Forestville author’s novel explores prima ballerina’s famous fall

Barbara Baer of Forestville wrote “The Ballet Lover,” to shed light on one of the greatest mysteries in the world of ballet: the famous fall of a ballerina at the hands of dancer Rudolph Nureyev.|

It’s been a topic of intrigue within ballet circles for more than 45 years. Did the legendary ballet dancer and choreographer Rudolph Nureyev purposely allow prima ballerina Natalia Makarova to fall before the eyes of thousands of aghast patrons in Paris?

It happened back in 1971. The willful Nureyev, known for acts of great generosity and cruelty, was performing “Swan Lake” with fellow defector Makarova. The conditions were challenging. It was outdoors in the walled courtyard of the Louvre Museum. Because of cold weather and a slick stage, it was announced that it was too dangerous for Makarova to perform the 32 cyclonic turns as The Black Swan that audiences hotly anticipate. She nonetheless, still was called to execute several rapid sequences of leaps and pirouettes. In her third gyre the petite, barely 5-foot-tall dancer reached for Nureyev, who did not take the several steps necessary to catch her. Makarova hit the stage, her head banging the boards with a thud.

The ballerina would claim that Nureyev purposely held back and let her fall, a breach of trust between dancers. Relations between the pair were icy for 12 years until a performance at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House in 1983 seemed to lead to a thaw.

But the question has always remained. What really happened?

Forestville writer Barbara Baer takes on the lingering question in a new novella, “The Ballet Lover,” (Open Books; $15.95) set within the insular world of ballet at its highest levels back in the early 1970s. Baer spins the story around a young ballet critic and writer, Geneva - loosely based on herself - who witnesses the incident, and Nureyev’s arrogant failure to even help his partner to her feet. Geneva becomes determined to write about the incident, but runs into opposition from an editor who doesn’t want to ruffle feathers.

It may seen like an obscure footnote in the history of dance. But it has intrigued Baer ever since she watched that notorious fall as a young ballet critic, sitting in the audience that day. It haunted her.

Nureyev, dubbed “Lord of the Dance,” died of AIDS in 1993. Makarova continued to dance and choreograph and eventually wound up in the Bay Area, connected to the San Francisco dance scene. With her late husband Edward Karkar, she maintained a home near St. Helena.

Baer, who raises pomegranates and olives on her property in Forestville, founded the small Floreant Press in 1995. With Floreant she published six books, including two anthologies of North Coast women writers and “Pomegranate Roads, a Soviet Botanist’s Exile from Eden.”

Baer’s book comes out at a time when even people who don’t know much about dance, flock to see that one ballet beloved by all - “The Nutcracker.”

When did you first develop a love of ballet?

I’m not a dancer. Like many untalented not-built-for-it girls, I was never any good at it. But I love it, especially when I see a performer that somehow reaches beyond just the usual “Swan Lake” or “Giselle.” I discovered it when I was living in London in the 1960s and I went to The Royal Ballet a lot. I lived with a friend and was making very little money, translating Fodor guidebooks.

Did you ever dance yourself?

“I went to India and studied Bharatanyam, a classical South Indian dance of gestures. It’s also very formalized. It’s telling stories, like when they tell epics. It’s very emotional. I wrote a novel about it that’s going to be published by the same publisher, Open Press.

You then returned to London in 1971. Why brought you back?

I just got this chance to write about ballet, and Nureyev and Makarova, because she had just defected (in 1970). I stayed with a family friend and saw these Royal Ballet rehearsals and performances. And then I went to Paris to see Nureyev and Makarova when they were guest artists with The Paris Ballet. The spring before, when I was actually living in London, I got to watch a bunch of ballet classes. I always loved watching and there were all these balletomanes, (ballet groupies) who always knew what was going on. They said there was going to be this young fabulous dancer in Barcelona. It was Baryshnikov. He had not yet defected. But I got to see him.

There is a scene in your book where the young writer observes Nureyev in rehearsal.

That was based on an actual experience.

Why do you think Nureyev let Makarova fall?

