Trouping Out to Do the Town : Shopping and Sightseeing Keep the Bolshoi Dancers on the Run

It's a hot, humid afternoon on Hollywood Boulevard, and the street is teeming with the usual swarms of camera-toting tourists, shills, drifters and teen-agers. But Bolshoi principal dancers Olesia Shulzitskaya and Igor Zakharkin, both 28, seem unfazed by the free-wheeling commotion in the heart of Hollywood.

As the two dancers, both 10-year veterans of the ballet company, pass a pitchman in a gorilla suit, Zakharkin says calmly through an interpreter: "People can express themselves and look however they like."

Shulzitskaya adds: "I'm used to seeing people in all kinds of strange attire, here and in other countries. In the Soviet Union, people used to react badly to unusual costumes, but now times are changing and it's not like that anymore, even there. People are more liberal."

"And," Zakharkin says, "the similarities between Americans and Russians are becoming more and more apparent."

The Bolshoi Ballet has arrived in Los Angeles in the midst of those changing times, and many of the more than 100 dancers, eager to reunite with old friends and to sample Western distractions in whatever leisure time their schedules permit, seem lighthearted and open.

Although they were free to explore the city on their own during the 1987 tour, this time, says interpreter Alissa Tulikova, they feel more free. Whatever security measures are in force are intended to protect, not restrict, the dancers.

They seem partial to neon-bright California sportswear and fanny packs crammed with visas, passports and cash. Many wander around on impromptu treks to their favorite spots--beaches, shops and restaurants.

They love action movies, and Tom Cruise and Arnold Schwarzenegger are two favorite actors. And although many speak some English, lack of language is no deterrent to good times. On the road for about eight months a year, they are savvy travelers and inveterate shoppers, according to Peter Brightman, co-chairman of the Entertainment Corp., which is co-presenting the Bolshoi tour.

"For the first time, they're getting a decent wage," he says. "The Bolshoi management fought for this for years. And they're spending money everywhere, on clothes, video cameras, televisions and even kitchens."

Their hotel gift shop reports a run on expensive designer bikinis and sunglasses, which show up at poolside decorating the exceedingly streamlined Bolshoi bodies. The shopping has been so successful that Brightman says the Bolshoi has sent two 45-foot shipping containers of purchases back to Moscow and will send two more from Los Angeles.

One of the containers will hold a bicycle bought by Ludmila Semenyaka for her 1 1/2-year-old son. "He will try to ride it," the 36-year-old soloist says, smiling at the idea.

Since most Soviet fur coats are produced for export only, a number of dancers have purchased American furs, including Nina Speranskaya, who also is planning to fulfill a wish to have her hazel eyes turned blue with cosmetic contact lenses.

Shopping is not the only Bolshoi passion. Yuri Klevtsov, 23, a dancer who appeared here last year as a featured guest artist with the Bolshoi Academy, says he has other priorities.

"Last time (we) didn't dance 'Petrushka,' and I look forward to that this year," he said. "And I'd like to see more of the city, with maybe another visit to Disneyland."

This is the first trip to the United States for corps members Luisa Manzeli, 20, and Galina Malaya, 21, and they say they find the weather unexpectedly "fresh and light."

"New York did not impress me the way I expected," Malaya says, "but I liked the diverse architecture in Chicago. And the White House was cozy, nice and smart. Here I would like to see Disneyland and Hollywood. And Richard Gere. It would be nice to shake his hand."

Both dancers say they've also enjoyed sampling coconuts, kiwis, mangoes and other exotic fruits rarely available in the Soviet Union. Amy Sellars, who is handling transportation for the American tour, confirms that fresh fruit is a Bolshoi treat. "They love it," she says, "and bananas are their favorites. They say the potassium helps prevent leg cramps. They also love ice cream, yogurt and potato chips."

It seems incongruous to see the pale, fine-boned, graceful young dancers munching potato chips, gulping Pepsi (Pepsico is one of the tour sponsors) and endlessly smoking Marlboros (their cigarette of choice), when their days include vigorous workouts, rehearsals and performances. Yet there is plenty of good nutrition to fuel their prodigious energies, according to company manager Linda Shelton.

"They eat a full American breakfast every morning at the hotel," she says, "and they have a large, heavy dinner in mid-afternoon.

"We hire a catering company in each city to follow them around to their classes and rehearsals. They set up a buffet of meat, vegetables, starches, soup, salad and dessert, which they serve from noon to about 5 p.m. The dancers stop to eat when they have time, usually as late in the day as possible. Then they eat nothing more until after performances, when they're on their own. Many of them bring food back to the hotel from the local supermarket, and others go to restaurants or buy fast food."

Most dancers share hotel rooms, and with friendships forming, dissolving and reforming, this can lead to hectic check-in times, when room assignment changes are requested. "These dancers are very assertive and insistent," Sellars says. "They go around the world getting what they want. They don't use sign language, they just speak to you in Russian, quickly, over and over, until you figure out what they want."

In spite of their exposure to easy Western pleasures and consumer largess, many Bolshoi dancers say they have little interest in leaving the Soviet Union permanently. Although they've seen friends accept jobs in the West, Bolshoi dancers are well aware of their enviable position in Russia as members of a world-renowned dance company.

"It's not so simple to accept another offer of work," Zakharkin says. "You must either ask for a leave of absence or leave the Bolshoi altogether. Nobody is going to exchange the status of being a performer at the Bolshoi for work in another company unless they're extremely talented, confident and sure of star recognition anywhere else they'd work."

Shulzitskaya says: "I'd like to work in another country for a while, but when we're on tour for a long time, we miss Moscow. We have a strong feeling for our homeland."

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