Articles from Ballet2000

Yuri Grigorovich, the Bolshoi's Csar

by Roger Salas

The most famous and influential of Russian choreographers has lived through highly diverse eras, from the early Soviet Union to today’s Russia. In the Bolshoi Theatre of Moscow, he has been admired, feared and criticised. But his oeuvre, founded on steadfast principles, is still a thriving one, in Russia and beyond
Grigorovich is alive and kicking, as is his choreographic oeuvre, featured in repertoires of companies all over the world... As reported in the previous issue of BALLET2000, the Bavarian State Ballet in Munich and Royal Ballet Flanders in Antwerp recently revived his most famous creation Spartacus (which will be half a century old next year).
The success reaped is a universal recognition, as it were, for Grigorovich’s tenacity and persevering doggedness in defending his style and model of a grand story-ballet built around the corps de ballet – conceived as structured machinery of precision at the service of a symphonic, eloquent and powerful vision.
In over sixty years many of his colleagues and dancers, as well as critics and ballet historians, have found occasion to curse Grigorovich in different languages and to label him as the despotic tyrant of the Bolshoi Ballet of Moscow. The theatre’s internal feuds against him are legendary – those fomented by the Messerer-Plisetsky or Ulanova-Liepa-Vassiliev clans; the artists who loved him and celebrated his arrival at the Bolshoi in 1964 (Galina Ulanova and Maya Plisetskaya starred in the first cast of his The Stone Flower) were the same ones who later on demanded his head.

