In London in 1970 the 29-year-old prima ballerina Natalia Makarova, performing with Leningrad’s Kirov Ballet (now St Petersburg’s Mariinsky Ballet) defected to the West.
Then in the summer of 1988 at the packed 3,200-seat Business Design Centre in London Makarova danced again with her former company, even though her career was ending (she had announced her retirement in 1986). She was 47.
Makarova had suffered many injuries, especially to her knees, and famously, in 1982, a piece of piping fell from the grid and hit her as the Slaughter on 10th Avenue ballet sequence began in On Your Toes. She was offstage for two months with contusions of the head and a shoulder injury.
In 1998, the Sydney Morning Herald quoted her as saying,
I have many injuries. It is better not to talk about them.
Nevertheless, it was her trademark ballet, Swan Lake, that she wished to perform again with her old company. She chose Konstantin Zaklinsky as her partner.
Many negotiations led up to her appearance. A few months before, two Kirov dancers performed in Makarova’s staging of La Bayadère with the American Ballet Theatre. Soon after that, she went to see the company performing in Turin where she caught a performance with Zaklinsky dancing, and she also discussed the possibility of dancing with the company with the Kirov’s artistic director, Oleg Vinogradov. It was at the Kirov’s opening night in London on 25 July 1988 that Vinogradov told her that a reunion might be possible. It was only the day before the performance that the Kremlin gave the okay.
A Kirov spokesman said,
It takes a long time for anything to happen in the Soviet Union. For every Gorbachev, there are others in the old guard who don’t want things to move as fast.
The second act adagio from Swan Lake wasn’t part of the programme, so the 24 costumes for the corps de ballet were borrowed from a company in London.
Natalia Makarova became the first Russian dancer to perform again with a Soviet company after defecting, a symbol of Mikhail Gorbachev’s glasnost.
After the performance she said,
It was emotional ecstasy. 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. I’m glad it’s over. I’m happy that I didn’t fall, that it wasn’t a major disaster.
There were just two hour-long rehearsals with Zaklinsky and one onstage. Looking at this video later, she said,
Given the circumstances, it was okay. It would have been better if we’d had more time to rehearse.
She is a wonderful dancer. There were circumstances that influenced her fate. But then the theatre was completely different. We are very pleased about what is taking place now in the theatre. One of these is that Natasha is dancing with us again.
In Makarova’s book, A Dance Autobiography, she wrote,
I left for England with a heavy heart, fed up with the repertoire. Frantic boredom and weariness were building up inside me.
But in 1988, The New York Times reported her saying this of the Kirov:
They’ve changed for the better, with stronger technique and a more contemporary style, but still with great tradition.
I’ve had 18 years of artistic freedom, and I’ve been very glad for what I did, but who knows? It’s a new theatre now, a different theatre. I can see new influences and more variety. If all that was there then, 18 years ago, maybe I would never have left.
A year later, in 1989, she was finally allowed to return to Russia, and see her mother again after 19 years.
The Soviet ambassador to London made the formal invitation to return to Leningrad on 20 January, and just two days later she was on the Kirov Theatre’s stage.
Makarova danced two pas de deux from Onegin with Alexander Sombart.
After the performance she said,
I have no words. I am so happy today. I could never imagine that one day I’d come back to dance on this stage.
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.