Ballerina Natalia Makarova
But the birches are hardly corps material. They are more like their ballerina owner, refusing to vanish into the background. Against the surrounding green, their white trunks stand out with startling grace.
Some things aren’t meant to fit in.
There was no hammering Makarova into another member of the corps. Her delicate figure, barely 5 feet tall, conceals the backbone of a test pilot, a CEO, a commander. She started dancing late, at 13. Within a decade, she had climbed to the top ranks of Russia’s Kirov (now Mariinsky) Ballet.
Natalia Makarova appears at a tribute to her career at Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater in New York. (Liza Voll/AP)
And then she walked away.
It was 1970, and Makarova was on tour with the company in London.
“Something tell me this is the moment,” she recalls in fractured English. “I cry like crazy. Cry.” She trills her R’s luxuriously in the rumbling accent of her native St. Petersburg.
A finger strays to one of her gold hoop earrings as she describes her sudden impulse at 29 to make the most important move of her life. She was tired of losing parts to lesser dancers with party ties. She was bored with her repertoire of classics and Communist drivel with names like “Russian Boat Coming to Port.”
Most of all, Makarova feared that her prized spontaneity onstage would evaporate. So she swallowed her tears and told the English friends she was visiting to call the police.
In one decisive moment, Makarova became the first ballerina to defect from the Soviet Union, escaping in the thick of the Cold War.
Agents from Scotland Yard arrived and took her into protection. She was granted asylum the next day, then whisked into the woods outside London to evade the KGB. Ten days later, she was on her own.
“Being spontaneous, it’s what saved me,” she says.
She is a believer in fate, and you’re inclined to go along with her. There is something invincible about this woman.
For one thing, there is no budging her from her refusal to be photographed. Dreading the cameras that will follow her this weekend when she receives the Kennedy Center Honors, she has no interest in sitting for portraits.
Yet at 72 she is stunningly photogenic. If an artist were to sketch her, she’d be all long lines topped by a firm jaw and tilted blue eyes. Age has softened the catlike angularity of her face, though her cheekbones still assert themselves under translucent skin. Wearing a gray velour tracksuit and a silk headscarf knotted behind one ear, she is a mix of California casual and 1970s retro chic.
There were some who doubted that the young ballerina would survive, striking out on her own nine years after Rudolf Nureyev’s arrival with no English, no money, no immediate job offers.
“Many people thought I would never succeed, because I am so Russian.” Makarova laughs in the low, rolling chuckle that accompanies much of what she says on this recent afternoon, having settled herself into a chair in a sitting room. “So Russian, hundred percent.”
She means the sentimental Russian, comforted by birch trees; the soulful Russian of Tolstoy and Pushkin. “Passion. Openness,” she continues. “The opposite of formalism.
“That’s why Russian school is unique. You stand at the barre ” she gets to her feet and reaches an arm into the air.
“And already you breathe: And one.” She inhales on an imaginary musical cue, her spine lifts on the updraft and suddenly this tiny woman looms, growing upward even in stillness.
“It comes from the center,” she says. “Something sublime happens to you.”
Something sublime. This was Makarova’s mark, her ability in performance to pass through technique and arrive at an elevated state of being. When she eventually landed at American Ballet Theatre, this quality made her an instant sensation.
It wasn’t for her technical pizazz that she became ABT’s most coveted star she had a long struggle with the mechanics of ballet due to her late start. Besides, ABT already had technicians. What audiences surrendered to was Makarova’s interpretive command. The legato lusciousness of her dancing, the unhurried responsiveness of her upper body and arms: This was new.
In”Giselle’s” graveyard scene, she made you believe she had entered an otherworldly state from her first steps, rolling through her replica hermes jumbo hook
feet as if she were treading on mist rather than solid ground. Dramatic roles were her strength the desperate romantics of Frederick Ashton’s “A Month in the Country” or John Cranko’s “Onegin” which she shaped with a supple, unforced precision and immersive acting. In the elasticity and length of her phrasing, in her qualities of yearning and escape, Makarova made the human dream life visible.
“She didn’t look like anybody else,” says ballet star Mikhail Baryshnikov, who was a few years behind her at the Kirov. “She had that mystery and extraordinary coordination and freedom and total transparency.”
“I haven’t seen any better ‘Giselle’ than Natasha,” he adds, using Makarova’s pet name. “It is more interesting… Nobody else has been that deep and tender and arresting and touching and that powerful.”.