“I think that he was inattentive. He didn’t like people to upstage him. And she’d done that in London, really willfully. He’d made things so difficult for her I guess her response was, ‘I’m going to fling myself at him. To hell with it. People did not cross him. He was very, very tough. From all I’ve read, when he liked someone he could be extremely kind, especially to people who weren’t threatening, like all the illustrious ladies who flocked around him, like Jacqueline Kennedy. But was also famously cruel, particularly to ballerinas, but also other male dancers.

Did Makarova provoke it?

No one knows. She had her own kind of tempo. She may have been testing a little bit and he just wasn’t there to capture her. When she was doing Juliet in London (just before the Paris fall) she was almost frighteningly glassy-eyed, which she would sometimes do with her Giselles. She would just get so bored doing one after another Giselle, the heartbreak and dying and then coming back as a spirit.

You also performed for a short time with the famous mime Lindsay Kemp?

I happened to be a part of this group. I was not particularly talented but I could climb up and down. That was the only time I ever made any money in London. I was part of David Bowie’s “Ziggy Stardust and the Spider from Mars,” which seems like a very long time ago, 1971. Lindsay had all these followers and people who came in and out. Most everybody was gay. I was not only straight but they were all doing a lot of drugs...I was not.”

So how did your experience in London lead to your connection with Nureyev and Makarova?

I saw lots of dance performances. At some point I came back to America. I had gotten real interested in the Russian dancers who defected and what they were doing. Somehow I got connected with dance magazines and I wrote as a correspondent for them. I came back to London on assignment and I had these complimentary tickets. That’s when I saw this very painful and difficult rehearsal that Nureyev and Makarova had, first in London and then in Paris. Eventually I did get to interview Nureyev and I interviewed Makarova several times. But I kept thinking about that pivotal, non-pivotal time in Paris, when Nureyev let her fall. She still blames him. I just kept seeing that whirling around … and the shock. I just kept thinking about it and I wanted to write about it.

You were there up in the bleachers. What did you see?

It was in this awful outdoor coliseum, the Cour Caree at the Louvre, where they did sound and light shows. There was a cold wind. They had canned music. When it happened I was somewhat mesmerized and terrified. I was shocked and everybody was silent. The music stopped. He left her lying on the stage. It was just horrifying. He did not rush to her. Eventually she pulled herself up. Then they started the music again and she went through to the end of the black (swan) act. A couple of nights later she wouldn’t do the bravura dancing that was required for the black swan to seduce him. He got furious and publicly talked about her in the press.

In the novel, why does the young writer come to closely identify with Makarova?

She’s trusting. She tries to be herself and write what she thinks is true, like in a sense, Makarova was trying to be herself and dance and not shrink away from the challenge Nureyev posed to her. She identified with her because she was vulnerable and a woman and an absolutely beautiful dancer, much more than Nureyev, who had beauty and charisma but wasn’t as classically fine a dancer. Geneva gets too close and feels too much identification, which the dancer doesn’t want.”

What is it about ballet that captivates you?

I just transfer my own life into something that is going on up there. I think people who become infatuated with ballet, for those 2 or 3 hours, are living this mythic story, silly as the story may be. I still find it extraordinarily beautiful. And when it’s someone like Maya Plisetskaya or Makarova, it’s as though they’re dancing a mythic figure. I don’t know much about technique. But it doesn’t have to be a great ballerina or ballet dancer. They just need to somehow embody that character so that person in the audience feels like they’re carried along in the magic of it. It’s almost truly a world above there own that they have access to for a short time.”

You can reach Staff Writer Meg McConahey at or 707-521-5204. On Twitter @Megmcconahey.

Meg McConahey

Features, The Press Democrat

Like most everyone, I love a good feature story that takes me somewhere I’ve never been or tells me something I don’t know. Where can I take you? Who in Sonoma County would you like to know better? I cover the people, places and ideas that make up Sonoma County, with general features, people profiles and home and garden, interior design and architecture stories. Hit me up with your tips, ideas and burning questions.


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