 Ivan Vasiliev "Spartacus", c. Yuri Grigorovich

About ten years ago I personally had occasion to suggest that “the current crisis, with choreographers incapable of working the great repertory and adding to it, ought to get us to change our minds and revalue Grigorovich as the last of the champions of grand classical ballet”.
That did in fact come about and reality caught up with us in a direct, exemplary and astonishing way.
A few years ago, when Grigorovich went to Positano (in Italy, where the oldest dance prize of the world is awarded) to receive the Lifetime Achievement Prize, he showed himself more than well-disposed to dialogue without being elusive vis-à-vis the thorny issues of the past; he declared serenely that all accounts had been settled and that “forgiveness” and understanding were, at this point, mutual. But the impression he conveyed was that he had come out of it the winner, above all thanks to his talent and the weightiness of his oeuvre. The past successes on his long list re-affirm themselves at the present time and are likely to do so in the future too.
Yuri Nikolaievich Grigorovich was born in 1927 into a respected family in what was a middle-class neighbourhood in St Petersburg (which had by then been renamed Leningrad). The young Yuri, both the human being and the artist, grew up under Stalin’s dictatorship and during World War II, a difficult and dramatic era when artistic avant-garde movements were harshly repressed and “Socialist Realism” upheld. Once the war ended, in 1946, civil life re-emerged and theatres, orchestras and ballet companies were revived. That was the year that Grigorovich graduated as a dancer from the “Leningrad Choreographic School”. He had studied with Boris Shavrov (friend of the young and restless Gheorghi Balanchivadze, later to become Balanchine) and Alexander Pisarev, but also with the famous Alexander Pushkin. Already during those school years he was wont to pester his schoolmates to induce them to dance in his early creations. Grigorovich’s choreography was influenced principally by Fedor Lopukhov (with regard to ensemble moments), while historian Yuri Slominsky mentored his acquisition of a vast culture.
Like the young Petipa a century before, the young Grigorovich had the utmost respect for his foremost predecessors, but had no qualms or fears about creating new versions of old ballets so as to augment and enhance his own production.
Grigorovich oeuvre can be divided into two major blocs: new ballets completely invented by him, and his reconstructions of the great, so-called classical, repertory. To start with, the canon Tchaikovsky-Petipa/Ivanov trilogy: The Sleeping Beauty (1963 and 1973), The Nutcracker (1966) and Swan Lake (1969). It is noteworthy that in 1968 the prolific choreographer found the time to create his masterpiece Spartacus, which has become the flagship of the Bolshoi Ballet, and that his first Beauty lasted 10 years before the definitive version was created – 10 years of experiments, rehearsals, analyses and revisions to hone a ballet that had already been created! – something that appears unconceivable today and testifies to the fact that Yuri Grigorovich is perhaps the last living example of an “encyclopaedic” (and at the same time “dynamic”) way of tackling the repertory seen as a living and evolving, organism.
His début as a choreographer took place at the Kirov in Leningrad in 1957 with The Stone Flower (in Moscow in 1959) and in 1959 with The Legend of Love (at the Bolshoi in 1961, reworked in 1982). The latter’s success seemed paradoxically in contrast with the Muscovite society of the day that was in ferment with those ideas that were to prevail shortly afterwards when Mikhail Gorbaciov rose to power and “Perestroika” kicked in. “Glasnost”, the new transparency in public life, was gaining ground after the sombre and grandiose decades of Soviet politics and society: the very same decades, however, during which (and herein lies the paradox) Grigorovich’s oeuvre had come to the fore!
Apart from what has been said about the powerfulness of his mass scenes, the choreographer’s style is clearly recognisable, from his early ballets all the way to his most recent works. What emerges, chiefly, is a deep “symphonic” intent, though this is always and intrinsically danced and steers clear of descriptive mime, seeking instead an essentially rhythmic and musical form for each poetic expression.
To the aforementioned ballets, we can add Ivan the Terrible (at the Bolshoi in 1975 and at the Paris Opéra in 1976), Don Quixote (Copenhagen, 1982); Raymonda (1984), Giselle (1987); La Bayadère (1992); Le Corsaire (1994), in Moscow. 9 March 1995 is a date to remember: on that day Grigorovich left the theatre from the artists’ exit, having been ousted from his post of ballet director; he re-entered the Bolshoi via the main entrance some years later, having been called in to save the day and preserve the favour of the Muscovite public who were vociferously rooting for him.
Yuri Grigorovich has been artistic director of the Ballet Company of the Bolshoi Theatre of Moscow in different periods, from 1964 to 1995. He was succeeded by Vladimir Vasiliev, during the ensuing five years (and for a short period the great dancer, a “living legend” of the Bolshoi, was also the Bolshoi Theatre’s intendant), and then by Boris Akimov, choreographer Alexei Ratmansky, Yuri Burlaka and Sergei Filin who was in office until the appointment (in 2016) of Makhar Vaziev. (Vaziev had been artistic director of the Mariinsky Ballet of St Petersburg and, afterwards, of the Ballet Company of La Scala, Milan).
In an interview last year to The Financial Times Vaziev, sitting on the same throne that Grigorovich had sat on for thirty years, declared that: “The Soviet era is over; we must move forward, preserving however from said era that which was well done and is still of value today.” Evidently, also in Vaziev’s eyes the work of his (by now) distant predecessor comes under ‘that which was well done’ and, above all, ‘is still of value’. Vaziev added: “When it comes to art, I am not democratic.” Just like Grigorovich.
After Moscow, Yuri Grigorovich moved to Krasnodar, in southern Russia, where he was permitted to enlarge the pre-existing ballet company to the extent required (thus beefing it up to 110 dancers) with whom he renovated and staged the following ballets of his: The Golden Age, Swan Lake, La Bayadère and Raymonda. In 2010 he returned in triumph to the Bolshoi with a revival of his Romeo and Juliet.
Despite his advancing years he has never neglected the Prix Benois de la Danse, which he founded and of which he is president, helped by his faithful aides Regina Nikiforova and Nina Kudriavtseva-Loory.
Grigorovich’s ballets, often in his own reworkings, continue to constitute the broad basis of the great Muscovite theatre’s ballet repertoire; a conservative choice, perhaps, but a wise one which provides the company with oxygen on tap.
Roger Salas

BALLET2000 n. 266, April 2017