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In 2017, Yuri Grigorovich the acclaimed Russian choreographer will celebrate his 90th birthday.

“Grigorovich” - it is just a name, a ten-letter name. But try to pronounce it inside the Bolshoi Theatre and its magic spell fills the air, glowing in the eyes of the performers! Yuri Grigorovich, a symbol of the Bolshoi ballet for nearly half-a- century, is truly a king of hearts and minds.  As an innovator, he could not avoid persecution at some stage of his career, but do we see today his former ill-wishers emerging from the shadows, bringing back old grudges, as the  beauty of his talent illuminates the stage? In the theatre of today, a new generation of young ballet dancers breathes in the air of his ballet creations, which are still much in vogue and exuding life.

Today he is called none other than “The Master”. However, years ago, the Master started by being a good pupil. Way back in 1957, the production in the Kirov Theatre of “The Stone Flower” ballet,” choreographed by him, opened a new era in the art of choreography. This nephew of George Rozay (the famous dancer of the Imperial Mariinsky Theatre) and graduate of the Leningrad School of Choreography transformed the major achievements of the past and revitalized complex forms of choreographic symphonism that originated in the ballet art of Marius Petipa, the bard of classical ballet. Inspired by choreographers from the 1920s (chiefly by his mentor Fyodor Lopukhov), he used risky acrobatic lifts, lively elements of folk music so admired in the USSR, which much invigorated ballet performance. He tried to make his choreographic pieces as dramatically complete as the best of the masterpieces of world ballet.  Fortune came his way in the shape of a kindred spirit, the designer Simon Virsaladze, whose minimalistic style of ballet scenery and ethereal costumes, infused ballet dance with a profound freedom and enhanced its expressiveness many fold. 


Farhad - Denis Rodkin; Mekhmene Banu - Svetlana Zakharova 

Grigorovich became a choreographer of the new generation of dance by establishing new principles in his ballets. “The Legend of Love” inspired by the Middle East (1961, The Kirov Theatre), is the tale of an artist who chose to sacrifice his personal happiness and performed a heroic feat in order to save his people from dying of thirst. Soon Grigorovich had a similar personal experience, when he was given an offer from the director of the Bolshoi Theatre for the challenging position of chief choreographer, so that he could save the country’s theatre number one from artistic drought. He accepted the offer and he succeeded in the task

Griorovich was a born leader – his artistic endeavours had a ready response in daring young people fifty years ago and still has today. He brought up a cosmic cluster of such legendary ballet dancers as: Vladimir Vasiliyev,  Ekaterina Maximova, Natalia Bessmertnova, Märis Liepa, Mikhail Lavrovsky, Marina Kondratieva, Ludmila Semenyaka, Boris Akimov, Nina Semizorova, Irek Mukhamedov, Alexander Godunov. Their fame is simply mind-blowing, even by modern standards of spin.


Mekhmene Banu - Svetlana Zakharova 

Yuri Grigorovich has always been a fighter, an intelligent and brave campaigner for honesty, beauty and quality in art.  After becoming the leading Soviet choreographer, while enjoying a relative freedom from those in power, he produced the false impression of an artist creating ballets that glorified the ruling communist ideology; in fact, he was always a free spirit, as if connected to the Cosmic Mind, being extremely sensitive to the subtle difference between short-lived, momentary and eternal.

A soloist (1962-1983) in the Bolshoi ballet, currently ballet master and coach Valery Lagunov, once shrewdly observed, “At any point in human history, there were always exceptionally talented people who, both glorified and rose above their times. Grigorovich is one of those.”

The Master’s intense ballets are and truly timeless.  A good example is his ballet “Spartacus”, perfectly in tune with its time of dominant atheism, features  a muscled proletarian suffering death in his effort to give people faith in the triumph of strong personality.

In truth, Grigorovich identified with his character, emerging victorious from the battle against the powerful state machine that was targeting his talent and the talents of those people who entrusted their fortunes to him. There is preserved footage of Grigorovich’s 60th anniversary celebration on the stage of the Bolshoi, addressing the ballet dancers surrounding him boldly and cheerfully: “You are young and I am still not too old to believe that we can create something new and exciting, so that people stop wasting their time in meetings, but rather start doing something.” It was the real Grigorovich speaking his mind as a free spirit, who by the way, never joined the Communist Party as a member.  


Shirin - Anna Nikulina; Farhad - Denis Rodkin

Was it his way of voicing that opinion in his revised ballet “Swan Lake”, which failed to pass through censorship in 1969 and was restored to glory in 2001? Could it be so that the self-righteous Soviet rulers saw in the deadly embrace of the evil spirit that killed the White Swan (the symbol of absolute in art) an analogy of themselves gagging artistic freedom in art and destroying the lives of dissidents?

When, prior to Yuri Grigorovch’s appointment as chief choreographer of the Bolshoi, the conservative-minded people, “shuddered” at the open eroticism of the duets in his ballet “The Legend of Love” condemned it as the end of the road for Soviet ballet, they proved to be spectacularly wrong.

Grigorovich did not just go into the history of Soviet ballet, neither did he “perish” along with the glorious fall of the USSR.  He stayed as a timeless Russian ballet master. His choreographic duets are still superb. They are all about love between a man and a woman, about the enormous feeling of love and all consuming passion, about delicacy of feelings and spiritual affinity. 

Modern choreographers, who have left the stormy sexual revolution behind, should learn from the Master to show desire on stage with great taste, without being vulgar. 

Grigorovich undoubtedly revolutionised the world of male ballet dancing, having dismissed its gallant leisurely style.  His ballets require exercise akin to the military; they stress heroic stamina, super physical strength and endurance, the capability to fly... well, almost literally, and certainlycare for a female partner, while doing powerful lifts.  


Farhad - Denis Rodkin

Marina Kondratiyeva, a ballerina from Grigorovich’s team, recalls that at the time of producing “Spartacus”, the performers pleaded with the Master to allow them to join in the “divine spectacle” of his new creation, to try on his character’s roles and exercise its choreography.  We have a similar situation now. It is virtually impossible to get into the Master’s ballet through the back door. The selected dancer will always be his choice. The lucky one must be not only physically attractive and technically perfect, but also strong-willed as is the Master himself.

These days, choreographers of the Bolshoi Theatre, when perfecting the skills of ballet dancers, often use them as extras in ballets, doing “toe-shake-shakes” next to the soloists and then “swiftly disappearing.” But it doesn’t work that way for Grigorovich, because he requires ultimate perfection in all dancers at all levels.

Grigorovich always realized the measure of his responsibility. Remembering his mission and, clearly inspired by his Muse, he created his very own “Stone Flower.”

In a sense, this “Stone Flower” can be identified with The Bolshoi Theatre itself, where those involved in creating modern art pass on, as the Master’s precious gift, his interpretation of movement as a reflection of human emotion, his treatment of dance as soul-searching experience and of performance as philosophical revelation.

Foto by Mikhail Logvinov. Ballet “The Legend of Love” 

Source (Foto): Press office of the Bolshoi Theatre

Author:  Vera Tchistyakova

Translator: Lara Lamb

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