Glasnost Glitters as Ballerina Natalia Makarova Dances Again with Russia's Kirov Ballet

updated 08/22/1988 at 01:00 AM EDT

originally published 08/22/1988 01:00AM

It was in London, on a summer evening in 1970, that Natalia Makarova, a dazzling 29-year-old prima ballerina with Leningrad's renowned Kirov ballet, shocked the dance world by defecting to the West. It would be 18 years before the fabled troupe would return to London, and when it did, there was another shock buried in the program notes for the Aug. 6 performance. Listed along with the Kirov principals was the dancer who would perform the lead role of Odette in the Swan Lake adagio—none other than Natalia Makarova herself.

As the first Russian dancer permitted to perform again with a Soviet company after defecting, Makarova would become a remarkable human symbol of glasnost, Mikhail Gorbachev's daring design for a more open Soviet society. To the doyens of international ballet, Makarova's appearance promised an especially poignant moment—a reunion between one of the world's most revered ballet companies and one of the greatest ballerinas of her time.

Tension mounted as the sellout audience of 3,200 at a London design center waited expectantly through four opening selections. At precisely 9:28 p.m., Makarova, now 47 and in the twilight of an illustrious career, glided onstage, surrounded by 24 elegant Kirov swan "maidens. At the close of Makarova's flawless, nine-minute performance, the audience erupted into a thunderous, three-minute ovation. The dancer, a sheen of perspiration—and a giddy grin—on her finely boned face, accepted a bouquet of roses and plucked one, which she kissed and presented to her Russian partner, Konstantin Zaklinsky. Later, in a joint curtain call, the other dancers gave Makarova the honor of the last solo bow. Then she briefly turned her back to the audience, and curtsied deeply to the Kirov ensemble. "It was emotional ecstasy," she said later, backstage. "I was so nervous I was shaking, shaking like I have never done before. I wanted this moment for 18 years. I never dreamed I would be able to dance with the Kirov so soon."

Or at all. On this evening there were no reminders of the bitter rift that opened in the wake of Makarova's anguished defection. In the years prior to the Kirov's 1970 tour of Britain, says Makarova, she had become frustrated with the company's limited repertoire. Late on the night of Sept. 4, after an unchaperoned evening with friends, she placed a fateful call to Scotland Yard to request political asylum. "I could only think about how I was going to survive without my home, without my language, how I could start life anew," she says. If she did long for her old troupe, she could never admit it. "The idea of appearing with the Kirov never crossed my mind because the political situation was so bad. I was considered a criminal."

After her defection, Makarova made a triumphant debut in the U.S. with American Ballet Theatre. But as her star rose in the West, bringing her fame and wealth, Makarova was quickly relegated to nonperson status in the Soviet Union.

Last week's reunion came only after months of finely crafted negotiation behind the scenes. Over the years Makarova, now a British citizen, has had only fleeting contact with the Kirov, but recently there were more substantive encounters. In May two Kirov dancers were granted permission to perform in ABT's La Bayadère staged by Makarova at New York's Metropolitan Opera House. A month later, Makarova traveled to Italy to catch Kirov performances in Turin and discuss plans for a joint appearance with Oleg Vinogradov, the Kirov's artistic director and chief choreographer. On July 25, while attending the Kirov's opening performance in London, Makarova learned from Vinogradov that a reunion might actually be possible.

It was not until the day before the performance that the Soviet ambassador to Britain, Leonid Zamyatink, brought word of final clearance from the Kremlin. "It takes a long time for anything to happen in the Soviet Union," said a Kirov spokesman. "For every Gorbachev, there are others in the old guard who don't want things to move as fast." Onstage there was evidence of the hastily added Swan Lake adagio. The 24 Kirov corps de ballet members who appeared with Makarova wore costumes decorated with feathers borrowed from a London ballet company.

Twenty-nine years ago the prima ballerina had danced the same moody adagio as a graduation piece at Leningrad's Vaganova School. Makarova found that powerful echoes from her past made the recent performance in London seem dreamlike. She was, she said later, "not conscious" when she stepped on stage. The critics, as ever, were enraptured. "She always dances larger than life," reported The Times of London, "and with an emotional quality that was heightened this time by her sense of homecoming." Makarova, said the Independent, lived up to "her legend as one of the finest ballerinas of our time."

Mobbed backstage by Kirov dancers who hugged and kissed her, the danseuse was joined by her husband, San Francisco businessman Edward Karkar, and their 10-year-old son, Andrusha, in a bouquet-crowded dressing room. "I'm glad it's over," she said. "I'm happy that I didn't fall, that it wasn't a major disaster." Later, watching a videotape of her performance, she was characteristically self-critical: "Given the circumstances, it was okay," but, "It would have been better if we'd had more time to rehearse." In fact, there had been only two secret one-hour practices and a single onstage rehearsal with her partner Zaklinsky. "He looked strong and handsome, and he was a good partner," says Makarova, who picked Zaklinsky after watching him dance in Turin. "When I asked him, he was ecstatic."

Makarova realizes that times have changed since her own defection. "There is no necessity for that now," she says. The Kirov dancers "are more free than I was 18 years ago. I left the company to have the kind of artistic freedom they have today. The life of a ballerina is very short. I couldn't have spent those 18 years doing the same thing. I knew I had this talent and had to use it fully. I never regret anything in my life. I try never to look at the past."

The Kirov's response to the return of the prodigal was warm but diplomatically muted. "This should not be seen as a political event," said Vinogradov. "This is a normal human approach. We would very much like everyone to understand this correctly."

No one seems to understand more correctly than Makarova herself. Since her defection, she has not been permitted to return to the Soviet Union, and a travel visa for her mother, Kapitolina, 69, has been denied. She has not seen her family in 18 years. But, bolstered by the euphoria of her London performance, Makarova hopes she may yet be allowed to realize one final ambition—to end her ballet career in the land of her birth, dancing one last time on the Kirov stage in Leningrad. But she knows that if that should happen, it must happen quickly. "It must be soon," says the fabled ballerina wistfully, "because I don't have much time left to dance."

—By Susan Schindehette, with Fred Hauptfuhrer in London

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