Ivan Nagy, one of the great names in dance during the twentieth century, died yesterday in Budapest; he was 70-years-old.
Nagy was born on 28 April 1943 in Hungary. He trained first with his mother going on to perform with the Budapest State Opera Ballet. Frederic Franklin spotted the young man when Nagy won a silver medal at the International Ballet Competition at Varna in 1965. As director of the National Ballet of Washington at the time, Franklin invited Nagy to appear as a guest artist with the company. He went on to perform with the New York City Ballet and became a principal dancer with the American Ballet Theatre in 1968.
He danced with all the great ballerinas of his day including Margot Fonteyn and Carla Fracci, but it perhaps with Cynthia Gregory, Gelsey Kirkland and Natalia Makarova that he formed his most famous partnerships. Max Waldman’s iconic photo of Nagy and Markarova in Swan Lake is a fixture in dance shops everywhere. He said that he was always “a little in love with my partners.”
He retired when he was just 35 in 1978. Makarova said,
It is sad, a great loss. Ivan is in top form; he is quitting too soon.
Nagy insisted it was the right decision,
I’ve peaked. I want to go out gracefully. I always hoped I’d be smart enough to quit at the top. When you are young and supple, dancing is wonderful. When you’re older, you get rusty and it’s painful. I admire Garbo for not letting people see her deteriorate. I could never bear to watch myself going downhill.
Many predicted that there would be a comeback, but there never was. In the 60 days before his retirement gala with the American Ballet Theatre he performed 50 times.
Retirement was not something he regretted. In 1986 he said,
I was smart, for once in my life. I left five minutes early, but that is still better than leaving five minutes too late. And not once in the seven years have I wanted to go back to performing. It was a miserable love affair.
With his wife, ex-London Festival Ballet ballerina Marilyn Burr, he re-staged many repertoire ballets all over the world. He collaborated with the Ballet de Santiago, becoming its director in 1982, and brought them to New York in 1986 for their American début. He worked hard to whip the company into shape.
I had to be a dictator. They call me ‘the dictator’ openly. Every day I went to the theatre, they wanted to dig my grave and push me in.
Directing the company changed his view of dancers.
Dancers are the most wonderful people. I realize that as a director. As a dancer, I felt dancers were narrow-minded. Now I’ve come to realize they are one of the best breeds of people. They are so disciplined. They may wish you to drop dead, but once you are in bad shape they stand behind you.
He was also the Artistic Director of the Cincinnati/New Orleans Ballet until until 1989. He was also director of the English National Ballet for a short period, and 15 years ago he retired to Mallorca.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano’) about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman’s Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia’ column for Dancing Times magazine.