SAN FRANCISCO — Poor, myopic, Webster--a generalist to a fault--didn't get it quite right.
A ballerina, according to his New World Dictionary of the American Language, is just "a woman ballet dancer."
If we accept that simplistic but popular definition, any female--good or bad, young or old, tall or short, thin or fat, amateur or professional--who can put on a tutu and point a toe must be a ballerina. Perish the ignoble thought.
A ballerina is special, a radiant, otherworldly being who not only undertakes the most challenging and most glamorous roles in the repertory but illuminates those roles with her unique interpretive qualities and technical skills.
Natalia Makarova, who all-too-briefly rejoins American Ballet Theatre at Shrine Auditorium this week in Kenneth MacMillan's complete "Romeo and Juliet" and in his "Manon" pas de deux, isn't just a ballerina. She is a prima ballerina, a dancer universally ranked among those at the top of her class. The most class-conscious of aficionados actually call her a prima ballerina assoluta --the rarest of swans, worthy of a place at the very top of the top.
"We don't have many ballerinas any more," explains Makarova, one of the last of the assolutas , in soft yet bumpy tones that invoke the aura of her native Leningrad. "A ballerina must have personality. She is not just a principal dancer. Being a ballerina takes more. She must say something. She must make a mark. She must approach the ideal image of the choreography. Or, like me, she must grab everywhere to try to achieve something."
Frail, mercurial and chronically candid, Makarova sits by a huge window in the Marina home she shares with her husband, electronics tycoon Edward Karkar. She stops smoking only long enough to sip some champagne while eyeing Alcatraz across the bay and children flying kites across the street.
Her son Andrusha--6 years old, long-legged and exceptionally bright--nonchalantly informs a visitor that he sometimes spots sharks and whales through the same window. Then the boy retreats to a couch from which he reads a book on marine biology and monitors the interview.
Makarova is pensive. At 44, she is nearing the point in her career where her body does not invariably do what her mind dictates. Alicia Alonso may have danced Giselle in her 60s; Dame Margot Fonteyn and Galina Ulanova may have danced Juliet in their 50s. Still, the passage of time cannot be ignored.
Makarova is ignoring nothing. She has suffered serious shoulder and knee injuries in the not-too-distant past, and the pain lingers. She has staged some ballets, with mixed success, and, without initial success, explored the possibility of running a company of her own. She has triumphed in a revival of the musical "On Your Toes" both on Broadway and in London. She is toying with the idea of doing another show, and says she looks forward to the day when she will "give away my roles" to young dancers.
"Right now," sighs Makarova, "I face many choices, many problems."
Juliet is the first of them. She knows the character well, having danced the original Lavrovsky version of the Prokofiev ballet at the Kirov, the MacMillan version in London and New York, and the Cranko version in Munich and Rio. Not incidentally, she also has ventured a pair of unrelated, non-Prokofiev Juliets--those of Antony Tudor and Igor Tchernichov.
"The steps change," she shrugs, "but the character is the same. The passions, to a degree, also are the same. I think I have done all the Juliets now, except Bejart, Ashton and Grigorovich."
Luckily, she seems to like the Juliet on her current agenda best. "MacMillan," she purrs, "requires the most acting, the most personality, especially as compared to Cranko. (It was the Cranko "Romeo" that the Joffrey Ballet brought to Los Angeles in January.) I was frustrated with Cranko. It gave me not enough abandon. I could not let go. Everything was so contained. MacMillan gives freedom. It is very demanding physically, but very rewarding.
"The Lavrovsky 'Romeo' in Leningrad was so formal, so old-fashioned, so literal. I didn't like. It left no room to explore the character. I could not interpret inside the pattern. I loved Ulanova in the role, but what was right for her wasn't possible for me. I know the Lavrovsky 'Romeo' was the first, and is very important. But I left Russia to escape things like that."
Apparently, she also left to avoid things like the Grigorovich "Romeo," which has supplanted the Lavrovsky original at the Bolshoi and which was seen here in 1979.
"Jesus!" she cries. Her delicate hands execute the most disdainful of gestures. "It is as if nothing has happened over there all these years. The more they try to be modern in Russia, the more old-fashioned they look. Awful."