A Legendary Ballet School Wobbles On Point

An electric bell clangs. Students in tights and leotards stampede down the corridor, then disappear into various dance studios. It's a bright morning, and sunlight, rare in Moscow at this time of year, floods in through the picture windows of this large, modern building. Scampering past me, late it seems, is Nastia Miskova, a slender 8-year-old girl who is the youngest dancer currently enrolled at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy. The buzz is that she's destined to become a big ballet star in 12 or 13 years.

Visiting here gives me a respite from the parade of bad news coming out of Russia: rampant inflation, teetering reform, rising fascism. True, the Bolshoi is also a victim of current events. It's under fire for being outmoded and stodgy, and it faces the prospect of cuts in funding from the state. But here at the academy, the mysteries of the ballet dance are still being passed on from one generation to another. And that, to me, is heartening.

GRANDE DAME. Inside a studio where the youngest of the 600 students train, Nastia goes to work. She picks up an aluminum watering can that's almost as big as she is and wets down the blond wood floor. That's so the 13 girls in the class won't slip on the gleaming waxed pine. The pianist begins to play, and to strains of Tchaikovsky and Chopin, the girls start a series of exercises. For the rest of the day, they'll alternate dance sessions with schoolwork.

By starting so young and sticking to a rigorous schedule, the students and their 300 instructors are keeping alive Russia's proud tradition of classical ballet. The academy's grande dame is Madame Director Sophia Golovkina, 78, a small woman with piercing blue eyes. After graduating from the academy, she was a Bolshoi prima ballerina from 1930 to 1960, when she took over as academy director. Says Jeanene Russell, 20, a student from Spokane, Wash., who is finishing a two-year stint at the school: "Take a step into this school and it's like stepping into history. Working with Madame Golovkina--well, she is history."

Indeed, in her lifetime at the Bolshoi, Golovkina has seen it all. She danced during some of the most horrible years of Soviet history: the time of Stalin's purges and during World War II, when she toured the front. In Moscow, the fighting came so close that she and the other dancers would stop performances to help put out roof fires caused by Nazi incendiary bombs.

While the Bolshoi weathered Stalin's terror and German bombs in good order, today it faces a challenge nearly as dire: a lack of funds. The Bolshoi, which includes an orchestra and opera company in addition to the ballet troupe, always received lavish support from the Soviet Union. But in these depressed times, the Bolshoi is having to start paying its own way. The academy and the entire Bolshoi Theater are seeking grants from private Russian biznizmen and special concessions from the legislature--including tax breaks for those who give to cultural institutions.

The Bolshoi remains one of the biggest theaters in the world, with 2,000 employees. "They get fixed salaries that are not high," says General Director Vladimir M. Kokonin. While state funding has actually increased a bit, the future looks dim. "As it used to be, subsidies were sufficient, but not currently for a theater like this," says Kokonin.

The state no longer provides any of the most important money of all: hard currency. The Bolshoi tries to make up for that by touring internationally. Even so, things are so tight that trips can be canceled at a moment's notice should foreign hotels up their prices or exchange rates go out of whack.

CLEAN TECHNIQUE. Meanwhile, the academy has begun programs to boost its image and attract donations at home and abroad. The Bolshoi holds a five-week summer program in Vail, Colo., where American students can study with Russian teachers. Jeanene Russell took part in the Vail program and did so well that she was accepted at the main school in Moscow, becoming one of the few Americans ever to study here. She'll graduate in May.

Despite some scary moments during last October's bloody political strife, Russell has profited by her stay in Moscow, developing great respect for the Bolshoi. "I like the Russian system of ballet," she says. "I think it's very clean. There's a big emphasis on classical technique."

To pass on that technique, Golovkina still teaches a full schedule and has final say on who gets accepted. Of the roughly 1,000 boys and girls who apply each spring, only about 70 make it. "We look for physical ability, stretching ability, how high you can go, how the spine is," says Assistant Director Natasha Levhoeva. "Then, we check musicality--students must have a musical ear, otherwise they can't dance. Then, they've got to have brains. They have to absorb style fast. Then, they've got to have a love of dancing and a joy of dancing. Sometimes, we see a first glimpse of charisma."

Leonid Zhdanov, a onetime dance partner of Golovkina, retired from the Bolshoi in 1959 and has been teaching ever since. He is now working with a group of boys, aged 17 or 18, who are preparing for final exams. "Now, you will see what people don't usually see: the hard work," he says as I enter his studio. Then, he turns back to the class. "Anduysky," he shouts. "Listen to the music." After a series of drills, the pianist rests. "The real dancer starts with the toes," Zhdanov tells his brood. After the student executes an impressive pirouette, the youngster is praised: "Bravo, Loshka."

Zhdanov, a grandfatherly type with wispy gray hair, takes a break to chat with me while the boys keep working out. "I've danced Swan Lake so many times, I hate Tchaikovsky. It's like having so many sweets you get sick of them," he says. He stands up to instruct again. But he's exasperated. "They listen to nothing," he complains. "It's the fifth day after winter break, and they are lazy."

"THINK, THINK!" Down the hall, Madame Golovkina is holding her special class. She's putting a group of eight girls in their final months of training through their paces. The class includes a number of Russians, a South Korean, a Japanese, and Jeanene Russell. Golovkina takes in everything the girls are doing in the sun-splashed studio from her position beside the pianist. "After you lift your arm, look at your hand," she calls out. A pause. "Think, think! You needn't do that, Velya." Finally, the small woman declares to the student ensemble: "Your soul must sing, your body must sing when you dance."

Preserving and passing on such gemlike art carries a big price tag. And unless the Russians can find modern ways to keep up--and pay for--the Bolshoi and produce more ballet teachers as talented and dedicated as Madame Golovkina, they risk squandering a true national treasure.

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