A cluster of birch trees grows outside Natalia Makarova’s house. She planted them years ago in the clearing that slopes away from her dance studio.

“My corps de ballet,” Makarova says with affection, introducing the trees with a sweep of her slightly crooked fingers.

But the birches are hardly corps material. They are more like their ballerina owner, refusing to vanish into the background. Against the surrounding green, their white trunks stand out with startling grace.

Some things aren’t meant to fit in.

There was no hammering Makarova into another member of the corps. Her delicate figure, barely 5 feet tall, conceals the backbone of a test pilot, a CEO, a commander. She started dancing late, at 13. Within a decade, she had climbed to the top ranks of Russia’s Kirov (now Mariinsky) Ballet.

Natalia Makarova appears at a tribute to her career at Lincoln Center’s David H. Koch Theater in New York. (Liza Voll/AP)

And then she walked away.

It was 1970, and Makarova was on tour with the company in London.

“Something tell me this is the moment,” she recalls in fractured English. “I cry like crazy. Cry.” She trills her R’s luxuriously in the rumbling accent of her native St. Petersburg.

A finger strays to one of her gold hoop earrings as she describes her sudden impulse at 29 to make the most important move of her life. She was tired of losing parts to lesser dancers with party ties. She was bored with her repertoire of classics and Communist drivel with names like “Russian Boat Coming to Port.”

Most of all, Makarova feared that her prized spontaneity onstage would evaporate. So she swallowed her tears and told the English friends she was visiting to call the police.

In one decisive moment, Makarova became the first ballerina to defect from the Soviet Union, escaping in the thick of the Cold War.

Agents from Scotland Yard arrived and took her into protection. She was granted asylum the next day, then whisked into the woods outside London to evade the KGB. Ten days later, she was on her own.

“Being spontaneous, it’s what saved me,” she says.

She is a believer in fate, and you’re inclined to go along with her. There is something invincible about this woman.

For one thing, there is no budging her from her refusal to be photographed. Dreading the cameras that will follow her this weekend when she receives the Kennedy Center Honors, she has no interest in sitting for portraits.

Yet at 72 she is stunningly photogenic. If an artist were to sketch her, she’d be all long lines topped by a firm jaw and tilted blue eyes. Age has softened the catlike angularity of her face, though her cheekbones still assert themselves under translucent skin. Wearing a gray velour tracksuit and a silk headscarf knotted behind one ear, she is a mix of California casual and 1970s retro-chic.

There were some who doubted that the young ballerina would survive, striking out on her own nine years after Rudolf Nureyev’s arrival with no English, no money, no immediate job offers.

“Many people thought I would never succeed, because I am so Russian.” Makarova laughs in the low, rolling chuckle that accompanies much of what she says on this recent afternoon, having settled herself into a chair in a sitting room. “So Russian, hundred percent.”

She means the sentimental Russian, comforted by birch trees; the soulful Russian of Tolstoy and Pushkin. “Passion. Openness,” she continues. “The opposite of formalism.

“That’s why Russian school is unique. You stand at the barre — ” she gets to her feet and reaches an arm into the air.

“And already you breathe: And one.” She inhales on an imaginary musical cue, her spine lifts on the updraft — and suddenly this tiny woman looms, growing upward even in stillness.

“It comes from the center,” she says. “Something sublime happens to you.”

Something sublime. This was Makarova’s mark, her ability in performance to pass through technique and arrive at an elevated state of being. When she eventually landed at American Ballet Theatre, this quality made her an instant sensation.

It wasn’t for her technical pizazz that she became ABT’s most coveted star — she had a long struggle with the mechanics of ballet due to her late start. Besides, ABT already had technicians. What audiences surrendered to was Makarova’s interpretive command. The legato lusciousness of her dancing, the unhurried responsiveness of her upper body and arms: This was new.

In“Giselle’s” graveyard scene, she made you believe she had entered an otherworldly state from her first steps, rolling through her feet as if she were treading on mist rather than solid ground. Dramatic roles were her strength — the desperate romantics of Frederick Ashton’s “A Month in the Country” or John Cranko’s “Onegin” — which she shaped with a supple, unforced precision and immersive acting. In the elasticity and length of her phrasing, in her qualities of yearning and escape, Makarova made the human dream life visible.

“She didn’t look like anybody else,” says ballet star Mikhail Baryshnikov, who was a few years behind her at the Kirov. “She had that mystery — and extraordinary coordination and freedom and total transparency.”

“I haven’t seen any better ‘Giselle’ than Natasha,” he adds, using Makarova’s pet name. “It is more interesting. . . . Nobody else has been that deep and tender and arresting and touching — and that powerful.”

‘I’d rather suffer’

Strength and transcendence are themes of Makarova’s art, but they also echo through her life. She was born in 1940, and her early years were defined by the Siege of Leningrad, three years of hell when the Nazis encircled the city. More than half a million inhabitants died.

