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.
I saw him dance so many times in New York – he was very elegant, and sexy too. Such a believable prince. RIP.
Sad news. he was so sweet and charming. A delicate man, but noble on stage. I can’t believe I was watching him in the 70s. Seems a lifetime away, but I remember him vividly. Thank you Ivan.
He was an elegant dancer, and his ballerinas frequently expressed how secure they felt with him as a partner. I was sorry to see him retire, and am saddened to know he is gone now.
A big loss, a great artist!
He was a wonderful dancer always loved seeing him. He was also gorgeous and sexy!
I am so sad to hear this. ivan was a true and noble gentleman. I worked with him at ABT when I was company choreologist and coached him in “Firebird” and other ballets. he was a wonderful dancer and partner.and so witty with a remarkable sense of humor. Everyone loved Ivan. He was a friend to everyone.He retired from dancing far too early but I understand his explanation..Another great human being gone. So sad.
A great dancer, great director, great teacher and great human being!!!!!RIP
One of the greatest, most generous people I have
ever had the good fortune to meet. He was my friend,mentor and even my landlord. You will be deeply missed Ivan. Godspeed <3
So sad. Ivan was a man of great generosity, charm and a very Taurean sense of humour! As a ballet photographer, I was able to observe his work directing and coaching dancers- so many who owe their careers to him as he nurtured them through progressive roles. My thoughts go out to Marilyn and their daughters. A true Prince of ballet. ….. “Good night sweet Prince and flights of angels sing thee to thy rest”.
Marilyn, our love and thoughts are with you and the girls. Let us know what we can do. He shall be missed and I shall miss our brief encounters in Chile. Love and peace,
Such a great dancer. So glad he left while doing something he loved.
We will miss him so much, such a lovely family member and all round amazing individual. I’ll never forget him. My prayers go out to all my family and especially Marilyn and Aniko, thank you for everyones kind words regarding my uncles passing, I’m so glad he touched so many peoples lives in so many ways. Thank you all <3
Ivan, your uncle was all the things you read here. I had the honor to know him when I first started dancing in New York as a young man and then to work under him in Cincinnati Ballet, then with my own fledgling company in Chicago. I first met Aniko and Tatiana as young children and got to see them grow up. Meredith Benson, my wife and I have great fond, and everlasting memories of both Ivan and Marilyn. This news of his death has touched us deeply. More deeply than I would have imagined. Ivan was not an easy man to know but, he was beautiful, kind, generous and an inspiring artist in the true measure of the word. We will miss him greatly.
Ivan, You are an Icon of Nobilty in the art of ballet. It was an honor to be a part of your life in Santiago. Even more of a privilege to watch you perform. What an ispiration for me.
One of the greatest partners and worst directors I’ve ever had to work with.
Marilyn, Aniko and Tati……Much Love, Hiller
Funnily enough my clearest memories of watching Ivan Nagy was not of Siegfried or Albrecht but as Iago in the Moor’s Pavane. He was so good it took my breath away and I wished he would add more of those marvelous acting roles to his repertory. I think the Moor was Eric Bruhn and have no idea who the women were .. But I remember Ivan Nagy ……….
Yes, yes! Moor’s Pavane! What wonderful memories… RIP
Really sad news. A great inspiration to all.
A great ballerina salutes a great colleague… the greats in each generation being an inspiration to the next. Thank you Ivan. Thank you Tamara.
He was indeed sexy…. and noble. I will never forget class with him right after he retired. I could barely focus on my dancing… those legs. And he was so inspiring… and young. At the time I didn’t realise how early he retired. Sad.
I will always miss my dear friend Ivan, the best moments in my life have been with you and dear Marilyn.,You were the best, ALWAYS IN MY MEMORY, BEN Dear Marilyn, I am thinkng of you.
My deepest sympathy to Marilyn and the family. It is very sad….I’ll always remember him, great dancer and an amazing human being. I had a leap of faith to freedom thanks to him. Forever in my heart, Ivan.
My deepest sympathy to Marilyn and family. Oh how I remember our good times together in Santiago, going to my beach house and having fun. He was the only one I accepted who called me a bitch!!!! and he has his special rhyme for me, Lindy Windy. He will be surely lost in the ballet world.
Love Lynda Kamerling
I recall the night at ABT at the Met when he partnered Gelsey Kirkland in her Swan Lake debut, so gorgeous and elegant. The true prince and partner. The audience loved him as much as her. Just thrilling. Many great memories…..
“Where are you from?” asked the socialite hostess of the after- performance party. “i am Hungary.”, responded Ivan. “Oh, get them the food, they are hungry”, announced the socialite. A bit later, she approached Ivan again. “So, where are you from?” “I am Hungary”. “Bring more food, they are still hungry”, announced the socialite again. When much later the somewhat embarrassed hostess again approached us to again asked Ivan’s origin, I complied that he was Hungarian and that the food was very good and there was plenty of it. ( this was not the only time he got us food first at after parties on tour)
Among the many fun moments I enjoyed as Ivan’s room-mate on ABT’s tours.
Ivan was a good, good person and important to the morale of the company, certainly! Our thoughts are with Marilyn.
Bob Brassel and Linda Dibona
The Greatest gift that Ivan Nagy and dear Marilyn gave me was the opportunity to be a Mother and Dancer at the same time.He believed in his dancers more then we believed in ourselves, personally and professionally. For this I am eternally grateful.
Ivan,you are always in my Heart. Marilyn my Respects, my heart goes out to you.
Love Always, Nadya Zybine Padilla
It has been an extremely long time since Queens College….
E. Anthony White
Today I took from my bookshelf John Gruen’s “The Private World of Ballet” (1975) to hand to my ballet-dancing daughter. I fondly looked at the photo of Ivan Nagy, remembering the many times I watched him dance with ABT in the late 1970s in NYC. I hadn’t realized he’d past away this year…so very sad. A dream dancer who left us with many beautiful memories of his performances.