Andris Liepa Leaps to the U.s., but with Glasnost the Bolshoi Star Can Go Home Again

UPDATED 05/29/1989 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 05/29/1989 at 01:00 AM EDT

There's nothing new about Bolshoi Ballet star Andris Liepa amazing audiences and fellow dancers with his leaps—he does that all the time—but last year he caused jaws to drop by merely stepping onto a stage. In December, Liepa visited a Bolshoi rehearsal in Moscow to chat with his friends. "I saw them gasp," he recalls. 'They are so surprised, they can't say to me nothing." The cause of amazement Liepa had been in the U.S. on a one year stint with New York's American Ballet Theatre—and he hadn't defected. Instead, Liepa, 27, the first top Soviet dancer ever allowed unlimited travel by his government, went home for vacation, then returned to his U.S. tour. Even he has trouble adjusting to his unusual freedom. "It's incredible—they give me multiple visa!" he says. "I don't need to ask anybody for permission."

Sometimes referred to by ABT director Mikhail Baryshnikov, who is his idol, as the "Perestroika Kid," Liepa has managed to straddle two worlds in his dancing as well as in his life. He has retained all the poetry and grandeur of the classic Soviet style while adapting to the more abstract technique favored in the U.S. After a seven-city tour that began last January, he is currently dazzling New York audiences in Swan Lake and Romeo and Juliet, among other works. "Andris Liepa justified his importation and then some," wrote the San Francisco Examiner, calling his Romeo "the very model of an impassioned, impulsive, star-crossed lover."

Liepa first became a glasnost beneficiary in 1986 as a member of the first Soviet group to enter the International Ballet Competition in Jackson, Miss. He and his partner took home the grand prize. The next year critics across this country hailed him as "superb" and "enormously engaging" when the Bolshoi made a historic U.S. tour, ending an eight-year cultural exchange freeze that began with the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan. Early last year precedent was again shattered when Liepa and his Bolshoi partner, Nina Ananiashvili, were allowed to join the New York City Ballet for a month. At a dinner party during that run, Liepa met Baryshnikov and told him of his desire to spend a season learning the ABT repertoire. Baryshnikov extended the invitation. Moscow quickly approved. Liepa eagerly accepted. "If they give to us new freedom," he says, "we need to use."

Shortly after he arrived last September, Liepa wed American Vivian MacMurry, 37, a UN secretary he had met at the Mississippi competition. He says the liaison was actually set up by his mother, actress Margarita Zhigunova, who had befriended the MacMurry family when Vivian's father was stationed in Moscow as a Pan Am exec. Liepa insists he does not intend to defect, à la Baryshnikov, Rudolf Nureyev, Alexander Godunov and Natalia Makarova. "To defect is to cut half of yourself," he says, "it's very strange situation to know you can't go anymore to your country, see anymore your friends. your family."

Liepa (who has been married once before) and Vivian rent a one-bedroom Manhattan apartment. They haven't decided what they'll do after his ABT year ends. "Who knows?" he says. "Maybe Vivian will find some job in Russia. Maybe I will stay here one more year. Or if there are people who will give me interesting work in China, I will go to China." Fascinated by America, he now lugs a video camera wherever he goes. His weekly SI ,200 ABT salary far exceeds the 100 rubles a week (about $160) he earns back home, but it disappears just as fast. "We don't pay taxes in Russia," he says. "And we use just cash. Now I have American Express, and it's like some kind of magic. You give to the store your card, and you get everything you want! When I got my first bill, it was terrible."

Money was never a problem in the Liepa household when Andris and his sister, Ilze, 25, were growing up. His father was Bolshoi star Maris Liepa, and Andris began dancing at 7, entering the Bolshoi school at 10. At 18, he was accepted into the company, and for three years he danced in minor roles. Then in 1984 he was suddenly asked to substitute for a lead dancer in a Moscow competition. Rejecting his father's advice to decline ("He said, 'If you win nothing, it will be very bad' "), he entered and won a silver medal. "I think he didn't always believe I had the possibility to be a good dancer," Liepa says. "But I'm glad, because later when I got from him some good words, it felt real good." When Maris died of a heart attack at 52 last March, Andris interrupted his ABT tour to fly home for a memorial service. "I was shocked," he says. "He didn't have a problem with his heart." To an extent he has found a second paternal figure in his "great teacher" Baryshnikov, who knew Maris and is now "my boss and I'm his dancer."

Wherever Liepa goes, people ask him what will happen if glasnost fails. "It's impossible to turn politic back," he says. "What happens now is a revolution without blood. Gorbachev is trying to change the mentality of a full country. It's really difficult work. But I believe in this way." He is also pioneering it.

—Ron Arias, Michael Small in New York

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