I spent my last evening in Russia at the home of dancers Alexander Godunov and Ludmilla Vlasova. It was almost five years ago. But even then -- in the apartment's small bathroom, repeatedly flushing the toilet to provide background noise -- Godunov said that he wanted to defect from the Bolshoi Ballet.
He took that step last week, and touched off an international dispute that was finally resolved yesterday.
That evening in Moscow was the outgrowth of an earlier one spent in the summer of 1974 at the New York home of Patricia and Colleen Neary, dancers with the New York City Ballet. Even then, it was obvious that Godunov did not fit the mold of the Bolshoi.
The Nearys were entertaining about a dozen of the Soviet dancers who were touring the United States with a section of the Bolshoi headed by Maya Plisetskaya. That prima ballerina assoluta did not attend the party, but the "company spy" -- the person officially designated to watch over touring Soviet dancer -- did. The Nearys were sophisticated enough to invite the "spy," thus sparing the dancers the embarrassment of having to ask to bring him along.
Godunov would have been hard to miss in the crowded apartment. Well over six feet tall, he looked like a blond Lil' Abner and was the most popular person in the room, surrounded by American dancers whom he delighted with tales of his adventures in the United States. "Sasha," he insisted upon being called at first meeting, was wildly in love with this country -- its music, popular dances which he demonstrated, automobiles, stereo equipment and clothing. He was dressed in American styles from head to toe, and asked where he could go next to buy more elegant jeans to fit his endless legs.
Godunov was unlike any of the other Soviet dancers. He was immediately and completely open, delighting his new friends with his English, which had improved to the point where he could tell a slightly risque story. And he loved showing off his newly discovered American slang.
While Godunov held center stage, his wife stayed in the background. She was unhappy, and obvious about it. He was not acting according to party lines and she knew he'd be reported. She was nervous.
The "spy" asked if he could use the telephone, and a short while later several Russian men, stocky, unsmiling and dressed in dark, baggy business suits, were at the door. The Soviet dancers stood, thanked their hostesses and left. Only Godunov kept them waiting. He was defiant as he kissed and embraced everyone, male and female, and loudly apologized for having to be "put to bed like a baby." As he left, he said, "Come to Russia. I'll show you around."
His wife had been right to be nervous.
By mid-November, the Joffrey Ballet, for which I was then press representative, was on its way to Russia. In Leningrad, we were invited to watch ballet classes at the Kirov and Godunov showed up in the men's class. He smiled and waved, and after class enclosed me in his great bear hug.
He was in Leningrad to confer about a film role ahd he was still playing it fearlessly. He asked openly about Mikhail Baryshnikov and Natalia Makarova and translated information about those defectors for their former colleagues at the Kirov. No other dancer in the Soviet Union would mention either defector's name except in a whisper.
Although Godunov was a member of the rival Bolshoi in Moscow, he was the fair-haired boy of the Kirov Theatre as far as the women employed there were concerned. He was very popular with the "little grandmothers" who swept and sold tea, cakes and -- at intermission -- champagne. He was one of the best customers at the "bubbly" counter, and showed the style of an oil millionaire in Texas. As Godunov's friend on his territory, you risked your life if you attempted to pay for a drink.
While in Leningrad, I kept him supplied with American cigarettes and Scotch from the hard-currency store where foreigners could buy with their money but native Russians could not enter. Godunov always protested before accepting any gift. He is very well bred.
Godunov began his ballet studies in Riga, Latvia. He and Baryshnikov had been the smallest boys in the school. Both had been instructed to stop their dance lessons for six months to see if they would grow. Godunov did, Baryshnikov didn't.
In Moscow, Godunov seemed to be at the Operatta Theatre, where the Joffrey played, any night he did not have to dance at the Bolshoi, less than two blocks away. All tickets had disappeared weeks earlier. Godunov's method of entry was simple. He'd wait outside the stage door until several Joffrey dancers appeared, then greet them and walk through -- speaking English and wearing his American jeans and shirt. Once inside the theater, where crowds overflowed into the aisles at every performance, Godunov was never asked for a ticket -- only for an autograph from one of the adoring usherettes.
