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The Bolshoi Ballet makes the leap back to Boston

By Christine Temin
Globe Staff / September 19, 2004

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The last time the Bolshoi Ballet came to Boston was in 1989. The fabled company was still in the grips of the choreographer and artistic director Yuri Grigorovich, whose hyperbolic creations included a Soviet/Stalinesque "Spartacus," and who ruled the troupe for three decades, until 1995. He was succeeded by a couple of short-term directors who did nothing to improve the Moscow company's reputation as the coarse cousin of the refined, St. Petersburg-based Kirov Ballet, a.k.a. the Maryinsky in the days of the czars.

The Bolshoi is as famous for coups as Russia itself is, and in January of this year, Alexei Ratmansky, a 35-year-old dancer and choreographer, became the new director of the renowned company.

While Ratmansky is something of an unknown quantity, the ballets he's bringing to Boston are not. They are two of the greatest masterpieces of the 19th century: "Raymonda" and "Don Quixote."

The very first ballet version of the Cervantes novel premiered at the Bolshoi in 1869. "Raymonda" premiered at the Maryinsky in 1898. The contrast between the two encapsulates the differences between the two companies: "Don Q" is a rambunctious romp; "Raymonda" is the quintessential "tutu ballet," a romance with a predictably happy ending that gives the audience a chance to enjoy classical choreography at its purest without having to pay attention to the plot, which is silly.

That a major Russian ballet troupe is coming to Boston at all is noteworthy.

"We'd fallen off the radar screen of the big international companies," says Martha Jones, executive director of the Bank of America Celebrity Series. "They figured Boston was out of the picture. We had to work hard to regain a relationship with agents and companies so they'd consider coming here."

The Kirov/Maryinsky came to Boston in 2003, under the auspices of the Celebrity Series and the Wang Center for the Performing Arts. It was a risky venture. The cost of the appearance was $900,000, but ticket sales were a terrific 92 percent.

"The Kirov saved our season in terms of box office," says Jones, who has been lobbying -- and fund-raising -- aggressively to bring more classical dance to Boston, "which is notorious for not being a ballet town," she says. The five Bolshoi performances will cost a bit over $1 million, and even with projected sales of 85 percent, that leaves $280,000 to be raised to break even.

Jones's job is equal parts psychology and paperwork. You don't just call Moscow and ask if the Bolshoi would like to dance in Boston. An appearance involving hundreds of dancers, musicians, and wardrobe and make-up people has to be part of a multicity tour to be economically feasible.

As for repertory decisions, it's a struggle. Boston Ballet did "Don Q" last season, so it looks as if Jones wasn't paying attention when in fact it was the change in the Bolshoi leadership that caused the apparent duplication.

With the new leadership came new repertory choices, "Don Quixote" among them. "I was offered Ratmansky's `Bright Stream,' " Jones says, "but the tape I saw of it was truly vile. I was also offered a `Romeo and Juliet' in modern dress, which was even worse."

So she stuck with the two classics. She wanted to do "Don Q" first, because more audience members would be familiar with it, and maybe after seeing it they'd buy tickets to "Raymonda," but that didn't fit with the Bolshoi tour schedule. The "Raymonda" sets and costumes have to be shipped to Mexico in time for a gig there, so Boston gets "Raymonda" first.

Jones also had specific Bolshoi dancers in mind for Boston -- but the company has been mute on the subject of casting. She can get worked up about this. For last year's Kirov appearance, she wanted two principals who'd decided, five days before they were scheduled to show up in Boston, to fly back to Russia. "I flew them back here for one performance, on opening night," she says. "I paid for the tickets. In business class."

Keeping up with dance and dancers internationally is something Jones can't do alone -- she'd never be in her Boston office. A couple of her balletomane funders run around the globe regularly to see dance and dancers. "When I see a company's proposed casting," she says, "I show it to them for advice."

Meanwhile, relationships on the home front are excellent, she adds. "In the past, Boston Ballet would never talk to me about their repertory at all." Now, she meets regularly with Boston Ballet artistic director Mikko Nissinen about the two organizations' plans for programming three years in advance, to avoid duplication.

Jones has goals to keep her going. One is to bring in the Paris Opera Ballet, which a majority of critics would agree is now the world's finest classical company. Another is to bring in a production of Kenneth MacMillan's "Manon."

"I'm just dying," she says, "to present it here."

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