THE STORY Valery Panov tells in his just-published autobiography, "To Dance," is no diatribe - it's a touching amusing, disarmingly honest account of an artist's triumph and travail, as treasurable for its amorous episodes and backstage glimpses of ballet intrigue as for its revelations of Soviet oppression. Nevertheless, it's also trenchant proof that an artist, no matter how singlemindedly devoted to his calling, can never escape his societal role and circumstances.
Valery Panov and his dancer wife Galina were permitted to resettle in Israel in 1974 after two years of persecution. In Washington recently, Panov noted that the book was composed in those two years of enforced idleness, during which he was forbidden to dance.
"I spent my days playing tag with the KGB," he said, "and my nights writing." The resulting chronicle is a poignant reminder of the inseparability of art and politics.
In our occasional eagerness to view the arts as a "universal language," capable of erasing barriers between people and nations, we may be led to the fallacy that art or artists can be insulated from mundane partisan strife.
Events within recent memory, ranging from the withdrawal of a Woody Allen special from public TV a few years ago and the polemical brouhaha at this year's Academy Award ceremonies, to the spate of defections by Soviet dancers like Nureyev and Baryshnikov, the retraction of Mstislav Rostropovich's Soviet citizenship, and the Panov's emigration struggle, are illustrations to the contrary.
The fact is that the notion is refuted at every turn by the history of the arts from ancient times. Plato counseled in "The Republic," for example, that an ideal society would be wise to encourage only those musical modes conducive to such virtues as fortitude and manly vigor, and should proscribe others that might inculcate effeteness or sloth.
Throughout the ages, the arts have been pressed into service by those two most powerful agents of human divisiveness - the state and established religion. The price exacted for patronage was obsequious homage to the patron. Plays, operas and ballets, from the Renaissance to the industrial revolution, were often thinly disguised genuflections to ruling potentates or regimes. Master and gifted renegades could circumvent such limitations and produce great works of art, some of a seditious nature, but they were the exceptions and did not always escape "official" wrath or vengeance.
Political or ethical content in art may be purposeful or inadvertent, authorized or clandestine, implied or explicit, but it is scarcely ever entirely absent, as the censors, book-burners and inquisitors have always been quick to demonstrate.
Sometimes a shift of cultural perspective converts the innocent to the suspect - Mozart's "Cosi fan tutte" was posthumously classified as morally degenerate by a society scandalized by extramarital finagling. Many creative spirits have plunged willfully into the fray - Beethoven, for one, whose convictions about human rights provoked his celebrated angry obliteration of Napoleon's name from the dedication of the "Eroica" symphony.
Sometimes the arts have profited from "lucky" associations; classical ballet owes much of its early advancement to the accident of Louis XIV's fondness for dancing. But there's also that long list of artists who have uprooted themselves to escape repression or vilification, as such names as Isadora Duncan, James Joyce, Paul Robeson or Alexander Solzhenitsyn impart to mind.
What is especially moving about Panov's ordeal, as he recounts it, is his slow, tortuous awakening to the imperviousness of the tyranny he tried vainly first to placate, then to implore and finally to escape. Born in war-torn Vitebsk in 1938 to a Jewish father and a gentile mother, Panov was a teenager before he had any concept of what "being a Jew" actually meant. By the time he did, he had learned to accept it as something "shameful," best kept hidden.
His father, Matvei Shulman, who had risen from delivery boy to electrcian to industrial supervisor, pretended to himself that he wasn't Jewish, but Russian, and what's more, a good Communist - in the period of Valery's crisis, he was even to denounce his son to the KGB. At one point, Panov feels constrained to say to him: "He had developed into a genuine anti-Semite who hated all Jews, including himself."
Though he was largely alienated from his father even as a child, Panov too for a long while attempted to ignore and slither past his heritage. Upon his first marriage to a young dancer, Liya Panova, he adopted his wife's name - an act he unflinchingly calls " my own solution to the Jewish problem." Only gradually did he realize the futility of self-deception, and afterward, his bond with other Jewish pariahs.
The last portion of the book is a painfully vivid but amazingly clear-eyes and unembittered resume of the sufferings he and his second wife, Galina (who isn't Jewish), had to endure after their application for an exit visa - their dismissal from the Kirov Ballet at the height of his preeminence as the company's leading male virtuoso and character dancer; denial of any work as a dancer; the rejection and treachery by colleagues; harassment, imprisonment, threats, (e.g., to break his legs) and even an attempt at poisoning, amid much else.
With the help of an international campaign on their behalf by celebrities, artists, Western statesmen and other supporters, the Panovs saw their plight ended when Soviet authorities, for whatever complex reasons of policy or expedience, allowed them to leave for Israel. In addition to the physical and emotional punishment they both had sustained, Gilina also had a miscarriage shortly before their exit, spurred by the shock of the attempt to poison her husband, and the pair lost irreplacable years in their artistic development.
Their recovery, and courageous resumption of their careers - they'll be seen in Washington at Wolf Trap in June, and will make their New York debut with the Berlin Opera Ballet in July - is a testament to the indomitability of the human spirit. But a further lesson of their lives is that there are no such things as ivory towers - not in art, not in life.