovich’s “Ivan the Terrible.” It was the selfsame “Ivan” that inaugurated the 14-performance season at Shrine Auditorium on Tuesday.

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Despite some apparent papering, the 6,300-seat cavern wasn’t quite full. Still, a healthy crowd came to cheer, and did.

For at least one minority reporter, however, this seemed a case of better never than late. “Ivan the Terrible” was new, and controversial, back in 1975. Sol Hurok did not deem it worth exporting to Los Angeles at the time.

In those distant days, Ivan IV served as a grateful vehicle for two virtuoso danseurs: Yuri Vladimirov played the barbaric czar with almost unbearable muscular frenzy, while Vladimir Vasiliev stressed the protagonist’s complex moods, shifting subtly and gradually from pathetic insecurity to crazed power.

With such compelling artists in the central role, it was possible--from time to time--to overlook the abiding kitsch and the tawdry excesses. Vladimirov and Vasiliev somehow obscured the vapidity of Grigorovich’s fussy and repetitive choreographic routines, inspired to a degree by the celebrated Eisenstein film.

A genuinely magnetic czar could draw attention away from the simplistic, nearly comic military maneuvers imposed on the strutting men, the limp cliches visited upon the slinking women, the primitive symbolism sporadically employed to embellish the scenario. Given the right distractions, a friendly observer could try to ignore the political ambiguities that popped out of the quasi-historic libretto, not to mention the passing infelicities of the Prokofiev pastiche drafted as a supportive score.

It wasn’t so easy to look the other way on Tuesday. Given Irek Mukhamedov’s post- perestroika defection to the Royal Ballet, the Bolshoi’s premier Ivan now seems to be Alexander Vetrov.

He is a solid technician and a conscientious, hard-working actor. He stalks the throne with spidery authority, partners his beloved Anastasia attentively in the acrobatic love duets, scowls continuously and ferociously, hoists himself picturesquely in the ubiquitous bell ropes for the ambiguous crucifixion pose that heralds the final curtain. Ultimately, alas, he settles for a one-dimensional, lightweight performance that conveys much agony, little ecstasy and only the vaguest compulsion.

Gedeminas Taranda missed the last Bolshoi tour because he seemed a defection risk, or because he had been injured, or because he was being punished for some odd amorous indiscretion at home. We have heard all three explanations. In any case, he made his belated local debut on this occasion as Ivan’s friend-turned-enemy, Prince Turbsky. Although his chunky physique proved somewhat disadvantageous, he exuded a nice aura of crafty ardor and mastered Grigorovich’s nasty kicks and heroic leaps with ease.

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Maria Bilova replaced the reportedly indisposed Alla Mikhalchenko as Anastasia (a role created by and for Grigorovich’s wife, Natalia Bessmertnova). Bilova stressed the same stoic, willowy lyricism as rapturous bride, willing martyr and grieving ghost.

The busy corps strutted, pranced, crouched and/or gesticulated with disciplined gusto, whether impersonating Boyars, Oprichnina (a.k.a. members of the KGB), death figures bearing scythes, clowns or warriors. Although the ads promised a company of 160, that would seem to be a matter of wishful hyperbole.

Simon Virsaladze’s simple decors, a clever network of circular playing areas defined by flexible curtains of gauze, reinforced cinematic fluidity, as did Boris Lelyukhin’s shadowy lighting scheme. The only glitch: an odd procedural mishap that constantly allowed the audience to view the dancers preparing for their entrances while stationed behind the central platform.

In the locally staffed pit, Alexander Kopylov tended efficiently--no more, no less--to the Prokofiev mish-mash accommodatingly arranged by Mikhail Chulaki. It comprised obvious portions of the Eisenstein sound track plus excerpts from the Third Symphony, the “Russian Overture” and “Alexander Nevsky.” The crucial ringing of bells, a Greek-chorus device much favored by Grigorovich on the stage, was more seen than heard.


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