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How Natalia Makarova changed the ballet world with this landmark production

Natalia Makarova at her country house in California in May. (Dina Makaroff)

Forty years ago almost to the day, American Ballet Theatre premiered a glittering extravaganza of Indian temple dancers, bejeweled Brahmins, an opium-aided trip to the afterlife and an earthquake watched over by a Buddha as big as a house.

By the time the curtain fell, the ballet landscape had changed.

Natalia Makarova created, directed and starred in that landmark production of “La Bayadere.” It became an ABT staple and eventually entered the repertoires of troupes around the world. As she was first bringing it to the stage, Makarova taught the ABT dancers every step and gesture of the three-hour production, with corps de ballet rookies and the company’s greats alike watching in fear and awe as the world-famous Russian ballerina commanded them to dance bigger, move freer and even breathe with more conviction.

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“How I had the guts to do it, I don’t know,” the 79-year-old Makarova says in a rare phone interview from her mountaintop home in California’s Napa Valley.

An icon of the stage, Makarova was beloved for her grandeur and spontaneity, the same qualities that led her, in 1970, to become the first Russian ballerina to escape the Soviets. But she had never put together a full-length ballet. The one she chose — an overhaul of the 1877 original by the great Marius Petipa, who gave the world “Swan Lake” and “The Sleeping Beauty” — had never been seen in the West.

Makarova had nothing to go on but memories and creative fire.

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“La Bayadere” is a fantasy of ancient India, focusing on the holy devotee Nikiya (the “bayadere,” or temple dancer, of the title), who is loved by battle hero Solor and hated by socially ambitious Gamzatti, daughter of the Raja. Petipa’s original was a lavish spectacle with live animals. Before fleeing from St. Petersburg’s Kirov (now the Mariinsky) Ballet, Makarova had danced a much-reduced version. To restore the original atmosphere and a lost third act, she pored over Petipa archives at Harvard University. She met with designers in Europe. And don’t get her started on the music: She appealed to pre-Perestroika Soviets for the complete Ludwig Minkus score and got nowhere.

“It was not just a headache,” Makarova says in a deep Russian accent, “it was exhausting.”

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This is not a woman who is easily exhausted. Makarova, who in 2012 received the Kennedy Center Honors, works out every day in the dance studio in her St. Helena, Calif., home, easing the body aches from decades spent tearing across the stage with abandon. In pre-pandemic times, she was often on the road, directing her “Bayadere” and other ballets for companies across the globe. This past winter alone, she staged “Bayadere” for the Norwegian Ballet and supervised a “Giselle” in Stockholm.

In March, Makarova was set to oversee ABT’s “Bayadere” rehearsals in New York when the stay-at-home orders came out. Her ballet, and a celebration of its 40th birthday, was to be a highlight of the company’s spring season at the Metropolitan Opera House. “Bayadere’s” anniversary happens to coincide with ABT’s 80th anniversary. Hearts and hopes are broken all over the place.

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“We were going to have a big hoopla,” ABT artistic director Kevin McKenzie says from his home in Woodstock, N.Y. He’d scheduled a run of performances of “La Bayadere” ending in a grand finale, with sweet serendipity, on May 21 — the anniversary date — with guest stars Olga Smirnova of the Bolshoi Ballet and Kimin Kim of the Mariinsky.

McKenzie was planning other special appearances that night: “I wanted to people the ballet with dancers who were there 40 years ago. I was going to surprise the audience and pull Natasha” — Makarova’s pet name — “out to speak to us.”

With the Met season canceled, ABT has posted special “Bayadere” content at abtoffstage, including a video tribute to Makarova and conversations with current artists as well as those involved with the 1980 premiere.

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In an art form with a limited supply of the full-length story ballets that audiences favor, a dazzling new one is a gift of gold. But when “La Bayadere” premiered, it was more of a monumental risk than a sure thing. It was the biggest, most expensive production in ABT history.

Since little was known of the full-length “La Bayadere” in New York or anywhere else in the West before Makarova’s production, critics had some reservations about historical accuracy. Yet they were generally positive on the ballet’s effect, noting especially the visual splendors — detailed sets by painter PierLuigi Samaritani and costumes by Theoni Aldredge — as well as the strong leading roles and the confidence of Makarova’s vision.

“Although much is arguable, nothing in her staging is tentative or apologetic,” wrote Arlene Croce in the New Yorker, praising the ballet’s “consistently engaging grace.”

Audience enthusiasm has meant that the ballet has never left ABT’s repertoire; it’s typically programmed in a cycle of two years onstage, two years off.

Lucia Chase, ABT’s director at the time, asked Makarova to bring forth a new ballet and, the dancer says, gave her “carte blanche.”

That was the easy part.

