NEW YORK (AP) — When people think of famous Soviet dancers who defected to the West, they recall Rudolf Nureyev, certainly, and Mikhail Baryshnikov. But there was also a formidable woman among them: Natalia Makarova, who defected in 1970 and went on to win glory for decades to come, in Europe and in the United States.
Now 71, Makarova is retired of course, but she was the undisputed star over the weekend at Lincoln Center's David H. Koch Theater as ballet greats gathered to pay her tribute. It was part of a rare and wonderful dance weekend courtesy of the Youth America Grand Prix, a global ballet scholarship competition.
It's in the nature of the art of dance that we almost never get to hear the artists speak. That's why it was a special pleasure to hear Makarova, in taped interviews broadcast on a huge screen, describe her life, interspersed with footage of her dancing.
As graceful as the dance excerpts were, it was a treat to hear her recount things that perhaps didn't go so well. She described once getting stuck in a tiny elevator lifting her to the stage; at the time, she was trying to get into the spirit of the Swan Queen. She heard the music playing without her, and finally had to break character to scream at technicians, which she ably demonstrated in the film clip.
Of that swan, and other roles, she quipped: "I've danced every bird in the business." She also spoke of her mother: "I gave her lots of trouble."
Makarova was to appear in the flesh only at the curtain call. First came a truly impressive parade of artists assembled by YAGP, performing bits of signature Makarova roles, or other pieces evocative of her life.
It was especially striking to watch the Russian ballerina Natalia Osipova. She has appeared in New York now for several seasons with American Ballet Theatre, but on Saturday night, it seemed clear that she was the most similar of current ballerinas to Makarova — in her talent, her build, and her potential (she already has the first name.)
The sprite-like Osipova was impressively malleable in a modern piece by Mauro Bigonzetti, performed with her partner, Ivan Vasiliev, with whom she recently defected from the Bolshoi to the Mikhailovsky Theatre in St. Petersburg.
But she truly shone in "Giselle," which had been a momentous role for Makarova. Osipova was so light on her feet that she seemed to be a weightless marionette, pulled by invisible strings above.
Two other Russian ballerinas also were in radiant form: Diana Vishneva, of the Mariinsky Ballet and also ABT, who performed a deeply passionate pas de deux from "Manon" with Marcelo Gomes (not for nothing is it called the "Bedroom Pas de Deux"), and the raven-haired Ekaterina Kondaurova, also of the Mariinsky, who performed the Black Swan from "Swan Lake" and was even more impressive in a brief piece of William Forsythe's "In the Middle, Somewhat Elevated."
Other star performers came from the Royal Ballet, the Stuttgart Ballet, and New York City Ballet, whose Maria Kowroski and Tyler Angle performed a fun, high-kicking excerpt from Balanchine's "Slaughter on Tenth Avenue." That, too, evoked a Makarova triumph: She had danced it in the Broadway musical "On Your Toes," for which she reinvented herself, astonishingly, as a comedienne and won a 1983 Tony Award.
The parade of stars actually began a night earlier when YAGP presented its "Stars of Today Meet Stars of Tomorrow" gala, an annual event that showcases winners of the scholarship contest, then moves on to current stars.
The "future stars" included even small children, namely the impossibly cute Geraldin Getzemani Chico Valerio, 9, and Salvador David Perez Enciso, 8, from Mexico, who charmed the crowd in bright green frog outfits.
The evening was full of high spirits, with many young competitors filling the seats. There are often cheering crowds at Lincoln Center, but ballet fans doing the Wave in the balcony? Not so common.
Still, the high point was Makarova's appearance at the end of Saturday's show. After taking a few bows, she was hoisted into the air by ABT's Gomes and David Hallberg. Stars of the present, showering respect on an icon of the past.