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Friday, October 22, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 A.M.

The Bolshoi Ballet: one foot in the past, the other in the future

By Mary Murfin Bayley
Special to The Seattle Times

During its performances at the Paramount Theatre, the Bolshoi Ballet will present the more classic "Don Quixote," left, and a newer "Romeo and Juliet."
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When the famed Bolshoi Ballet opens this week at the Paramount, it will offer Seattle-area audiences two programs, each extremely different from the other. "Don Quixote," containing some of classical ballet's most dazzling 19th-century choreography, will be poles apart from a new and earthy "Romeo and Juliet," in which the dancers will not even be wearing pointe shoes. The contrasting ballets show a company in a time of artistic growth and transition.

According to artistic director Alexei Ratmansky, mounting innovative new dances is what the company needs as it comes into its 228th year.

"The Bolshoi is one of the greatest companies, really, and right now it's a very young company with a lot of young talented dancers. I hope that the new [repertory] that is brought in will help them to develop as artists," Ratmansky said in a phone call from Boston, where the Bolshoi began its much-anticipated United States tour last week.

Ratmansky, 35, who was hired as artistic director this January, is uniquely situated to understand where the Bolshoi stands and how it must develop in an era when the arts can no longer depend completely on state support. A dancer and choreographer himself, Ratmansky studied with the Bolshoi's Moscow Ballet School, danced with the Kiev State Ballet and then went on to a starring career with the Royal Winnipeg and the Royal Danish Ballets.

"The fact that I have worked in different places in America and in Europe has helped a lot, I think, because I see the Bolshoi from the outside and the inside at the same time," he said.

The company has been performing works that are all at least 30 years old, Ratmansky said, and the dancers need an infusion of new styles, perspectives and energy. He is clear, however, that he has no intention of abandoning the Bolshoi's grand signature style.

Dance preview

Bolshoi Ballet and Orchestra, in "Romeo and Juliet" (7:30 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday) and "Don Quixote" (8 p.m. Oct. 29 and 30, and 2 p.m. Oct. 31), Paramount Theatre, 911 Pine St., Seattle; $30-$99 (206-292-ARTS and

"The Bolshoi style itself is quite unique, and I think we need to preserve it. [It's] very big and dynamic. The name Bolshoi, of course, means 'big' in Russian. So is the stage of the Bolshoi where the auditorium rises about five stories high." The company evolved in part to suit this space. During the next few years the grand old theater will be renovated and the company will perform in a smaller, second stage built next door.

Ratmansky, himself, has been highly praised as a choreographer for works such as his "Anna Karenina" for the Royal Danish, "Carnival of the Animals" for the San Francisco Ballet and "Bright Stream" for the Bolshoi. However, he does not want to fill the Bolshoi repertory with his own works, but hopes to bring in the best choreography from around the world.

"We will keep the big classics, mostly works of [Yuri] Grigorovich, which are very touching emotionally. Now we have some works of western choreographers like Frederick Ashton and [George] Balanchine — well, Balanchine is Russian of course — and Roland Petit, and we do a John Neumeier ballet this season."

It becomes clear in talking to Ratmansky that the new repertory he brings in will not stray as far from its classical base as the present "Romeo and Juliet," staged by Declan Donnellan before Ratmansky's tenure.

Not surprising, since "Romeo and Juliet" received mixed — and some brutally negative — reviews. Jann Parry of The Observer called the choreography "gibberish." Ismene Brown of The Telegraph wrote that the choreography for the lovers became "quite ridiculous whenever alone together. Romeo's main motif is to shudder all over, like a dog exiting a pond. If he could speak he'd stutter and gulp, there'd be no 'Ethiop pearls' and 'empty tigers.' Juliet jogs about, giggling and gangly, flinging herself on to Romeo's back with cocked legs; if she could speak, she'd go: 'Like, hi.' "

Ratmansky, though, said he was thrilled that the Bolshoi was doing the new and innovative "Romeo."

"Although it was made before I became artistic director I'm very glad that this piece is in the rep because it brings a new audience into the theater and it's very, very unusual for us. It's not on pointe. It's very dramatic. It is something that no one would expect from the Bolshoi and I'm glad that we dared to do this."

For audience members expecting the 1946 Leonid Lavrosky "Romeo and Juliet" that the Bolshoi brought to Seattle in 2000, the new version, using the same Prokofiev score, might be startling. "It's controversial. I'm sure some people will like it and some people will hate it, but it's quite an important work for us, because it shows that the Bolshoi dancers can be very, very different."

Contemporary choreography such as this exposes the dancers in a different ways. "It is a more direct contact with the audiences. When we perform the classics, it is always like the wall stays between the dancers and the audience. We pretend to be prince or princess or swans. In 'Romeo and Juliet' they are just themselves, which is important," Ratmansky said.

Those who prefer the more traditional approach will no doubt choose "Don Quixote," a comedic ballet with music by Ludwig Minkus and marvelous character dances, which were originally created for the Bolshoi by Marius Petipa in 1859. Those wanting to see the dramatic potential of ballet pushed in a new direction will choose "Romeo." Those lucky enough to be able to attend both programs will see a great ballet company that is still evolving.

Mary Murfin Bayley:

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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