Natalia Makarova 2018
- William Bracewell
- Reece Clarke
- Jonathan Howells
- Daria Klimentova
- Sarah Lamb
- Natalia Makarova
- Alastair Marriot
- Kristen McNally
- Irek Mukhamedov
- Yasmine Naghdi
- Victoria Norris
- Kevin O'Hare
- Davi Ramos
- Francisco Serrano
- Thiago Soares
- Gearold Solan
- Charlotte Tonkinson
Former Prima Ballerina, The Kirov Ballet
interviewed by David Bain
Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, September 26 2018
The evening began with a film about Natalia (Natasha) Makarova using material from her personal archives. This spanned her career, in all its many facets, and included:
- video clips of rehearsals both when she was dancing (e.g. Giselle with Alexander Sombart) and when she was coaching others (La Bayadère with ABT);
- having works made on her (such as Other Dances with Jerome Robbins);
- performances including Tatiana in Onegin with Reid Anderson; Manon, Romeo and Juliet and Black Swan with Anthony Dowell; and White Swan with Ivan Nagy; and
- photographs including Giselle with Baryshnikov and on social occasions with numerous world famous people.
There were also many ‘talking heads’ beginning with Sergei Vikulov her partner at the Kirov who said that Natasha represented the natural embodiment of the Russian romantic style and that his best moments on stage had been with her in Giselle. Yuliana Lopatkina (Mariinsky) mentioned that she had particularly studied the way in which Natasha achieved the appearance of complete weightlessness and had tried to emulate that
Kevin MacKenzie (now Director of ABT), who danced with her in the US, spoke of Natasha’s particular talent for death scenes where one “could feel the life going out of her body” and fully understand the difference between being a dancer and being an artist.
Natasha herself spoke to camera of asking Robbins, at one point, what she should do and receiving the reply, “You yourself know best”
Natasha herself spoke to camera of asking Robbins, at one point, what she should do and receiving the reply, “You yourself know best”. When auditioning for On Your Toes,the Director (George Abbott) had commented that Natasha could act and speak, whereupon Balanchine, who was choreographing the show, had enquired, “But can she dance?” This story was followed by an extract from the “Slaughter on Tenth Avenue” number from On Your Toesand a clip of Natasha picking up a Tony Award for her performance in that show in 1983.
Her versatility was also exemplified by a sequence in which, dressed as a swan and speaking to an audience from the stage, she said that “the life of a ballerina is not always paved with flowers and applause – sometimes there are disasters”. She went on relate how her entry as Odette had once gone awry because the lift mechanism which was meant to crank her up from the lake for her first entrance as Odette had got stuck! [This clip is available on YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=03u9wE8C_3M]
The film started with La Sylphide in Russia where, Natasha said, Leonid Jacobson had made her his muse and had “moulded her” and gave her “belief and expressiveness”. However, although she had all the roles she could dream about, everything seemed to Natasha to be predictable and she became afraid that she would lose herself and not find inspiration anymore.
The moment of decision came in London in 1970 when, without any real planning, she felt she wanted to stay. Her first performance in the West was the Black Swan pas de deux with Nureyev for the BBC (1970).
Natasha said that she had never had any regrets. She had had the opportunity to work with all the great choreographers of the 20th Century: Tudor; Ailey, Balanchine, MacMillan, Ashton, Cranko, Bejart, Robbins, Neumeier and Petit. Moreover, having danced Juliet as a very young girl, she had been able to revisit the role and approach it from a position of maturity in a way which, she felt, conveyed more yet was, at the same time, simpler than her earlier portrayals.
Glasnost enabled Natasha to return to her home city of St Petersburg and to the Kirov in 1989, dancing Onegin with Alexander Sombart. Feeling that the circle was then complete, she retired from dancing almost immediately afterwards.
Natasha was then welcomed into the room with prolonged applause.
David first read from correspondence from her long-term assistant (Dina Makarova) as follows: Clement Crisp wrote for The Kennedy Center Awards Program in 2012:
“It is perhaps Natalia Makarova’s legacy beyond her own performances that may prove the most lasting influence on American and worldwide ballet. Called “the eternal godmother of La Bayadère” by the New York Times, she has been on a mission to nourish and revitalize the tradition of classical ballet…. But it is La Bayadère that best embodies Makarova’s influence on classical ballet in our time.”
Reminding everyone that she was in London to stage La Bayadère for the Royal Ballet (RB), David then asked Natasha what her memories of the ballet were as a dancer. The quick reply was, “A disaster!”
Reminding everyone that she was in London to stage La Bayadère for the Royal Ballet (RB), David then asked Natasha what her memories of the ballet were as a dancer. The quick reply was, “A disaster!” Apparently, at her first performance as Nikiya, the long scarf in the ‘white act’ pas de deux got caught round her neck just as she was starting the sequence of pirouettes and “it just got tighter”. Before that, in her first year in the Kirov Ballet, Natasha had learnt the steps for the ‘parrot dance’ (a feature of Russian productions) but had not had the opportunity to rehearse holding a parrot. Suddenly, she found herself replacing an injured dancer and her confusion with the parrot caused the audience to burst out laughing. She herself thought that her mistakes would mean that she would never be given another chance. Instead, Yuri Grigorovich, the then Director, called her into his office and told her, “Tomorrow you start to learn Nikiya”. Despite this outcome, Natasha decided to use fans rather than parrots in her own production.
Natasha’s love for La Bayadère dates from her student days. They were taken to see all the Kirov performances and this was her favourite ballet because of “its eccentricity, its sensuality and its mysticism” but also for its classicism. All the major ballerinas at that time danced the role and all found it so different from other works in the repertoire. Natasha remains fascinated by the romantic plot because of how love and betrayal are portrayed and because such themes are “eternal”.
