Starting a New Career at 42, Natalia Makarova Leaps from Ballet to Broadway and Lands on Her Toes

updated 04/04/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 04/04/1983 AT 01:00 AM EST

Stretched out on her cream-yellow satin bed in a baby-pink chemise, one limber leg pointed heavenward, a petite blonde peruses the morning gossip columns. Suddenly she backfires like a badly tuned Bugatti. "He went out with that big-boobed floozy!" she gasps in a thick-as-stew Russian accent. "I was true to that man for two months and look what does he do to me!" What may have made many a ballet purist gasp louder was that the two-timed spitfire was none other than Natalia Makarova, the world's leading prima ballerina, in a scene from the Broadway revival of the 1936 Rodgers & Hart musical On Your Toes. Makarova dazzled reviewers not only with her sexy dancing in the show's jazz ballet, Slaughter on Tenth Avenue, but also with a delicious display of comic talent and timing—a veritable Slavic Lucille Ball.

Newsweek's Jack Kroll called last month's opening "the second coming of Makarova," and so it was. The 42-year-old Russian defector has reached what amounts to senior citizenship in the physically punishing world of classical dance, and she had already failed twice to launch a new career. In 1980 she lost out to Mikhail Baryshnikov as the artistic director of the American Ballet Theatre, and that same year her attempt to start her own ballet troupe flopped.

But her Broadway success has not come cheaply. The show almost cost Makarova her life. Last Dec. 18, during a tryout at Washington, D.C.'s Kennedy Center, two massive pipes holding overhead scenery gave way and crashed to the stage during the second act. They hit the right side of Makarova's head, and the gash came within a hairbreadth of her brain. The 5'3", 94-pound star ended up with six stitches in her scalp and a fractured right shoulder blade. "What saved me," she reflects, "was a wig. Without that padding, there is no doubt that I would be dead." (During treatment, she deadpanned to an attending surgeon: "It's only the head. I can dance again.")

Her speedy recovery may have been, in part, a preemptive reaction to her beautiful and nearly 14-years-younger replacement, Bolshoi defector Valentina Kozlova. Makarova demurs: "Other people are sick. They allow themselves to rest. I never did. I think if I be like them, I don't go anywhere." The fight back included working out with a physical therapist. Ballet exercises came later, along with slight choreographic changes to avoid straining the mended shoulder.

When Makarova—Natasha to her friends—was first offered the role of the tempestuous ballerina, she thought it was a joke. "Natasha couldn't believe anybody wanted her to speak onstage in English," confides Dina Makarova (no relation), her assistant for the 13 years the dancer has been in the U.S. "She was like a little girl, constantly asking if she was doing all right. She was always afraid of not being understood by the audience. In the beginning if anyone came backstage, she asked: 'Could you understand me?' If there was even a phrase they didn't get, she would get me to write it down and work on it later."

Besides Makarova's three-hour daily ballet practice, she worked with a voice coach and audited Broadway shows, seeing four in one week. In her opulent Park Avenue co-op she would often nervously chain-smoke and work off her anxieties at the ballet barre. "From the very first day," Makarova confesses, "I secretly wanted to run away from it all."

It was the legendary George Balanchine, the choreographer for the original production, who gave Makarova her Broadway break by recommending her for the role before he fell ill last November with progressive cerebellar degeneration. Says director George Abbott, 95, who also staged the 1936 production: "She has an instinct for comedy." In the seduction scene in Act I, after reading of her boyfriend's infidelity, she attempts to seduce a naive young music teacher who comes to visit her. It was Makarova's idea to reach for the bed with her leg when he falls into her arms. "I don't know if Lucille Ball would have done better," says choreographer Donald Saddler, who worked on the musical numbers.

Makarova's ambitious dual career in New York keeps her away for long stretches from her third husband, multimillionaire industrialist Edward Karkar, 50, who lives in San Francisco. Their son, André Michel, 5, jets between parents. "He sleeps with me in the big bed when my husband is not around," says a doting Makarova.

Of course, she hasn't forgotten about her first love, ballet. This summer she'll appear at the Metropolitan Opera with the Roland Petit company, but admits to a certain uneasiness. "I'm almost frightened to go back," she says. "I'm so used to comedy now. Can you imagine dancing Swan Lake for laughs?"

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