I don't remember Vlasova's attending any performances. She was as shy and quiet as he is gregarious and open. She would not feel comfortable attending without a proper ticket, a new outfit and four hours of grooming. In the very drab fashion world of Moscow, she always looked like a movie star from a different hemisphere.
After Godunov danced in "Anna Karenina" on my last night in Moscow, I joined him in his dressing room and following his prior instructions, walked with him through the stage door where we made elaborate goodbyes. He stepped into a car and was driven off. I walked to a cab, gave the driver an address he had written, and was driven to a restaurant a few blocks away.
I paid the driver, stepped out and was immediately picked up by a station wagon. He sat in the back.We stopped at a rather elegant shop that sold delicacies and he ran in for a minute, emerging with several packages wrapped in brown paper and obviously pre-ordered. Godunov was very much the man-about-town in Moscow.
He drove to the outskirts of the city where his friend dropped us off at a high-rise building about as far from the Bolshoi as Forest Hills is from Lincoln Center. The buildings could have been in Queens except for the space between. Housing is a problem in Russia, but real estate is not: Each building was at least a city block from the next.
Godunov put his finger to his mouth, signaling me not to speak as we rode up in the small, noisy elevator. His wife was waiting at the door, dressed in the smartest of western clothing, impeccably groomed as always and wearing impressive antique jewelry. One of Godunov's many passions was buying jewelry for her.
The apartment contained a main room used as a living room and bedroom, a tiny kitchen and the suggestion of an entrance hall. It could have been the Greenwich Village apartment of a struggling young dancer. But the couple entertained as if it were the Winter Palace.
After kissing and embracing "Milla" -- which, he explained, meant "'Darling' and she is my darling," -- he tried to convince me to share some of the Scotch I'd given him. I refused, knowing its value in the Soviet Union, and stuck to the local sweet champagne. He showed off the small room with pride, pointing out how he'd enclosed the double bed at one end with a smart print fabric. "I bought on tour" and the platform he'd built for the stereo equipment "I bought on tour." Icons lined three walls; their value here probably would be not less than $25,000. He said that he and Vlasova loved to go icon-hunting in the country, where they were once quite cheap, "but the country people are getting wise now." He loved using American expressions like "getting wise."
He managed to touch his wife or kiss her hair every time he stood to bring in another platter of food or returned with more drinks. He treated her like a princess, and she acted the role perfectly. She attemped more English as the evening progressed, but she was shy and uncomfortable that Godunov spoke the language well and she did not.
I asked to use the bathroom and attempting to step out of the tiny cubicle, was surprised to see Godunov waiting for me. Again he put his fingers to his lips and entered, closing the door behind him. He flushed the toilet repeatedly as he told me how much he wanted to dance in the United States, how hard it was for him at the Bolshoi, how artiscially stifling to dance the same role over and over again and to know that your entire career had to take place within the system. He asked my advice. I had none.
I'd already heard it said that he would no longer be allowed to dance outside the Soviet Union because of his "playboy" antics on the 1974 U.S. tour.
After too much champagne and food, Godunov took me downstairs where we waited in the snow for the taxi. He gave the driver instructions to take me to my hotel, and, in his typical style, paid the fare.
He was not allowed to leave the Soviet Union for the next four years. It was rumored that he was going to threaten to stop dancing altogether unless allowed to tour. Another rumor had him applying to emigrate as the husband of a Jewish wife, since Vlasova is said to be at least part Jewish. That could possibly have entitled both to emigrate.
Then he went to dance in Paris and I expected him to defect there. So it was no surprise when, last week, he made good on his five-year-old confession and left the Bolshoi and the Soviet Union behind.