“I had to direct, see it from the point of view of the audience, then go onstage and dance my steps,” Makarova says. “And I didn’t have any experience before. The dancers are waiting for you, waiting for the right description. And I had to force myself to find it.”

The ballerina made the bold choice of bringing a complete production of “La Bayadere” to life, she says, “because I wanted to give my experience, my knowledge. When I saw the dancers do contemporary work, they were moving free, with enthusiasm and abundance. But in a tutu, it’s like they had a mental corset.”

“I was lucky to work in Russia with Leonid Yakobson” — the witty, rule-breaking St. Petersburg choreographer — “who was very expressive with the upper body. And I had a kind of flexibility from nature,” she says.

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By contrast, the American ballerinas “were afraid to move freely when they put on a tutu,” Makarova says. “Probably because in their schools they didn’t teach expressiveness of the body. Or to be meaningful in the body.”

At St. Petersburg’s legendary Vaganova Ballet Academy, she says, “they taught us theatrical gesture, how to be natural and not old-fashioned, not exaggerated. Organic. You have to feel it inside, and then let it out.”

McKenzie was a new company member when he was cast as Solor not long after the 1980 premiere (Anthony Dowell, from the Royal Ballet, was Makarova’s initial Solor). Makarova pushed him to make the smallest details more honest.

“I had to find a very separate way to walk,” McKenzie says. Solor “is not a prince, he’s a warrior. That role taught me the weight of the walk, using more power. And that’s as important as the preparation for your pirouettes.”

Makarova choreographed the role of confident, technically steely Gamzatti for Cynthia Harvey, at the time a young soloist who was new to leading roles.

“I learned so much about how to project,” Harvey, who directs ABT’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School, says from her home in New York. “To be expansive on a stage that has so much glitz and glamour already, and not fade into the background, you have to use your body with an energy that is extra, beyond the normal. That taught me a huge amount about how to do the ‘Swan Lakes’ and other ballets.”

ABT principal Isabella Boylston was slated to perform Nikiya on May 19, opening night. The role, she says from her Brooklyn apartment, has a special importance since Makarova has long been her idol, the one whose videotapes she studies when she’s stumped on an interpretation.

Makarova’s eye for detail extends well beyond the dancing, Boylston adds. Once, right before Boylston debuted on the Met stage as Nikiya, Makarova noticed that she wasn’t wearing earrings. “She’d written me a beautiful note and given me a beautiful scarf as a gift,” Boylston says. “And then she took out the earrings from her ears and gave them to me to wear.”

The impact of “Bayadere” went beyond the juicy roles and audience appeal. This was a secret Russian treasure possessed by ABT alone, out of all the companies in the West. If the characters’ love triangle didn’t exactly break new narrative ground, the danced conception of it enlarged the public understanding of ballet.

In his fictional India, Petipa had built a bridge between romanticism and classicism. “Bayadere” has elements of both: Solor chooses a career move over true love, and Nikiya pays with her life, as so many romantic heroines had done before her. The universe, in turn, punished everyone. Cue the earthquake.

But when the grieving Solor reaches for his hookah, the heaven of his hallucination is pure classical ballet. This is the Act 2 “Kingdom of the Shades” scene, in which linear formations of ballerinas in white tutus, appearing slowly out of darkness, form a hypnotic and consoling vision. (Makarova had excerpted this act as a stand-alone piece for ABT in 1974.) Taken as a whole, “Bayadere” looks back to the emotional winds of “Giselle” and anticipates the clarity of “Swan Lake.”

“That’s why I wanted to do this ballet,” Makarova says. “To show them the right training and, how to say it — correctness.”

Makarova is sorry the celebration isn’t happening. Yet she’s comfortable at home: “I’m not suffering in isolation because I love to be by myself,” she says, “and I have my books. I couldn’t imagine my life without books.” She orders them from a Russian bookstore in Brooklyn, detective stories and histories.

The death of her husband, Edward Karkar, in 2013, “was a tragedy,” she says. “But it’s good medicine, time.”

Makarova’s longtime assistant, Dina Makaroff, is quarantined with her; they play chess every night over wine. The ballerina’s son, Andrei, calls every day from his home in San Francisco.

Another anniversary is coming up: In September, it will be 50 years since she defected in London and found a new artistic home in New York, at ABT.

“I try not to think about it,” Makarova says with a husky laugh. “Or I start thinking how old I am. But it feels like yesterday. It is still very bright.”

She pauses to think.

“I have spent more time in the West than I spent in Russia. My family is here; it’s like I grew up here. Spiritually, mentally and humanly, even. I became more tolerant, less categorical.”

As for what she would have said to the audience, on her ballet’s birthday at the Met — it’s very simple.

“Happy anniversary to the whole company,” says the star who found her footing there. “For a great attitude, for believing in me — and for the result.”