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