As he celebrates his 90th birthday on January 2nd, Charlotte Kasner looks at the colossus of Russian choreographers that is Yuri Grigorovich, his times and his work.
Yuri Nikolayevich Grigorovich was born in 1927 in Leningrad, ten years after the October revolution that swept imperialism away and just three years after the death of Lenin himself. Leningrad was at the heart of the revolution and, at a time when vast tracts of the country had barely changed since feudal times, had some of the most advanced industry in the world including the Lomonosov porcelain factory (founded in 1744) and the Putilov ironworks (1789). The 1920s also saw the beginning of the development of the suburban areas as the New Economic Policy waxed and waned and central planning was gradually instigated.
Born into this world of turmoil, Yuri Nikolayevich had family connections with imperial state institutions, being the grandson of Admiral Alfred Rozay and nephew of Georgy Rozay, a leading dancer in the Imperial theatre. At a time when such a bourgeois background could have worked against him, he nevertheless trained as a dancer and graduated from the Leningrad Choreographic School in 1946, having studied with the great Alexander Pushkin. He rose to be a soloist in the Kirov Ballet where he staged his first two original ballets, The Stone Flower and The Legend of Love, before retiring as a dancer in 1962.
Never a stranger to controversy, while Yuri Nikolayevich ’s first full length ballets marked him out as a fresh, new talent at the Kirov, they also brought him into conflict with ballet master Konstantin Sergeyev. So, aged 37, he moved to Moscow where his choreography was to reign supreme for three decades, with his major productions including Spartacus (1968, screened in the 2015-6 Bolshoi Cinema season), Ivan the Terrible (1975), Angara (1976), Romeo and Juliet (1979) and The Golden Age (1982, already seen this cinema season); as well as stagings of the classics The Sleeping Beauty (1963), The Nutcracker (1966), Swan Lake (1969, later revised), all coming next this cinema season; plus Raymonda (1984), Giselle (1987), La Bayadère (1991) and Le Corsaire and Don Quixote (1994).
Yuri Nikolayevich managed to negotiate the political and social intricacies of Soviet life and the ballet world whilst apparently remaining his own man, never joining the Communist Party, for example. However, it was not all plain sailing. He clashed swords with the notorious Minister of Culture Yekaterina Furtseva who, in spite of her background as a chemical engineer, wielded almost total power over Soviet arts and culture for 14 of the 31 years that Yuri Nikolayevich ran the Bolshoi. A direct diktat forced him to change the ending of his 1969 production of Swan Lake by reuniting Odette with Prince Siegfried in spite of the tragic music swelling to a climax as they embrace. It was not until 2001 that Yuri Nikolayevich was able to revise the production so that it was closer to his original intentions.
The many original productions by Yuri Nikolayevich form a unique legacy for the ballet world. Having trained in the cool, classical school of Leningrad, he embraced the exciting dynamism and drama of the Bolshoi at a time of life when many people are becoming set in their ways and he made it his own. His scope ranges from the operatic canvases of Russian and Roman history in Spartacus and Ivan the Terrible, to Russian and Buryat folk tales in The Stone Flower and Angara, to the more intimate turbulence of his formative years in the 1920s in The Golden Age. Although often judged in the light of the Cold War, his work is now seen in a broader, more enlightened context.
Foreign tours allowed Yuri Nikolayevich and his dancers to absorb styles not common elsewhere in Russia, notably in Spartacus which, shockingly for its time, owed much to the neo-classicism of his fellow St Peterburgian George Balanchine, and dealt with sexuality in a way that home-grown audiences had not been used to in ballet. Although there are many different versions of the ballet performed in the former eastern bloc, it is the Yuri Nikolayevich’s that is best known and loved internationally and which is possibly responsible for ensuring that Khachaturian’s music, one of the greatest original ballet scores of the 20th-century, was not lost.
