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Nadia Nerina, 1927 - 2008

Enchanting, virtuosic dancer inspired 'La Fille Mal Gardee'

October 14, 2008|Adam Bernstein | Washington Post

Nadia Nerina, an enchanting and virtuosic ballet dancer who inspired choreographer Frederick Ashton's enduring comedy "La Fille Mal Gardee" and outperformed Rudolf Nureyev, died Oct. 6 at her home in Beaulieu-sur-Mer on the French Riviera. She was 80.

Nerina was one of the major classical ballet dancers of the 1950s and '60s and a reigning presence in the Sadler's Wells company, which became the Royal Ballet.

Her dancing peers at the London-based organization included Margot Fonteyn, Svetlana Beriosova, Maryon Lane, Pamela May and, notably, Nureyev, the Soviet defector whose arrival in 1961 overshadowed nearly everyone except Fonteyn.

Until that moment, Nerina had thrived in the spotlight. She was revered for her physical beauty, delicacy of movement and perfect control in a range of prominent roles.

"I only once decided to show off, and if it was naughty, it was also great fun," she said. "When Rudolf Nureyev did his first 'Giselle' in London, he caused a sensation by interpolating 16 superb entrechat-six into the second act."

An entrechat-six is a high, light jump in which the legs crisscross swiftly in the air, blurring like hummingbird wings.

"It was a rare achievement," Nerina said, "but it caused dismay amongst some of the company, who could do as well but, not being guest artists, would not dare change the choreography."

Nerina said she took revenge a few nights later in "Swan Lake" while onstage with dancer Erik Bruhn, one of Nureyev's lovers.

"When we came to the Black Swan pas de deux, on a sudden impulse I decided to do 32 entrechat-six instead of the usual fouettes (a series of whipping turns on one leg). I would show our guest artist what the Royal Ballet could do, for I knew that Nureyev was in the audience watching the performance.

"If I had thought about it, I don't suppose I could possibly have done them," she wrote. "But the audience loved it -- I know I did -- and so did the company."

Nerina was a favorite of Ashton, who showcased her daring leaps and featherlike qualities as Queen of the Earth in "Homage to the Queen" (1953) and her solo work in "Birthday Offering" (1956).

Her charm won her many soubrette, or coquettish, parts -- memorably as the daughter Lise, whose mother tries to arrange her marriage to a wealthy farmer's son in "La Fille Mal Gardee" (the title refers to a willful girl).

New York Times dance critic John Martin wrote that Nerina "steps into the front rank as both dancer and comedian" and praised her for an astonishing technique that recalled "all the bravura of a Soviet ballerina."

Her coloring and lightness did not automatically translate to darker works, but she made several valiant efforts, notably in Kenneth MacMillan's "Noctambules," a dark tale of a hypnotist in which she played a veiled woman pursued by suitors.

Nadine Judd was born Oct. 21, 1927, in Bloemfontein, South Africa, and received private tutoring as a child after her mother died.

She had weak feet as a girl, and a doctor urged her to take ballet. She became a student with a disciple of Anna Pavlova's and intensified her studies when her talent became clear.

In 1946, she traveled to England and, having initially adopted the name Nadia Moore, joined Sadler's Wells, where she advanced rapidly.

In 1953, Martin wrote of her appearance at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York as Princess Aurora in "The Sleeping Beauty": "She is as pretty as a picture, has great charm and can dance like a million dollars. When Miss Nerina has developed a musical phrase to equal her command of the physical medium, we shall all be fighting to drink champagne out of her slippers."

After her triumph in "La Fille Mal Gardee," Nerina continued to dance in leading roles and was a guest artist with the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow and the Kirov Ballet in Leningrad.

By the mid-1960s, she had reduced her contribution to the Royal Ballet to focus on other dance projects.

She retired to France with her husband, merchant banker Charles Gordon.

He is her only immediate survivor.

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