Dwight Grell was born in Los Angeles, California to a family of modest means. A music lover as a youth, he was 17 years old when he attended his first ballet--a performance of Sleeping Beauty with Margot Fonteyn at the Shrine Auditorium--and subsequently saw ballet films in 1957 featuring Russian dancers, including Galina Ulanova and Maya Plisetskaya, in performance. His interest sparked, especially by the Bolshoi Ballet, whose work he prized for what he describes as their "dynamic" and "powerful" style of dance, Grell went to see the company during its first U.S. tour in 1959, an event that was to change his life. Even as he worked in a button factory, Grell attended every performance he could, and began collecting programs, posters, and photographs, as well as asking for autographs; indeed, as he states, the Grell/Colefax Russian Ballet Archive began in 1959 when Grell acquired a small autographed photograph of Plisetskaya dancing the role of Zarema in the Fountain of Bakchisirai. In 1962, he began creating his first rudimentary exhibitions, and in 1963, Raisa Struchkova gave Grell an autographed pair of her ballet slippers--his first. From that point on, Grell began asking performers if he could have slippers from various performances.
In 1966, Russian expatriate Sonia Colefax [1896-1991] opened her Hancock Park home to Grell, providing the collection with a place in which to grow; that same year, Grell acquired American ballet presenter Sol Hurok's ballet-related materials. Grell began to assemble exhibitions, with the aim of both promoting Russian ballet and of educating audiences about Russian theatre and ballet. He created his first exhibit in the lobby of the Regent Theatre in Westwood, to accompany a screening of the film "Bolshoi '67". Shortly thereafter, seeking to create what he termed a "cultural bridge," he wrote a letter to the periodical Soviet Life, in which he expressed his admiration and gratitude for the Bolshoi Ballet; his mailing to the magazine included also photos from this first exhibition.
When Soviet Life published the letter in 1968, long after Grell had sent it, Grell's fledgling Archive gained an international dimension, when Roger L. Stevenson, a ballet enthusiast from New Zealand, read it and began sending Grell reels of 16- and 35-mm film concerning the Bolshoi Theatre and its ballet company. Stevenson sent commercial as well as non-commercial films: films and documentaries made by the Bolshoi and newsreels about its artists. Continuing in his educational mission, Grell purchased a 16-mm projector, and began to show these films in ballet schools and university classes; his first screenings occurred around 1970 and continued into the 1980s. Screenings included a 1974 screening, Two Hours of Film from the Bolshoi Ballet and the Leningrad-Kirov Ballet; screenings in 1976 and 1977 at the Vanguard Theatre (Los Angeles) of The Ballet of the Bolshoi Theatre, programs I and II (film drawn from the Archive and from footage taken by William P. Merriman and Grell during 1976 Bolshoi trip); and screenings in other locations, including at the Arizona Alliance for Arts Education (1976); Town Hall of California (1985); and the Long Beach Ballet (1986). Featured dancers included Maya Plisetskaya, Nadzehda Pavlova, Nina Sorokina, Ludmilla Semenyaka, Alexander Godunov, Vyacheslav Gordeyev, Vladimir Vasiliev, and others, in performances and rehearsals from Swan Lake, Giselle, La Rose Malade, and other ballets.
Grell continued to build the collection, buying or being sent all sorts of ballet-related materials; in 1969, he embarked on his first trip abroad, to see the Bolshoi Ballet perform the Western premiere of Spartacus at the Royal Opera House in London; he traveled in 1972 to see them in Paris. Todd Lechtick became the Archive's official photographer, capturing images in the Soviet Union, the United States, and elsewhere in Europe. In 1975, Grell took his first trip to Moscow, on the occasion of the Bolshoi's 200th Jubilee (1975-1976), and he met many of the Bolshoi's leading dancers. He requested, and was granted, permission by the ministry of culture to film ballet classes and rehearsals; he was the first Westerner to receive permission to do so for educational, noncommercial purposes. He filmed luminaries from both the Bolshoi and Kirov Ballets, including Galina Ulanova, Marina Semyonova, Nadia Pavlova, Asaf Messerer, Alexander Pushkin, Natalia Dudinskaya, Ninella Kurgapkina, and many others. His intent was to show students in the United States what it took to be a dancer of their caliber and that they were "normal everyday human beings, not something that you’d wind up and turn on" (Dwight Grell, His House, 7/23/87).
Once again in the United States, Grell traveled to many states to show the Archive's films, and continued to create exhibits for venue lobbies for ballet tours. He wrote articles on events surrounding ballet and the Bolshoi and gave lectures, held screenings, and showed exhibitions from the Archive; he studied dance for two years in order to understand it better from a technical perspective. In 1985, Grell became active in founding the International Association of Friends of Soviet Ballet, serving as Vice President and Permanent Curator; Mikhail Lavrovsky and Vladimir Vasiliev served as Honorary Presidents; and Gennady Alfarenko (USSR), Olga Smoak (US), Gordon Partridge (US) as Acting Presidents. In January 1986, Grell founded the Ballet of the Bolshoi Theatre Archive as a nonprofit organization, with its major goals being to secure a permanent facility capable of supporting research and to create a master teacher program based in the Vaganova training syllabus (the training program established by Agrippina Vaganova). He also served on the Advisory Council for the International Dance Alliance, Ltd., and on the Advisory Board of the International Association of Friends of the Soviet Ballet. Supplementing his purchases of ballet-related materials, including films, dancers, teachers, choreographers, artists, and people from various venues sent brochures, booklets, photographs, books, artwork, scores, cassettes and other items; for exhibits, Grell framed the Bolshoi photographs in red and gold, and Kirov photographs in blue for exhibits. Grell attended International Ballet Competitions in 1985 and 1986, and served as liaison for the Russian contingent there. He expressed a desire that the Ballet Archive be sent to wherever the Bolshoi Ballet was performing in the United States, and purchased flowers to throw to principals after every performance.
In 1987, Grell organized a major exhibition in the foyer of the Grand Hall of the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion at the Music Center in Los Angeles, so that the audience could see the collection and then see the performances during the Bolshoi's three-week engagement there. The Archive's second major exhibition was held at the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles in 1990; both of these exhibitions coincided with Bolshoi appearances and focused on the dancers appearing and on the repertoire being performed at the time. Grell organized a third exhibition, for the La Muse Eternelle tour in Tokyo, Japan, in 1995. A fourth exhibition in 2000 covered the Bolshoi from 1956-2000, starting with the company’s first appearances at Covent Garden, London, in 1956, and its first US tour (1959).
Sources: Press Bulletin for the International Ballet Competition, Moscow 1989 and from document accompanying the video; from an exhibition text panel; from LA Times article, 8/12/87: The Bolshoi Ballet: One Man’s Hobby, by Julie Wheelock