Ballet's Gypsies, the Panovs, Find An Artistic Home and An End to Their Long Ordeal

updated 07/14/1980 AT 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 07/14/1980 AT 01:00 AM EDT

When West Germany's Berlin Ballet begins a month-long American tour this week in Manhattan, the opening night splash will mean more than the arrival of Europe's fastest-rising company. For celebrated dancers Valery and Galina Panov, the tour marks the triumphant end of a terrible personal ordeal. They are dancing with Rudolf Nureyev in Valery's widely praised production of The Idiot. Says Galina of the new stability of their careers and of her husband's emergence as a choreographer: "It's a miracle."

Eight years ago, when the Panovs were with Leningrad's famed Kirov Ballet, they feared they might never dance again. Valery, who is half Jewish, had applied to emigrate to Israel, provoking a harrowing series of reprisals from Soviet officials. Eventually he was dismissed from the Kirov, where he was the company's leading dramatic dancer, and professionally ostracized. He was also briefly imprisoned and harassed by the KGB (which in one instance even tried to poison his tea). Meanwhile, Galina, a Gentile, was urged to leave Valery. She resigned the company rather than accept a humiliating demotion from a blossoming Kirov soloist to the anonymous corps de ballet. Finally their government reluctantly allowed them to emigrate, in 1974.

What might have been a happy ending was the start of more difficulties. The Panovs soon discovered that Israel has no first-rate classical ballet company. Worse, unlike such defectors as Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov, the Panovs were unable to find a professional home with London's Royal Ballet or New York's American Ballet Theatre. Insiders hinted at professional jealousy—Valery had succeeded Nureyev and had competed with Baryshnikov at the Kirov—and wondered if he would be able to adapt to Western choreography. Panov was further hindered by leg injuries resulting from his two-year enforced layoff from performing. Some suggested that at 35 Valery could never recover his prime. (Nureyev defected at 23, and Baryshnikov was 26.) "When I first left the Soviet Union, I thought nothing worse could happen," Valery recalls. "Then after a while I felt like Job. I kept asking, 'Why me?' "

Desperate, the Panovs became ballet gypsies, booked into such unlikely venues as Philadelphia's 19,500-seat Spectrum. "I did not want to dance in stadiums like the rock stars," Valery says. "But I thought that was what it means to be a superstar in the West." One Christmas, having gotten into a six-figure litigation to escape what they considered an exploitation contract, the couple wound up alone in a tacky vagrant hotel on Manhattan's West Side. "I wept," Valery admits in his still-broken English. "I was not even sure I wanted to dance anymore."

Enter choreographer Alvin Ailey, a supportive friend who brought over a surprise Christmas dinner for the Panovs and encouraged them to keep dancing. In 1977 they joined the little-known Berlin Ballet as regular guest artists. Since then they have contributed to its international recognition as one of Europe's most exciting companies. When Bolshoi defector Aleksandr Godunov made his Western debut last January, it was with the Berlin company in Giselle. Next week, when the company moves from New York to Washington, the Panovs will repeat their personal and artistic pas de deux at the Kennedy Center.

Since their Berlin comeback, Galina and Valery have spent only vacations in their penthouse apartment in East Jerusalem. Galina miscarried her only pregnancy before their stressful flight from the Soviet Union, and they are thinking of a family again. "She keeps saying, 'Oh, I am getting too old, and I must have them tomorrow,' " reports Valery, who at 41 is 10 years older than his wife. "But she's dancing better and better and does not want to give that up yet." Then he asserts with convincing Russian determination: "We will have children."

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