Her father was killed in combat. In the postwar privation, she once lost her family’s monthly ration cards and was beaten by her stepfather. If her grades fell, there were more beatings.

Her mother “would always say, ‘Ask for forgiveness.’ No way. I would never ask.” Makarova smiles wide and toothily. “I’d rather suffer.”

But she believes the hardships nourished her. “What’s good about Russia: We had our own freedom, actually,” she says, with a wry chuckle. “It was free from frivolous things. This whole Soviet world, without food, without entertainment, without nonsense, it’s kind of pure. Right?

“And you concentrate on the real treasure. You get a sense of value, different from now. That’s why it buildthe spirituality and the substance, at the same time.”

Within the monastic bubble of life at the Vaganova Academy, the training arm of the Kirov Ballet, life was exquisitely simple.

“It was just theater and literature, all the time. That’s how I got my images, my formation of whatever I am. It is positive side of Soviet austere world.”

Humble beginnings

Positive austerity still has a place in Makarova’s heart. Her mountainside estate above the vineyards of the Napa Valley is full of tributes to the Russia she left 42 years ago.

Just past the birch trees, a winding path leads to a weathered, rustic Russian Orthodox chapel at the edge of a pine forest. It’s like something out of a fairy tale, with seven onion domes clustered on its wood-shingled roof like candles on a cake. Built of unpainted cedar, it is modeled on the 18th-century wooden Church of the Transfiguration on Kizhi Island, north of St. Petersburg.

Inside, the air smells faintly of incense. In the Russian tradition, there are no seats. It’s as empty as a dance studio, a place for upright reflection, under the gaze of old Russian icons glowing from the walls.

Makarova’s feeling for beauty is evident in her house, with its rich colors and elegant, comfortable furnishings. A melancholy German shepherd makes an occasional appearance at the feet of his mistress. Mementos from her career are everywhere: photos of her in “Other Dances,” which Jerome Robbins created for her and Baryshnikov, so astutely capturing her grandeur and Slavic earthiness. There are posters of her as the bejeweled Indian temple dancer in “La Bayadere,” the three-act ballet she staged at ABT, transforming that company by eliciting a classical perfection it had never before achieved. She continues to stage that ballet, among others, for companies around the world.

And there are tables full of family snapshots: her husband, Edward Karkar, a telecommunications industrialist, who fell in love with her from the audience, and their son, Andrei, born 34 years ago when Makarova was in the prime of her career and pregnancy was taboo for ballerinas of her stature. She was back onstage three months after giving birth.

“Skinnier than before,” she says, triumphantly.

Chess sets and half-melted candles are in every room. Makarova plays chess most nights with her husband or whoever else is around — a decades-old ritual she calls “exhilarating.”

The thick foliage that surrounds the house is an echo of home. During the war, Makarova’s mother sent her to live in the country with her grandmother, who christened her in secret and introduced her to the nearby woods and ponds. Her earliest memory is of bathing by the kitchen stove after falling through ice and nearly drowning. She was 3 years old and fearless.

Later, living the life of an international star, showered with roses on all the world’s great stages, Makarova yearned for mud. Her one unattainable wish was to hunt for mushrooms in the woods outside St. Petersburg.

She couldn’t go back until perestroika made it possible in 1989, and then she was swallowed up in events — performing her very last ballet on the Kirov stage where she had danced her first — and she never made it to the woods. But she did lay flowers at Marius Petipa’s grave, honoring the choreographer of much of her repertoire. She believes this is why she’s been busy staging his “La Bayadere” ever since. (Kiev Ballet will perform her production in February.)

The rush of Makarova’s career left little time for woodsy solitude. She devoured new works, left ABT, toured the world, joined the Royal Ballet, came back to New York.

She took a turn on Broadway, starring in the comedy “On Your Toes” as a sly, seductive and wisecracking Russian ballerina. Getting there nearly killed her, though she doesn't want to talk about the accident that made headlines around the country. During the show’s trial run in the Kennedy Center Opera House in 1982, a heavy piece of scenery equipment fell on Makarova in mid-performance, gashing her head and breaking her shoulder blade. A horrified audience heard her moaning through her body-mike before she was rushed to the hospital.

There was talk of another Russian emigre dancer taking over Makarova’s part in New York. But the theater world didn’t know Makarova. She wrestled herself back into shape and opened the show two months later on Broadway — on schedule. She scooped up a Tony for best actress in a musical, among numerous other honors.

‘I wanted to give’

Woe to those who underestimate this woman. Even Baryshnikov spoke of his trepidations in dancing with her. She was impulsive onstage, requiring an experienced hand. Her frequent partners — Ivan Nagy, Anthony Dowell — were taller and stronger than Baryshnikov.

“To partner her, I had a triple responsibility not to screw up,” he says. “She’s very spontaneous, she throws herself off balance . . . and sometimes she took me by surprise.”

