While Bolshoi Ballet dancer Alexander Godunov was making up his mind to defect in New York two weeks ago, Alexander Dube -- a leading New York ballet manager -- was already eight months into negotiations with Soviet officials to allow some of the Bolshoi's finest dancers to return to the United States next year, on their own, to perform as guest artists with American ballet companies.
Several of the Bolshoi dancers knew of the negotiations and were eager to return here, subject to Soviet approval. Since World War II, the only Russian superstar permitted by Soviet authorities to dance in America as part of a non-Soviet ballet company was the Bolshoi's Maya Plisetskaya -- who was thought to be past her prime and out of favor at home.
Despite his publicity, Godunov was not one of the artists that Dube -- of the Dube Zakin organization -- had been interested in signing. Instead, negotiations had centered particularly around the Bolshoi's superstar husband-and-wife team of Vyacheslav (Slava) Gordeyev and Nadezhda (Nadia) Pavlova. The pair had received critical acclaim and popular adulation from sellout crowds during the Bolshoi's Lincoln Center engagement, and had become the darlings of local dance fans.
According to Dube, by the time of the Godunov affair, the talks had reached the point where specific performing dates-- late next summer -- were being discussed.
Late last week, Dube said that "in spite of Godunov's defection, we feel confident that the Soviet authorities will allow their dancers to fulfill guest engagements in the United States.
"We hope that this incident will not in any way harm the development of a relationship of guest appearances with American dancers visiting the Soviet Union and Soviet dancers visiting here."
Dube is no stranger to U.S.-Soviet dance deals: He negotiated the arrangement whereby, last January, the American Ballet Theatre's Eleanor D'Antuono reportedly became the first American dancer to perform as a guest artist in Russia with Soviet ballet companies.
What appears to be the beginning of a significant change in Soviet ballet policy was further confirmed in an interview with Gordeyev and Pavlova conducted prior to Godunov's defection.
It was denial of freedom to dance abroad that Rudolf Nureyev, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Natalia Makarova all cited as a key reason for their defections from Leningrad's Kirov Ballet. But Gordeyev and Pavlova emphasized that they hope to perform here with American ballet ensembles only as invited visitors -- they said that they are proud of their affiliation with the Bolshoi and are loyal Soviet citizens.
Gordeyev is ruggedly handsome -- with chiseled features -- and has a blatant sensuality that comes across both on stage and off.
Many U.S. dance fans consider him to be the Bolshoi's finest male dancer, based on his last performance here in 1975. He gives his age as 29, although reference books list him as having been born in 1948.
Pavlova, 23, is shy and appears intimidated by strange places and new people -- exactly the opposite of her passionate, secure demeanor on stage. She has danced in America once before, in 1973 at age 17 with a touring unit called Stars of the Bolshoi. Gifted with superb technique and a combination of innocent charm and vaudeville ham, she was then still a student and not even a member of the Bolshoi. She appeared here at the insistence of the Bolshoi's then-importer, the late Sol Hurok.
Now her popularity in Moscow is second only to that of the Bolshoi's Plisetskaya, and Pavlova is openly spoken of by some ballet-world observers as one of the two finest Bolshoi ballerinas to come along since Plisetskaya. The other is Ludmilla Semenyaka.
In a conversation conducted mostly in Russian, with the aid of two non-Soviet interpreters, Gordeyev related that "I have been here with the Bolshoi three times and I like it here very much. I like the theaters and the audiences."
But would the two Bolshoi dancers be willing to perform with a company such as the American Ballet Theatre, which will soon be directed by Russian-defector Baryshnikov? "Yes," Gordeyev said. "For us it's all the same" in that performing with a good ballet company is all that matters. "But first of all, they have to invite us."
How often would they be willing to dance in America? Would they be willing to spend, for instance, one month a year here? "With pleasure," Gordeyev said. Pavlova added that "it's very nice for people to invite you."
Some observers of U.S.-Soviet relations feel that, at any given time, a key indication of the Soviet position on detente is whether the U.S.S.R. will grant permission for its finest cultural attractions to appear in the United States. The end of what is commonly referred to as the Cold War was signaled by the initial appearance of the Bolshoi in New York 20 years ago. Later, during a particularly hostile period between the United States and the Soviet Union, a scheduled Bolshoi tour of America was cancelled by the Soviet government.
Despite the Godunov defection, it seems apparent that the U.S.S.R. still wishes to continue its cultural public-relations effort in America -- because during the height of the confrontation at Kennedy airport over Godunov's wife, Lillian Libman, the American executive producer of the Bolshoi's current American tour, stated that she had been assured by senior Soviet officials that the Bolshoi's cross-country tour would not be cancelled -- no matter what happened at the airport. The Bolshoi begins a two-week run in Los Angeles on Tuesday.