Every ballet company large or small can be riven with intrigues and internal politics. Artistic directors like Yuri Nikolayevich , can wield enormous power over lives and careers. Many, including dancer Maya Plisetskaya herself, felt that she was overlooked by him, not least because he used his second wife Natalia Bessmertnova as his main muse. Plisetskaya made no secret of the fact that she hated his stylised production of Spartacus, having danced in the original Igor Moiseyev naturalistic production ten years earlier. She did however stage her own productions during Yuri Nikolayevich ’s tenure.
Many dancers rose to be leading lights of the Bolshoi in the 30 years that Yuri Nikolayevich held sway, but it is probably Irek Mukhemedov who has had the most lasting impact outside of Russia in recent times. Having danced with the Moscow Classical Ballet for three years from 1978, he won the Grand Prix and Gold Medal at the International Ballet Competition in Moscow and was immediately invited to join the Bolshoi Ballet as a principal dancer. He left an indelible stamp as Spartacus and Ivan the Terrible, being one of the youngest dancers to tackle the mighty roles before going on to have a distinguished career as a dancer, choreographer, ballet master and company director including mounting his own production of Spartacus on Hong Kong Ballet.
Yuri Nikolayevich was eventually criticised for stagnating and being past his artistic best. By the beginning of the 1990s, the Bolshoi’s internecine intrigues were spilling over into actual protests. The age-old battle between older, established artists who had pick of the best roles and performances and the ear of the director and the emerging new generation became public.
Shock waves reverberated around the globe on November 9th, 1989 with the fall of the Berlin Wall. Within months, the apparently rock-solid Soviet regime was shaken to its foundations and the Bolshoi, along with other institutions, was set adrift from the security of its Soviet past into the turbulent international waters of commercial artistic reality. State funding was no longer a fiscal tap that could be turned on and off at will and the Bolshoi needed to earn its keep in the harsh reality of commercial arts funding.
Yuri Nikolayevich had been instrumental in cementing the contemporary reputation of the Bolshoi on the world’s stages by focusing outside of the Soviet Union as well as within it. The Company toured extensively throughout his tenure which stood it in good stead when hard currency was all the more necessary to maintain production standards and support the enormous company and staff at home.
The internal turbulence continued though, culminating in huge arguments between Grigorovich and the Ministry of Culture over the future structure of the company, including placing dancers on what he perceived as a less secure footing. He threatened to resign if the plans continued, a threat he carried out in March 1995. In response, the dancers, led not surprisingly by Bessmertnova, took part in the first strike in the Bolshoi’s 219-year history. Dancers wearing dressing gowns and street clothes occupied the stage to protest about the reforms and new policies, and the scheduled performance of Giselle was cancelled. Once the dust settled, Vladimir Vasiliev, protégé of Yuri Nikolayevich, took over as head of the company and a new era began for the choreographer as he approached his seventh decade.
Yuri Nikolayevich moved to Krasnodar in southern Russia and created a new ballet company from scratch. This time he did not have the pick of the crème de la crème of dancers nor the level of funding to which he had become accustomed. Nevertheless, he produced The Golden Age followed by Swan Lake and Raymonda and, eventually, Spartacus. Within a decade, the new Yuri Nikolayevich Krasnodar Ballet Theatre was recognised across the ballet world and toured widely, including to England in 2002. By 2008, relations had improved sufficiently with the Bolshoi for him to again work as ballet master and choreographer. His 90th anniversary celebrations will be the main event of the new season at the Bolshoi throughout January and February 2017, when eleven of his ballets will be performed.
Now in his ninth decade, it is fitting that tributes be paid to a colossus of dance who has encouraged generations of dancers and given the world unique productions that continue to stun audiences, some of who were not even born when he left the company to which he had dedicated his life for 30 years.
Thank you from the bottom of our hearts Yuri Nikolayevich – and Happy 90th Birthday!
Yuri Grigorovich’s The Nutcracker is in cinemas on Sunday December 18, 2016 (with a few cinemas showing on December 31).
The Sleeping Beauty follows on January 22, 2017 (live), with Swan Lake on February 5.
For cinemas and details, visit www.bolshoiballetcinema.co.uk.