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Natalia Makarova

Sometimes in life you just have to take a chance. Be spontaneous. Do what feels right for you. If you are not open to new experiences you will never know what you might be capable of. This translates to the dance studio and the choices artists make. If we look at the greatest ballerinas, they reached where they are today after making their own personal leaps of faith.

Spontaneity propelled celebrated 20th Century prima ballerina assoluta Natalia Makarova to the upper echelons of ballet and beyond. Revered as a dancer, choreographer and teacher, Makarova made history when she followed in the (turned-out) footsteps of Rudolf Nureyev and defected from Russia. This impulsive decision saw her become the first ballerina to flee and helped her star status soar to dazzling heights.

Natalia Romanovna Makarova was born on 21st November 1940 in Leningrad, in the Russian Soviet Federative Socialist Republic of the USSR. Natalia (or Natasha as she was also known) was a latecomer to ballet, not starting until she was 12. Nonetheless, she was accepted at the Leningrad Choreographic School (formerly the Imperial Ballet School, now the Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet) aged 13 and squeezed nine years of training into six. At 19, she graduated straight to the Kirov (now Mariinsky) Ballet as a member of the corps.

Makarova became known internationally after her 1961 debut in London, dancing ‘Giselle’ - one of her most acclaimed roles - with the Kirov Ballet.

Almost a decade later, 29-year-old Makarova – the newly-crowned winner of the prestigious Anna Pavlova Prize for individual achievement in dance - returned to London on tour. She had fame and respect in Russia but was exasperated with losing parts to lesser dancers with political party ties and bored of performing the Kirov’s conservative classical repertoire. Motivated to preserve her onstage spark and explore her talents she requested asylum in Britain, citing artistic limitations. In doing so, Makarova became the first ballerina to defect from the Soviet Union, escaping in the midst of the Cold War. She gave up everything for an uncertain future in the West.

Fortunately, Makarova would not regret her spur-of-the-moment decision. She joined American Ballet Theatre soon after defecting, debuting in ‘Giselle’ in December 1970. In 1972, she also began dancing as a guest artist with The Royal Ballet in London. This association continued until her final appearance with them in Kenneth MacMillan’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’ in January 1989.

Regularly partnered by American Ballet Theatre principal Ivan Nagy and The Royal Ballet’s Anthony Dowell, Makarova also danced with Rudolf Nureyev, as well as Mikhail Baryshnikov (with whom she was romantically involved). Makarova’s heartfelt dancing gave her a spontaneous edge onstage – she always kept her partners on their toes!

Accustomed to performing as a guest artist with major ballet companies worldwide, Makarova was reunited with the Kirov Ballet to dance an excerpt from ‘Swan Lake’, in London, on 6th August 1988. Then, in 1989, she became the first ever Russian artistic exile to be invited back to dance in her native land. She returned to give her farewell performance as a professional dancer, at the theatre of the Kirov Ballet after nineteen years’ absence, on 1st February 1989.

Upon retirement, she donated her shoes and costumes to the Kirov Museum. Despite surrendering her pointe shoes, Makarova continues to serve ballet with devotion. She stages classic productions in attentive and elegant reconstructions for companies across the world.

Her first staging was the ‘Kingdom of the Shades’ from ‘La Bayadère’ for American Ballet Theatre in 1974. In 1980, she staged the full-length production of ‘La Bayadère’, making American Ballet Theatre the first company in the West to acquire this work. Her elaborate revival, based on Marius Petipa’s original choreography, included the first restoration of the ballet’s last act (previously lost since 1919) and remains the most familiar version to audiences in the West.

Makarova was admired for her dramatic interpretation onstage and has coached many contemporary ballerinas, including Diana Vishneva of the Mariinsky Ballet and former Royal Ballet (now English National Ballet) principals Tamara Rojo and Alina Cojocaru. Expressive, meaningful movement is a hallmark of the Russian spirit. It is one thing to execute a technically demanding or flamboyant trick but another feat entirely to do simple steps with a purely classical line, while clearly communicating intent.

Musical theatre provided Makarova with another outlet for expression. In 1983 she won a Tony Award for her role as a seductive Russian ballerina in the Broadway comedy ‘On Your Toes’. During the show’s trial run, a heavy piece of equipment fell on her mid-performance, breaking her shoulder blade. There was talk of another dancer replacing her for the show’s opening in New York but Makarova resolutely recovered and took to the stage two months later – on schedule and to rave reviews.

In 1984 she starred in the West End production of ‘On Your Toes’, winning a Laurence Olivier Award. Further acting and television work followed, in the UK and Russia.

Natalia Makarova is a shining example of how trusting your instincts and injecting a little bit of spontaneity into your life can uncover new opportunities. This multi-talented, committed ballerina has used the focus and determination borne out of her upbringing in austere Russia to dance free of communism, make the most of her gift as a performer and leave a lasting impression on some of the world’s most treasured ballets.

Our writers: Learn more about Georgina Butler

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