“We simply have to work in the times we live and, irrespective of the regime, the political or economic situation, we must do our best to make our lives better. I’m convinced that you should love your country in an active manner.”

/Yuri Grigorovich/

Yuri Grigorovich, the artistic director and principal choreographer of the Bolshoi Ballet, the most important figure in Russian dance, has been longer in his job than any other living choreographer. His 30 year tenure in ballet is rivalled only by George Balanchine, the founding director of New York City Ballet. Grigorovich is reputed to be a dictator as an artistic director and a daring innovator as choreographer. Neither reputation has been revised, after he brought his productions to America. His ballets, being a reflection of his relations with the Soviet and post-Soviet regime, were frequently referred to as politicised, on a scale depending on the current state of the international climate. This can be traced in the evolution of his spectacular achievement – the ballet Spartacus:

It was staged in 1968, the troublesome year of the “Prague Spring”. The quest for an uplifting revolutionary ballet was escalated urgently as the 50th anniversary of the 1917 Soviet Revolution approached. The Bolshoi decided to ask the young Yuri Grigorovich to try his hand at Spartacus, however, with the word of command - less sex and more heroism. He reluctantly complied. Vladimir Vasiliev as Spartacus, Maris Liepa as Crassus, Ekaterina Maximova as Phrygia and Nina Timofeeva as the courtesan Aegina, carried out the task brilliantly.


Spartacus was the perfect Soviet allegory. Based on an actual slave rebellion in Italy in the first century B.C., it mirrored the Marxist vision of a virtuous underclass fighting to free itself from tyrannical rulers. The clear cut parallels with the Bolshevik Revolution and the latest events in Czechoslovakia drew high praise in Moscow.

When brought to America in 1975 at the time of cold war, Spartacus leaped onto the stage and later into the movie version.

The ballet received a mixed response. The laudatory press reviews focused on the two dancers in the lead roles: Vladimir Vasiliev as the incontestable supreme Spartacus of yore, leaping so high, he seemed to defy gravity, and Maris Liepa as Crassus, the most convincing evil Roman in the history of the ballet. Some critics had issues with propagandist streak in the production, others raved over the dancers, and still others (American dance writers) summed up their verdict by saying: “The Bolshoi kept going, but after Spartacus, it was running on old energy, recycling past glories, fighting old ideological battles.”

Shortly after the Bolshoi brought Grigorovich’s staging to New York, it was immortalized in the widely distributed film. The reviews were moderately positive: “That Mr. Grigorovich's "Spartacus" is a grand cinematic spectacle, full of leaps and loves and betrayals and brilliant tableaus and lots and lots of macho stomping about by soldiers and slaves and shepherds. Khachaturian's score, cut and revised for Mr. Grigorovich, is similarly cinematic; in other words, it often sounds like movie music. At its best, it is Shostakovich without the genius. But Lord knows it's a powerful spectacle.”


As time rolled on and Spartacus crossed the ocean yet again, the Americans had the opportunity to see that Yuri Grigorovich moves with the times: “In the final analysis, ideological demands never managed to completely stifle the power of artistic autonomy. After the collapse of communism, Spartacus has survived the death of the political system that provided the context for its creation. Today the ballet stands as a reminder that, despite the political-ideological demands… artistic imagination proved to be remarkably resilient, creative, and enduring.”

And then, there was the heartening view that the ballet’s artistry this time trumped over its original purpose as a government mouthpiece.

Grigorvich’s monumental ballet travelled around the world over 42 years, as the Roman General Crassus rode his chariot across continents. The third Spartacus with Grigorovich as the ballet master and Ivan Vasiliev (соincidentally, the namesake of the legendary Vladimir Vasiliev) and as striking a dancer, fascinated the American public.

The absence of repetitive choreography, the introduction of fresh details, the appearance of young stars navigated by the world famous ballet master, all that accomplished the reputation of new production as the golden classic of the twentieth century.

"The company has got weaker," observed on the downside Arlene Croce of the New Yorker "American audiences," adding on the upside: "...don't seem to have noticed the drop in quality- they go on celebrating the mystique."

As the ballet was brought to the stage of the Kennedy Centre, the American fans of the Bolshoi still haunted by memories of the brilliant performance by Vladimir Vasiliev and Ekaterina Maximova 27 years ago, thronged to Washington from all over. The premiere was not a disappointment, neither to the members of the audience, nor to the critics. Ballet connoisseurs commented on it as technically superb, dramatically captivating and innovative in the choreographer’s approach to the ballet structure as a series of autonomous scenes, connected to each other by “monologues” of soloists, presenting a character rather than an idea.  The music of the ballet was described as highly dramatic and emotionally charged, letting the rhythm run supreme. The same applied to Simon Versaladze’s austere scenery dominated by the motif of an ancient grey stone that somewhat counterbalanced the powerful resonance from the music.


Grigorovich rated the performance as extraordinary, saying: "There are very good dancers and there are excellent dancers in the world, but the ones who are sublime are extremely rare. Natasha and Ivan have that power to create sublime moments. And even if I can show just one or two of those moments in a piece, it’s worthwhile.”

Ivan Vasiliev described his performance along these lines: ”I don’t want to present my Spartacus as a historical figure, I want to create the illusion of Ancient Rome and gladiators on stage with the audience speculating how the story will end.”   

Grigorovich's reign provoked some criticism for the predominance of his stagings in the Bolshoi, to which he responded unapologetically: 'Do you find this bad? I am the artistic director. Why should I be pushed aside? (Maurice) Bejart dominated, Balanchine dominated. It is not my fault that my performances have a long life.”

Looking back at that long life of his, Grigorovich admitted that it was extraordinarily eventful, although he looked at those events differently as time went on. His most precious memories were meeting great people whom he either just met or happened to work with. Such were the two days he spent in lively talks with Igor Stravinsky in Los Angeles. While discussing the celebrated Rite of Spring, he remembered asking the composer about the best interpretation of it, other than that by Nijinsky. Stravinsky admitted that Nijinsky was perhaps the best, even though he had changed his opinion about him many times over. He explained that things he liked at 20, he did not like any more at 76. Being forty at the time, Grigorovich thought that it was not going to happen to him, for he would never change his mind as drastically. In fact he did, only to confirm the wisdom: “Never say never”. He believes in change, perhaps with one exception - his commitment to his job, which still has a powerful hold over him. He is also convinced that his ballet is unique, never stopped being great and will continue its global goodwill mission.


Author: Lara Lamb


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