Asked whether the Soviets' willingness to allow individual Bolshoi dancers to perform with American companies is a harbinger of increased U.S.-Soviet cooperation, Gordeyev said, "In ballet, things are quicker than in other fields. The quicker it is, and the more connections [between the two countries] there are, the better it will be . . ."
For Gordeyev, the ballet bug bit while he was enrolled in a military high school, which "usually admitted [only] people who were very healthy. There was a very strict discipline" in the school regardless of what occupation was pursued, "so, I decide to choose ballet." Gordeyev spent 12 hours a day at school. "When I began to study ballet, at first it was just [another course], then I realized that I couldn't do without it."
Did he at that time dream of one day being one of the greatest male dancers in the world? "No, I didn't think about it. I tried to learn my best -- and I think there is still room for improvement." Was there ever a time when he felt like throwing in the towel and seeking a less arduous career? "When you're very tired after exhausting rehearsals, you're ready to give up, but the next morning, you realize that you can't."
Pavlova, born in the Volga region of Russia, started studying ballet at the age of 8. One day, "a commission came to look at dancers and I was chosen. At 10, I was at the Perm school -- the third best ballet school in Russia." She ranks the Kirov and Bolshoi schools higher.
She studied and worked in Perm for eight years, and in 1975 she was drafted by the Bolshoi, where she soon became the biggest sensation since Plisetskaya. In four short years, she has learned and danced the leading female role in "Spartacus," "The legend of Love," "The Sleeping Beauty," "The Nutcracker," "Giselle," "Don Quixote," artistic director Yuri Grigorovich's new version of "Romeo and Juliet," "Love for Love," and "These Charming Sounds" -- all major full-length ballets. She has also danced in many divertissements from works which are no longer performed in their full-length forms.
It is believed that no ballerina of her age or younger has, in modern times, performed in so many full-length works as has Pavlova -- either in Russia or in the West. Gordeyev agrees. "In the Soviet Union, she is the only one," he said.
Pavlova and Gordeyev dance very few ballets that can be classified as abstract -- in the manner that the New York City Ballet's George Balanchine creates plotless works. And they have no great desire to do so. Many of the ballets they dance are fairy tales, and Goredyev explained that "the fairy tale is the lifeblood [of Russian ballet]. . . It is the story of people, their emotions, their relationships and their loves."
In some of the Grigorovich ballets, "there are parts that are more abstract than the rest of the ballet, [but abstract dance] is not the Russian style."
Discussing the controversy within Russia over Grigorovich's mounting of a new version of "Romeo and Juliet" and his now-aborted plan to scrap the older classic version by the late Leonid Lavrovsky, Gordeyev explained that the Lavrovsky "Romeo and Juliet" was the "first recognition of the Bolshoi abroad . . ." It was the smash hit of the Bolshoi's first western appearance in 1956 in London, and of their New York debut in 1959.
It played on the stage of the Bolshoi Theater for 33 years. It was a memory of Lavrovsky. It wasn't a question of whether Grigorovich [has the talent to create a new version], but there were some ethical problems" with scrapping the Lavrovsky production. "Thanks that we can have a big company and can have two versions," Gordeyev said.
"There's no limit in art," Pavlova commented, "and you have to seek new works. Time will show which is better." The new version, she added, "is the ballet of the young people" of the Bolshoi.
"We dance only Grigorovich's version. It is closer to us," Gordeyev said. Also, "almost every theater in Russia has a different version of 'Romeo.'"
Their favorite roles? "The latest," Pavlova said laughing. "Nadia is right," Gordeyev said. "Your favorite becomes the one you are preparing, and you give all your forces, all your strength to the role."
Is dancing with a spouse easier than with just another dancer? Pavlova: "Yes." Gordeyev: "Yes, much easier. Sometimes just from the expression on the face we can see what the other wants to say" in terms of choreographic nuance. Is the couple planning to have a family? Pavlova: "No. I still want to dance right now."
The American Ballet Theatre recently encouraged a group of its older principal dancers to retire or look elsewhere for work, in part to open up starring roles for its younger performers. And a few of the Bolshoi's senior principal artists are on the current U.S. tour. Are young Bolshoi dancers pressing for star roles tenaciously held onto by the senior dancers? "Maybe there is the same problem the world over," Gordeyev said. "This time we have brought only young people" on the tour.
The late Sol Hurok was a paricular fan of Nadia Pavlova. Gordeyev recounts a conversation: "Hurok said, 'I begin my career with Pavlova [the legendary ballerina Anna Pavlova] and I end my career with Pavlova [Nadia].'" They were prophetic words. Only a few months after Nadia Pavlova's U.S. debut, Hurok died. His prediction that she would have a career as famous as Anna Pavlova's was well known at the time.
Perhaps last month, for Nadia Pavlova's debut in a full-length role in America, one seat in the theater should have been left empty. Hurok surely would have wanted to be in it.