LONDON — When American Ballet Theatre principal dancer Cynthia Harvey first told artistic director Mikhail Baryshnikov that she wanted to leave the company, she remembers that he turned white.
"I knew that something like this would happen," she recalls Baryshnikov saying. "What are you going to do--defect to the Bolshoi?"
Not exactly. After 12 years with Ballet Theatre, Harvey had been offered a year's contract with Britain's Royal Ballet--"literally a dream come true," she exclaims. "But I knew I'd have to face Misha (Baryshnikov) first. I didn't want to offend him."
However, as soon as Baryshnikov understood Harvey's plans, he responded very well, according to Harvey. "Do what you have to do," he said. "It's a fantastic opportunity."
In the dancers' lounge on the fourth floor at Covent Garden's Royal Opera House, Harvey smiles at the memory. Faint piano music drifts through the double doors of an adjoining room, known as the De Valois Studio, where Anthony Dowell--the new artistic director of the Royal Ballet--is conducting a rehearsal.
It was Dowell who invited Harvey to join the Royal Ballet. He says he remembered Harvey from the 1978-'80 Ballet Theatre seasons, when he danced with the company as a guest artist. He especially appreciated her ability to combine American energy and drive with an economy of movement.
"She was the most classical of the lot," he says, "and I thought that she'd fit in well at the Royal Ballet."
Harvey recalls getting along "famously" with Dowell at Ballet Theatre: "We had the same sense of humor and, actually, I danced my very first full-length ballet, 'Don Quixote,' with him as my partner. Can you get a better deal?
"Then, once he knew he would become artistic director, he phoned me. I remember him saying that he had many fine young and senior ballerinas in the company, but that there would be a spot for me somewhere in between."
She jokingly adds, "That makes me middle-aged, I suppose." (Harvey is 29). When pressed, however, she speaks of her reputation as a "no-trouble dancer," someone who "might make life easier for Dowell" in his first year as director.
Dowell was the one who insisted that Harvey obtain Baryshnikov's blessing before joining the Royal Ballet.
"He told me, 'I definitely don't want you to do it if Misha won't take you back,' " she says. Baryshnikov said he would.
Harvey thus became the first American ballerina to land a contract with the Royal Ballet, which previously had a firm policy limiting visits by foreign dancers to guest appearances only.
She appears happy and relaxed in this new situation, which began in August. "This offer was a tremendous boost to my ego," she declares. "I've practically idolized Dowell ever since I was a little girl. But he doesn't like to be reminded of that--he's sensitive about his age," she says with a laugh.
Harvey, a native of San Rafael, Calif., received her early training at the Novato School of Ballet (with Christine Walton), and was subsequently a scholarship student at San Francisco Ballet, the School of American Ballet in New York and the National Ballet of Canada school in Toronto.
In 1974, she joined Ballet Theatre as a member of the corps, was made a soloist in 1978 and four years later was promoted to principal dancer by Baryshnikov.
She is quick to point out that her working situation at Ballet Theatre was happy and satisfying. "I didn't suffer any setbacks when Misha took over (as director). I believe I had the support of both the company and management."
What propelled her toward the Royal Ballet, she says, was primarily the opportunity to work directly with the company's resident choreographers. "I am particularly delighted to be able to have access to (Sir Frederick) Ashton, who doesn't fly very much," she says.
There was little time to prepare emotionally for the change. "I didn't know for sure if it would really happen until near the time of the actual departure," she explains. "It took a lot of red tape to get the proper working papers.
"Up to the very moment that I was packing my suitcases to leave, I was asking myself--Why am I doing this? It seemed to me a courageous act to give up my security for the unknown, but I knew it was the proper move."
When asked whether other Royal Ballet dancers have expressed resentment at this American newcomer (who in her first six weeks in the company learned four new major roles), Dowell admitted diplomatically: "That kind of thing is hard to avoid. At the same time, no one has expressed any negative feelings openly."
Harvey says she has experienced no "backbiting" whatsoever. "The other dancers couldn't have been more generous."
For instance, after the first stage rehearsal of the fall season's opening program, (on which she danced Jerome Robbins' "Opus 19, The Dreamer"), the members of the company, much to her surprise, complimented her for looking so "abandoned."
She pauses. "Now, I ask you--am I known (in America) as an 'abandoned' dancer?" Hardly.