By People Staff
July 27, 1987 12:00 PM

By the time the curtain went up, the audience at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera House had already been through quite a bit. First, of course, there was the mad scramble for tickets—with legal prices up to $75 per and no ceiling on scalpers. Then there was a bomb threat, which kept the opening-night crowd cooling its heels outside a police cordon for nearly an hour. Once in the lobby, each patron got the once-over with a hand-held metal detector.

Now, as the world-famous Bolshoi Ballet moved into the final act, the threat of anti-Soviet terrorism seemed to have passed. The performance was finally building to the sort of crescendo that might justify the extraordinary fuss. Suddenly lead dancer Irek Mukhamedov, 27, launched himself about 10 feet in the air, seemed to tuck his legs under his torso like a yogi and spun completely around. Mukhamedov touched down and, incredibly, did it again. Once. Twice. Three times. Soon the crowd, too, leapt to its feet. “It was almost as if the audience wanted to participate in the performance,” says Natalya Bessmertnova, the prima ballerina.

In the larger sense, of course, the audience did participate: The chemistry of this landmark evening—the return of the Russians’ premier ballet company to the American stage after an absence of eight years—was about far more than dance, good, bad or indifferent. It was about the revival of a cultural détente derailed by Jimmy Carter’s 1980 Afghanistan-inspired embargoes and a spurt of defections from this very troupe. It was about American audiences’ ingrained expectations for theatrical productions, dazzling individual dancers and daredevil choreography from the Bolshoi. And, as any seasoned balletomane knew, it was about the professional fate of Yuri Grigorovich, 60, the embattled artistic director of the ballet.

An autocratic genius reminiscent of George Balanchine, Grigorovich has run the 270-member Bolshoi Ballet for 23 years, dictating its program, molding its dancers and imposing his will right down to the light filters. When he perches in the 12th row for rehearsal, no detail escapes his attention and no dancer his sharp commands. “I don’t think he meant to be difficult,” says a former member of the company. “He was just very busy.”

In recent years, though, the accumulated slights and resentments engendered by Grigorovich’s iron rule began to gel into a discernible in-house opposition, thanks in part to the new spirit of glasnost, or openness. This year, in an unprecedented move, the Bolshoi distributed questionnaires asking the dancers to evaluate their teachers: Grigorovich was infuriated by the move and by the open criticisms it provoked.

The company, in fact, nurtures the seeds of its own discontent. At the Bolshoi old dancers don’t fade away; they retire into coaching slots to stew about insults, real and imagined, that they suffered in the troupe. For example, Maya Plisetskaya, now 61, was the undisputed prima ballerina until newcomer Grigorovich began playing Pygmalion to his soon-to-be wife, Bessmertnova. Though already 40 at that time, Plisetskaya was still “a great ballerina, and he never once created a ballet for her,” says an ex-Bolshoi dancer. “For the last 15 years his wife did almost every opening night.” The deposed prima had her revenge when her sometime partner Aleksandr Godunov defected during the Bolshoi’s 1979 U.S. tour—one in a string of escapes that embarrassed Grigorovich politically. The maestro muddied the waters further this year when, in a pre-tour visit to the U.S., he publicly invited Baryshnikov to dance on the Bolshoi’s stage before clearing the gesture through official channels. (Baryshnikov has equivocated.)

On a less personal plane, critics charge that Grigorovich is a conservative, unproductive choreographer content to recycle such classics as Giselle and Raymonds. Indeed his campy, hybrid work, The Golden Age, which opened the Bolshoi’s New York run, is the director’s only original production in eight years. “When I asked a very famous ballerina what I had missed in the company since I left,” says Leonid Kozlov, a Godunov-era defector who now performs with the New York City Ballet, “she said, ‘You didn’t miss anything. There is nothing going on.’ ”

But what American audiences will see on the Bolshoi’s two-month, four-city tour (from New York the ballet travels to Washington, D.C., San Francisco and L.A.) are not Grigorovich’s theoretical and historical weaknesses but his very obvious, immediate strengths. The man who has always showcased strong male dancers has brought over several stunning new stars, Irek Mukhamedov among them. Grigorovich’s programs deliver the gravity-defying feats and dramatic punch that have made the Bolshoi a sentimental favorite. His rigorous preparation of the troupe has already saved at least one performance: When Bessmertnova tore a muscle in New York, another principal danced right into the role with no rehearsal. As a matter of fact, the prima ballerina—as lissome and ethereal at 46 as many dancers are at 20—is a vindication of Grigorovich’s choice of artists. Her staying power, says her husband, can have only one explanation: “Talent, it’s the talent.”

Childless, the first couple of Soviet ballet divide their time between a spacious, book-filled apartment in Moscow and a country house, but their lives are totally consumed by the Bolshoi. “When he is staging a ballet,” Bessmertnova says, “he is completely involved in the work. Even if we are having tea or doing something else, he is working it in his mind.”

Does such dedication justify Grigorovich’s autocratic rule? “It is impossible for a ballet company to be a democracy,” says Jane Hermann, the Metropolitan’s director of presentations. “The best companies have the aesthetic stamp of the man who runs them. When you look on the stage of the Bolshoi, you see Grigorovich.” And if the Politburo has an eye on the U.S. applause meter, you may be seeing him for a good time to come.