Ballet's Kozlovs Leapt from the Bolshoi Straight into the Arms of a Suburban Mortgage

updated 11/03/1980 at 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/03/1980 01:00AM

When Soviet dancers Valentina and Leonid Kozlov defected during a Bolshoi tour in Los Angeles last year, Valentina's mother didn't fault the devious West. She blamed Leonid. "He's crazy, but not you," she told her only child between sobs during telephone conversations. "Come home."

But Valentina, 26, and Leonid, 33, had not been impetuous, and the decision was not unilateral. They had brooded about it all six years of their marriage. Valentina looked forward to the freedom to attend church services, which had been frowned on by the Bolshoi management. And both dreamed of a political carte blanche to dance anywhere in the world.

Unlike previous defectors—Rudolf Nureyev (1961), Natalia Makarova (1970), Mikhail Baryshnikov (1974) and Aleksandr Godunov (24 days before the Kozlovs)—Leonid and Valentina were not superstars, and their move was a professional gamble. "Our defection was surprise to the Russian and American people," says Leonid in his serviceable if not exactly fluent English.

After appearing in Romeo and Juliet, the final performance of the Bolshoi's U.S. tour last September 16, the Kozlovs walked toward a backstage garage door at the Shriners Auditorium in L.A. Since the door was usually locked, the dozen or so KGB agents traveling with the troupe paid no attention. But the Kozlovs had arranged to have it open and, carrying only small "dance" bags containing makeup, leotards and ballet shoes, they stepped out into freedom. "Fifty steps for us like whole life," recalls Valentina. Not wanting to endanger the American friend who had helped plot their escape, they avoided going to his house, spending the first night parked nearby in a Volkswagen van. After a fitful rest, Valentina opened her blue-gray eyes at 6 a.m. and smiled at Leonid: "This new life?" she recalls joking. "No air conditioner? Small car? It's bad."

The Kozlovs don't explain their defection in political terms—and perhaps they cannot, for more than linguistic reasons: Their families remain in the Soviet Union. Certainly the couple had never suffered materially. Bolshoi principals lead privileged VIP lives. The Kozlovs had an enormous (by Soviet standards) two-bedroom apartment, a summer house and a Fiat.

They were, of course, penniless when they defected, and some help came from Russian cellist-conductor Mstislav Rostropovich, who lent them $2,000. "He also gave us two free lessons in life in United States," recalls Leonid. "Not to read critics after performance because garbage. And to find addresses of agents." They were grateful for both tips. Their reviews have been complimentary, if not extravagant, anyway. And with the help of the Dubé Takin ballet agency, they have built new careers.

When they left, one Bolshoi colleague said, "Nobody liked Kozlov anyway." If that comment was, as they suspect, forced by the KGB, they've still had to convince the Western dance world. "There is a great deal of pressure to produce as a defector," explains New York ballet coach Robert Blankshine, "and it's nerve-racking. They have had to work like bastards."

The contrast of styles between the acrobatic classical Bolshoi school and the varied, subtler American ballets hasn't helped. "Valentina," says choreographer Luk de Layress, "has more of an artistic quality, and Leonid is probably a better technician. But they have almost too much energy."

Another problem, adds a conductor friend, George Daugherty, is that "a lot of American dancers are indignant about the Kozlovs because they are in a position sometimes to command a lucrative fee. But they are always helpful to younger artists, and artistically, they deserve what they are getting."

The Kozlovs have performed, individually or together, in Britain, South America, Australia and across North America the past year. Their earnings helped provide a down payment on a $250,000, six-bedroom home in a New York suburb. Among other capitalist possessions, they now own an Olds Toronado and videocassette recorder, which they have found to be an invaluable rehearsal aid.

Neither was ever exactly proletarian in upbringing. Both Kozlovs were born in Moscow. Leonid's father, now dead, was a construction engineer, as was his mother. Valentina's father deserted his family before she was 2, and her mother, a technical supervisor for the phone company, encouraged her to join a children's ballet company at 7. She made the Bolshoi school at 9 and danced her first full-length ballet at 12.

Leonid, who began studying at 10, was already a lead in the Bolshoi when he saw Valentina, 18, apprenticing in the ballet Paquita during an American tour in 1973. "She had a lot of admirers," he recalls. "Men like her, including famous choreographer at the Bolshoi." Two months later they married. "My mother and sister say, 'This is very quickly,' " says Leonid. "But I answer, 'I'm 26; two months is enough for me.' "

They have maintained their ties with the mother country, as attested by phone bills of up to $250 a month even though they are concerned about KGB taps. "I have many friends in Russia I not call," says Leonid, "because I know people have trouble." They send gifts less hesitantly. So far there have been three cowboy outfits for Leonid's nephew, a sheepskin coat for his sister, a Gucci fur for his mother, and gold earrings and a ring for Valentina's mother.

They expect to keep the luxuries coming. A book-and-movie package based on their lives is in the works, and Valentina is just finishing a tour of Australia dancing Anna Karenina. ("You will come back," teased Leonid before she left. "I don't know," replied Valentina. "If I hear you're not behaving I might not.") They also are staging their own full-length Swan Lake, to debut in Chile next spring.

When home, Valentina cooks such native dishes as salanka (sauerkraut with sausage and ham) as well as Leonid's new favorite, hot dogs. They like to listen to jazz and watch TV—the Astaire-Rogers films, a Grease cassette and Columbo reruns are favorites. Valentina attends Russian Orthodox services freely for the first time since childhood.

They hope to start a family soon. "I like five or six children," says Leonid. Counters Valentina, "Ah, no! One or two." Both also dream of being surrounded by older relatives, and hope the Soviet government might be more disposed to allow grandmothers to emigrate. "Valentina have child," speculates Leonid. "So ask Russian government, we would like to have one grandmother." "Maybe two," adds Valentina. "It be nice."

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