Makarova could also be surprising in the studio. In a rehearsal of “La Bayadere,” she once tossed a glass of water at Julio Bocca, an ABT principal dancer at the time, when he forgot his steps.

“She was right,” Bocca says. “But she had that crazy thing sometimes. It’s what made her special.”

Also special: She demanded that Bocca kiss her more passionately in their balcony scene from “Romeo and Juliet.”

“And he improved it!” Makarova giggles, clapping her hand over her mouth like a teenager. “Each performance, better and better!”

Her generosity is storied.

“Without her, I wouldn’t be here,” Baryshnikov says.

He sought her help when he defected in 1974, and she gave it. For that, he says, “I will be grateful for the rest of my life.” She made sure he didn’t have to job-hunt on his own, as she had done four years before. She was immediately in touch with him and arranged his debut with her in “Giselle” at ABT a few weeks later.

Then there was the change she brought to ABT, resculpting a generation of dancers inside and out. As a rising star in the 1980s, Susan Jaffe sought to emulate Makarova’s “juicy resistance, with incredible control and detail.”

For Amanda McKerrow, chosen by Makarova for several roles in “La Bayadere,” the Russian dancer helped illuminate the mysteries of stage presence. “She helped me to be larger onstage, to magnify an image and make it louder.”

The success of “La Bayadere,” a tale of love and murder set amid opium smoke and Indian royalty, had critics hailing ABT’s once-unremarkable corps as second to none. In 1974 Makarova staged only the second act, re-creating what is known as “The Kingdom of the Shades” from her memories of the Kirov production, with its mesmerizing chain of 24 ghostly women, crisscrossing the stage in a geometrical vision of the afterlife that demands iron control and ethereal ease. In 1980 Makarova mounted the complete production, rechoreographing its lost third act.

Bear in mind that ballerinas don’t take on this kind of mammoth directorial headache in their peak dancing years — if ever. But Makarova thought she had gained immeasurably from the variety of her dance roles at ABT; she mentions the expressionistic, sucked-in physicality of British-born choreographer Antony Tudor, one of ballet’s greatest modernizers, as especially eye-opening. She wanted to give back.

“I am different because I have better schooling, better understanding of the line, gesture, how feet working, positions,” she says, moving her hands to suggest the suppleness of properly trained arches. “They taught me modern things . . . and I wanted to give what I had: my schooling.”

With that came exacting standards. “She’d say, ‘I’ll kill you if you wiggle.’ And we believed her!” recalls Cynthia Harvey, who got her big break in “La Bayadere” when Makarova cast her in a principal role.

Marianna Tcherkassky, one of that first production’s soloists, remembers dancers were in tears throughout the rehearsal process: “She pushed us all harder than we’d ever been pushed.”

The pushing goes on. Since Makarova’s retirement from dancing, she has coached many of the world’s greats in “La Bayadere,” among them Diana Vishneva of the Mariinsky and the Royal Ballet’s Tamara Rojo and Alina Cojocaro. Asked her view of the current state of ballet, she quotes from “Anna Karenina” — first in Russian, then English: “ ‘All was confusion in the house of Oblonsky.’ ”

“Technical things are getting more mechanical,” she laments. “Take ‘Swan Lake,’ the Black Swan pas de deux. Now, my goodness, they’re turning not just 32 fouettes — ” the cyclone of spins cranked out by the scheming temptress Odile — “but double or triple pirouettes. And what is fouetter in French? It means ‘to whip.’ That is characteristic of Odile, cruelty and attack. It is artistic point.

“And if you change it for just pirouettes, you change the meaning, to no meaning.”

“I don’t like falseness,” Makarova says. She’ll watch a young technician tear up the studio with blazing energy and be unmoved. “I don’t believe you,” she’ll say. “I just don’t believe you.”

She recalls seeing one ballerina in “Manon,” Kenneth MacMillan’s tale of sex and scandal, based on the French novel “Manon Lescaut.” “She was fantastic, emotional, spontaneous,” Makarova says. “But she forgot she is French. She doesn’t know what it means.”

Makarova knows what it means. When she danced “Manon,” she would speak French for days, before and after the show. She’d adjust the incline of her neck and the crook of her wrists to convey a distinctly Parisian brand of flirtation.

“I really feel sorry for new generation,” she says. “It’s hard to find backbone.I never had crisis of identity. But I think many Americans have it.”

This, she believes, is because of a culture overstuffed with distractions. She lists the ills: television, materialism, self-promotion. She prefers her woods, her chapel, her chess games, her life of art and contemplation.

Just theater and literature, all the time . . . These are the riches she took with her from Russia. Acquired through curiosity, learning and a perfectionist’s eye. What fed her long ago in those years of starvation sustains her still.

“All ballet, all reading, all music. That was my world, my inner world,” says Makarova as the sun dips behind her trees, blanketing her in shadows. “It is my treasure.”

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