She had first staged the ballet for American Ballet Theatre (ABT) in May 1980 and, at the invitation of Anthony Dowell, she brought it across to the RB in 1989. Most Russian productions had, by then, lost the last act (they finish with the ‘shades’) but she wanted to re-create that act. Consequently the structure of her La Bayadère is different insofar as the Russian Acts 1 and 2 are condensed into Act 1, with some character dances omitted and the ‘white act’ being the middle act rather than the final one.
Natasha has not herself changed her production over the years, saying that the audiences were, and continue to be, very responsive. However, each generation of dancers has given it a different look, especially in terms of their physicality.
Referring back to what she had explained in the film about leaving Russia, David asked Natasha to say more about what had prompted this decision. She replied, “Because I had this insatiable artistic hunger for new roles”. Touring in the West, as she had done, had introduced her to “many possibilities to grow and have an exciting artistic life”. She repeated that she had really been Leonid Yacobson’s muse and had therefore had many roles created on her, but “one choreographer is not enough”. In addition, friends had told her that she risked killing her talent if she did not leave. “So I chose freedom”, she said.
Natasha had imagined initially that, as she had defected in London, she would join the Royal Ballet. But, because an invitation came quickly from the ABT, she accepted that. Her association with the Royal Ballet therefore came a little later, firstly through an invitation to dance with Donald MacLeary in a gala in honour of Dame Ninette be Valois. Then, in 1972, she was invited to dance Giselle with Anthony Dowell.
From 1974 onwards, Natasha danced many MacMillan roles, including Manon, and was very attracted to, and affected by, the way he portrayed women in dance. Encouraged by David, Natasha then told the story of how she had nearly missed a performance of Manon. Following a gala in Madrid for the Queen of Spain, her plane had been late leaving and then circled before landing, seemingly for hours, during which time she had tried to stretch in the toilet. It didn’t land at Heathrow but she managed to get her suitcases quite quickly and head for the train – only to find that she was going in the wrong direction. Once en route, she put on her stage make-up on the train and, because her assistant was at the station with a car, she managed to arrive at the Royal Opera House 30 minutes before curtain up. By that point, Jennifer Penney was also there, fully ready to go on in her place. But, in Natasha’s view, this performance ended up being her best Manon.
At this point in the interview, Natasha mentioned working with Jerome Robbins on Other Dances,saying that there were limitations on the amount of new work she could undertake because she was contracted to ABT. She then rehearsed the names of all the great 20th Century choreographers who had been mentioned in the film (list above), adding that the piece created by John Neumeier had been for her and Erik Bruhn.
She also repeated the story from the film of her audition for On Your Toesand Balanchine’s comment, “But can she dance?” In this case, as with the straight theatre which Natasha had also done, her first step was to read the script. She referred to a Noel Coward play at the Chichester Festival Theatre in which having to stand still and deliver a monologue had been a huge challenge for her.
Asked to talk about her time as a guest with the Royal Ballet, Natasha began by referring to Song of the Earth,a ballet which was especially close to her soul. She felt that it was a wonderful response to the music, to the inevitability of death and to the prospect of life after death. For her, each performance was “like a life – living the role, not playing or pretending”.
A particularly memorable show with the Royal Ballet was when Princess Diana was there. Her last performance with the RB had been with Julio Bocca.
Referring to the different partnerships she had had all over the world, Natasha said that there were so many but her favourite was Anthony Dowell
Referring to the different partnerships she had had all over the world, Natasha said that there were so many but her favourite was Anthony Dowell, from whom she had a wonderful response and with whom she felt a real bond.
A questioner asked Natasha to say more about her quest for new experiences. Was she seeking greater diversity in the repertoire and/or different kinds of roles? Natasha replied that, in her view, ballet was not developing sufficiently in the Soviet Union: everything had political overtones and some choreographers were not good.
Referring to the only full performance which Natasha had given herself in her production of LaBayadere - which was the opening night in New York with Anthony Dowell as Solor and Cynthia Harvey as Gamzatti – another member of the audience recalled that her chaînés were so spectacular that they reminded him of a “whirling dervish”. Natasha laughed in response.
Requested to say more about her decision to cut the character dances from La Bayadere,Natasha explained that the training of dancers in the West included relatively little character work, so such numbers were difficult for them to master. She had also cut the children and the elephant in order to try to make the story more cohesive. In addition, John Lanchbery had used different music for the last part of Nikiya’s ‘snake’ solo, although there had been the odd occasion when a Russian guest ballerina reverted to the version which was familiar to her.
Because the film had showed a rehearsal with Jerome Robbins five years after the ballet was made on her and Baryshnikov, Natasha was then asked about the experience of creating Other Danceswith Robbins and whether the steps were his or from her. She spoke in glowing terms of working with him and revealed that all the choreography was his and that her contribution was “zero”.
The last question for Natasha came from a young student who enquired how she would advise an 11 year old would-be ballerina. She replied that she should “be focused and try to be a real artist. Be interested in other forms of art and culture so that you can develop as a complete artist”.
David brought proceedings to a close by saying that, as soon as it was known that La Bayadère was coming back into the RB’s repertoire, members had kept saying to him, “You must invite Natasha to come and talk”. He emphasised that everyone was very grateful that she had been able to spare the time in her busy schedule and The Ballet Association was honoured to have had her as their guest.
Report written by Linda Gainsbury and edited by Natalia Makarova and David Bain ©The Ballet Association 2019