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May 21, 1998

Britain rocked by ‘ballet hooliganism’
Working-class dance fans’ devotion leads to violence

CHATHAM, England — Clashes on Wednesday between police and local youths left four injured and over 45,000 in property damage in what constable Harry Swancourt is calling “the worst outbreak of ballet hooliganism since the European finals in 1988.” hooligan.gif (12449 bytes)

According to witnesses, a well-known gang of local toughs who were incensed by the Bolshoi’s new interpretation of Aram Khachaturian’s Gayaneh took to the streets wielding knives, makeshift truncheons and Molotov cocktails. The gang, once dubbed “the Terror of the Thames” for their intimidation of local performers as well as their strict adherence to classical theory and their fierce devotion to the Ballets Russe of Sergei Diaghilev, had turned out in force for the evening’s performance at the Royal Dance Hall.

“It was bollocks,” said a local youth, on the condition he not be identified. “Shernovsky took liberties with the timing, and the positional counterpoint between [Olga] Karskaya and [Dmitri] Kornikolov was almost nonexistent. Besides, who performs Khachaturian any more? Let those fuckers stay in Moscow.”

Bolshoi dancer Yevgeny Shernovsky, known for his athleticism as well as the notorious drubbing he meted out to a heckler in Paris three years ago when he leapt from the stage during the fairy dance in Ma mere L’Oye, brought rave reviews from critics for his reprisal of the role of Giorgi. But his verbal assaults on British choreographer Graham DeBrussere’s production of Les Sylphides in the press brought threats from rival dance schools. “Graham can’t choreograph his way out of a paper bag,” Shernovsky was quoted as saying. “And his wife’s a tart.”

Local police had worried about the arrival of the Bolshoi since the troupe announced its traveling schedule in March. More troubling was their playbill, which eschewed the Continental avant-garde in favor of strictly Soviet-era material. During the performance, constables in riot gear formed a human wall near the entrance points to the theater and fended off protests with volleys of tear gas. When the crowd let out, however, mayhem ensued.

Most local officials professed shock at the incident. It was widely believed that the worst excesses of “ballet hooliganism” of the ‘70s and ‘80s had been curbed by more cooperation between European companies and law-enforcement groups. Slow economic growth in industrial areas of Britain, however, has only increased the potential for violence.

“These lads grow up in an atmosphere without hope,” said Swancourt, surveying the bleak dockside facilities and abandoned warehouses lining the Thames. “Interpretive dance is their only avenue out, and most simply don’t have the talent. So they turn to hooliganism. That’s not to say they don’t have a strong grounding, but they don’t appreciate the past masters — Ravel, Tchaikovsky, and Prokofiev. For them, it’s Jerome Kern or Martha Graham, or it’s bollocks.”

English ballet fans won a reputation in Europe in the last two decades as the rowdiest proponents of their preferred schools. The cup final in Rotterdam in 1982 featured clashes in the streets between Dutch loyalists to the Rijkballet and English gangs who felt the troupe’s performance of Ravel’s Daphnis and Chloe lacked tonal harmony. Three years later, six fans were killed in Luxembourg during an on-stage riot by a German gang that only supported ballets written in G minor.

The events on Wednesday have clearly opened British eyes to the possibility of further trouble. And further trouble may be only days away as Russia’s second most famous company launches its worldwide tour in Manchester. “We hate the Bolshoi, sure,” said one local gang member, “but the Kirov, now they’ve got it coming to ‘em.”

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