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Cynthia Gregory At 40: 'I Did It The Hard Way'

January 04, 1987|DONNA PERLMUTTER

Cynthia Gregory looked thoughtfully at a steaming plate of bacon and eggs just set before her and stubbed out a cigarette in an ashtray. The arrival of food interrupted her flow of talk after a recent late morning class at Stanley Holden's dance studio in West Los Angeles. With unflappable grace, the former Angelena resumed her discourse on life as a big-time ballerina.

At 40, the tall, dark-haired dancer was peering back over her shoulder, a natural perspective, given the fact that she had already received an extravagant tribute for her 20 stellar years at American Ballet Theatre.

That celebration occurred at the Metropolitan Opera House in June, 1985. The company lavished on Gregory a gala in which she danced favorite choreography (including the Rose Adagio from "Sleeping Beauty" and excepts from "Miss Julie") with favorite partners (among them Fernando Bujones, Ted Kivitt and William Carter).

Pelted with petals and bouquets and streamers, she might as well have been the subject of a ticker-tape parade.

"It was a fantastic night," recalled the honoree, in reserved and evenly modulated tones that seemed to belie the substance of her words. But Gregory sloughed off any intimation that the fete was offered as compensation for slights suffered in the course of those two decades.

"I'm not bitter," she explained, referring to her several door-slamming exits from Ballet Theatre earlier on and the many publicized unhappinesses she voiced in the past about allegedly unfair treatment by company management. "I don't hold grudges. The company didn't need to compensate me. If anything, the evening became an incentive to do new things."

What she chose, as an alternative to watching the career, in her words, "go downhill from there," was a tour package inspired by the gala itself. Producer Akiva Talmi saw the show, Gregory said, and "asked me to put together what we're calling 'Cynthia Gregory and Company: The Celebration Tour.' "

Sponsored by various health and rehabilitation charities, the 30-city traveling show arrives March 9 at the Los Angeles Music Center during Ballet Theatre's March season in Shrine Auditorium. And it promises Linda Ronstadt, singing songs from her album "Sentimental Reasons" to which Michael Smuin has set the choreography that Gregory dances.

The sleekly groomed ballerina expressed concern over what she sees as an unlucky timing coincidence.

"I haven't spoken to anyone about the (local tour) date," she confessed. "When I signed this contract, Misha (Baryshnikov) was in Europe with half of the company filming the new 'Giselle.' And then came the fall layoff, with everybody scattered. But I've jumped to the conclusion that they won't want me if my single night at the Pavilion is seen as competition.

"As it stands, the number of performances I'll do this season with Ballet Theatre comes to half of what I usually did. Most likely, I'll dance just once in Los Angeles, a 'Sleeping Beauty.' But the tour keeps me busy and so do my commitments to the Cleveland/San Jose Ballet where I've agreed to be a principal guest for two seasons.

"What's important to me now is making wise moves. I have roughly five more good years and I want to make the most of them."

Gregory joined Ballet Theatre as a principal dancer in 1965, when the company was making its name both by enticing glittery foreign-born stars to its stage and by developing native dancers into Terpsichore's heroes and heroines.

But in the '70s, when such Russian eminences as Natalia Makarova and Baryshnikov captured the imagination of press and public alike, she and other members of the American contingent felt they were unjustifiably eclipsed. Having achieved a grand status but arguably never quite matching the Russians' e clat , she came to personify the syndrome of discontent.

"We surely weren't in the limelight after the defectors arrived," mused Gregory. "But we all got to dance. We did it the hard way, the American way.

"Sometimes it seems like more people know me for my TV commercials than for performing a role. But making the American Express and Raytheon ads was fun and fantastic publicity and lots of money."

At one point during the Soviet influx, Gregory thought she had come in for a windfall. Alexander Godunov made his getaway from the Bolshoi Ballet during a New York visit. And the ballerina who suffered a shortage of tall, charismatic partners--on pointe she stands six feet tall--clapped her hands at the prospect of dancing with him.

But not long after joining Ballet Theatre, the blond danseur' s career took a swing toward Hollywood, leaving Gregory where she began.

Now there are other concerns. Since Baryshnikov took over the company's direction, many senior principals have complained of being bypassed for plucked-from-the-corps fledglings.

Gregory, again in a mild voice, pinpointed the phenomenon: "Some people think a ballerina is any little girl who can dance."

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