Star-crossed stages

The fine art of getting the Bolshoi Ballet to Seattle.

TO DATE, SEATTLE'S homegrown "Millennium Celebration" has unfolded with all the 飬at of soot accumulating on winter windowpanes, but—no thanks to the official custodians of our civic life—the year 2000 may yet be worth the remembering, thanks to a June visit by Russia's mighty Bolshoi Ballet for a week of performances of Prokofiev's dramatic ballet Romeo and Juliet.

Romeo and Juliet

Bolshoi Ballet

June 13-18 at Paramount Theater

In a way, we have the millennium to thank that the Bolshoi is visiting Seattle at all. Over three years ago, the artistic director of Washington's Kennedy Center asked a Russian-born New Yorker named David Eden for advice on beefing up its international programming. At the same time, the Center was casting about for ideas on how to take advantage of millennium buzz to promote its cultural lineup for 1999-2000. Eden, ballet-mad since his teens, had stayed in touch with cultural developments in his birthplace during the difficult years following the collapse of the Soviet system. He was particularly concerned about the collapse of state support for grand old institutions like the Bolshoi and impressed by efforts within that company to preserve its artistic legacy while adapting to the cruel realities of the marketplace.

At the height of the Cold War, the Bolshoi visited North America almost routinely under the auspices of independent presenters like the legendary Sol Hurok. But with the disappearance of massive state subsidy, the cost of transporting and housing a company the size of the Bolshoi became insupportable for any one presenter or institution. If the Kennedy Center wanted to pay tribute to indisputable cultural icons of the 20th century, the company certainly would grace its millennial program—if other North American companies could be prevailed upon to share the certain risk and potential glory.

ONE DIFFICULTY in recruitment appeared immediately: The Bolshoi had not visited these shores since 1990, and its welcome then had been none too warm. And in the years since, the Bolshoi was known to have hemorrhaged leading dancers, drawn by higher salaries and better living conditions in the West. Eden assured the Kennedy Center's Lawrence Wilker that the new dancer-led Bolshoi management had overcome this problem and that a renewed esprit pulsed through the company; so Wilker invited a number of other nonprofit presenters around the country to visit Moscow with him and inspect the product for themselves.

One of the visitors privileged to sit in the Tsar's box and pass judgment on the Bolshoi was Seattle Theater Group booker Josh LaBelle. "Maybe it was jet lag," LaBelle recalls, "but everybody thought the first show we saw [a reconstruction of Marius Petipa's 1877 La Bayad貥] was a snooze. But the next night was Romeo and Juliet, and I'll never forget it as long as I live."

Considering the resources the government poured into it, the evening-length ballet repertory created during the Soviet era ranges mostly from the forgettable to the pathetic; but there are exceptions, Romeo and Juliet most notable among them. Like its great predecessor Swan Lake, it had a difficult gestation. First mooted by composer Sergei Prokofiev in 1934, it was not until 1946 that the work reached its final form. Well, not quite final: The version LaBelle and his fellow presenters saw last winter in Moscow is the result of a determined attempt on the part of the Bolshoi's current artistic director Alexei Fadeechev to filter out the Socialist-Realism "improvements" made under his predecessors in the post.

"Improvements" and all, the work has enjoyed continuous popularity with the Russian public for more than 50 years. Prokofiev's score, familiar to Western audiences through frequent orchestral performances of the three suites its commercially canny composer drew from it, is one of his most powerful, ranking with his opera War and Peace and the film score Aleksandr Nevski. The choreography and staging of Leonid Lavrovsky is a near-perfect amalgam of spectacle and intimacy, dramatic force and visual delight, classic ballet technique molded into newly expressive theatrical forms. From its premiere, the role of Juliet has been claimed by the greatest ballerinas of every generation, from Ulanova through Bessmertova (whose rendition is captured in a 1973 performance available on video) to the Bolshoi's current reigning queen, Nina Ananiashvili, who danced the role the night the American visitors saw the show in Moscow.

After that experience, the bookers were unanimous in their willingness to back the Kennedy Center's audacious play. But deciding to go ahead proved easier than actually doing so. "Romeo is a gigantic production: huge cast, huge sets, masses of costumes," says Eden. "The Bolshoi is a microcosm of Russia today, the breakdown of all the infrastructure of the society, the improvisation needed to survive from day to day. It was very difficult to get accurate information and to get decisions made, because it often was not clear who was responsible for making decisions. Pulling the tour together has proved for me the challenge of a lifetime."

STILL, PULLED TOGETHER it was. Of the six organizations who watched Ananiashvili dance last February, five survive: The Metropolitan Opera could not find a suitable open week, but along with Kennedy Center and Seattle Theater Group, Chicago's Auditorium Theater, the Orange County Performing Arts Center, and the Los Angeles Music Center managed to stay the course. Not that there were no further changes as the plan evolved.

Despite Eden's desire to show the range of the Bolshoi's current repertory by alternating performances of Romeo with another of Fadeechev's renovations of the classics, three of the American bookers chose to play it safe at the box office by presenting only the pre-sold Romeo. Dance fans eager to catch the Bolshoi's dewy-fresh revival of Petipa's frothy 1869 version of Don Quixote (with Ananiashvili as Kitri, the roguish gypsy girl) will have to head south to one of the California venues to catch it.

Changes and surprises came from the other end of the contract as well. "We were originally told that we'd have to find housing for a company of 100," says John Dunavent, Seattle Theater Group's general manager. "Just last week I learned from Josh that the number has risen to 140. There are just so many hotel rooms in Seattle, and Cavanaugh's has been more than generous with us already."

In addition to the hotel (part of the hospitality and entertainment empire of Spokane-based Goodale and Barbieri), other sponsors have stepped up to the plate: Aetna Insurance is contributing to support of the national tour, with Nextlink Communications helping out locally. But only six houses packed to the Paramount's capacious walls can pay off the immense investment represented by the Bolshoi appearance.

There's reason to hope STG's prayers to that end will be answered. The Lavrovsky Romeo is theater of a kind we've almost forgotten exists on this side of the Atlantic: full-hearted, passionate, devoid of the slightest trace of irony. "The whole show is immensely satisfying," says Dunavent, "but the last 15 minutes, the scene in the tomb, are almost too emotionally painful to watch." Shakespeare himself couldn't ask for more.

Closer to the bottom line, it's encouraging that over 30 percent of the 18,000-plus tickets available are spoken for before public sales begin this week, thanks to the generosity of Pacific Northwest Ballet in providing its mailing list to help contact likely purchasers. "It was great of PNB to help us," says Dunavent, "because of course Kent Stowell has his own version of Romeo in repertory. But he understands that the chance to see a show like this is once in a lifetime and that it will draw a huge general audience that may never have considered attending the ballet. Seeing a show like this is what makes ballet fans out of people."

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