The Ballet Lover by Barbara L. Baer exposes the beauty and cruelty of ballet, the performances, the back stage moments, and the personal dramas of the famous ballet dancers Rudolf Nureyev and Natalia Makarova as seen through the eyes of an American female journalist. Here is an exclusive excerpt from the novel:
Now, with an intake of breath, the ballerina extended her long forearms upward in Juliet’s beautiful signature arabesque, lifting herself into attitude, every cell yearning for Romeo. But she must have held her pose too long because rather than float into his arms, she collided with Nureyev’s back. Perhaps he turned away. Russian words followed.
Nureyev in his leg warmers now circled. He threw his hands in the air and stared out at the audience. Laughter erupted.
Geneva wrote with the tiny pen’s light. Crude people laugh. Worried for NM.
When Makarova spun and missed her timing again, Nureyev stepped aside and almost let her fall, reaching out his hand at the last moment.
Geneva gasped, unbelieving. He was endangering his ballerina. Any fall could do damage, even break a bone or tear a tendon.
Geneva remembered Makarova’s words in New York, “I am vulnerable.”
Georgina Parkinson came out to talk with the dancers. She huddled beside Nureyev. Geneva hoped she was appealing to him to help Makarova learn her role, to stress how his countrywoman depended on him. Nureyev scratched his head, waggled his hands at his side like Petrushka and assumed his innocent I didn’t do anything pose. Georgina walked to where Makarova was staring at her feet. She nodded her small head beneath the ominous wig. “Da, Da,” Geneva heard her say.
Under Parkinson’s gaze, Nureyev showed Makarova where she should place herself for lifts, where she must land. She still seemed tentative when they began the adagio, their last embrace before Romeo’s flight to Padua. Geneva held her breath. Makarova stumbled. Nureyev expelled the word “idiot” loudly, Russian intonation on the final syllable. Georgina Parkinson held up her hand. “Ladies and gentleman, break here. Everyone back in half an hour and we’ll go through to the end.”
Nureyev sprang into the orchestra pit where he greeted friends and kissed the painted cheeks of Madame Veliani who whispered in his ear and made him bray. A fat man with mutton chops and suspenders popped a champagne bottle close enough to send fizz into Geneva’s face. He handed a glass to Nureyev who drained it.
Geneva was keeping her head down, writing and trying not to be observed, when she realized the chatter around her had stopped. She raised her eyes to see Nureyev with his hands on his hips at the end of her row, staring in her direction. She pulled back her head to give him an unobstructed view of the young man in the row, assuming he was the object of interest. Connor had described Nureyev’s penchant for quickies between the acts, how sex didn’t deplete but rather invigorated Rudi.
“Come, we go to talk.” Nureyev was crooking his finger at Geneva and no one else. Had he seen her taking notes? Was he going to humiliate her for thinking subversive thoughts? He kept beckoning. She had no choice but to obey. She rose, knees trembling, apologized for stepping over legs to get to the aisle while she felt eyes burning into the back of her head.
Nureyev’s striding figure in baggy pants led up a dark stairway into a corridor where he stopped, produced a key to a door emblazoned with a royal crest, motioned Geneva to step into a gold-brocaded box that opened onto the stage below.
“Here Queen sits. And here I am.” Nureyev pointed to the seat with the royal crest and indicated Geneva take the chair behind it. He mimed writing in a notebook. Was he giving permission or ordering her to take notes?
“Once I dress as footman. Game I play with Queen who laughs like horse.” He snorted, somehow softening his features until he looked uncannily like Elizabeth II. Connor had told her if Rudolf hadn’t been a dancer, he’d have been a comic actor.
Nureyev’s gold-green eyes speckled with mischief and the scar on his lip glistened. His sweater was damp and warm with perspiration and the wool had a musky earthy smell. This close, she felt her resistance drain away. She was cold and hot in different parts of her body at the same time.
The entire time alone with Nureyev, Geneva never opened her mouth to ask a question. How could she when Rudolf Nureyev talked non-stop. She didn’t know how long she sat, or whether she accurately got down on paper anything he said. If she’d had a question, her voice wouldn’t have come out louder than a squeak. Later, trying to transcribe, she remembered that every verb, every gesture that Nureyev used was in the present.
“Not so many years classical dancing left for me.” He had looked at his feet in their pair of old grey dance slippers. “I use self up, burn self out, stretch body before I am finished. I want choreographer to squeeze me dry—like lemon.” He squeezed his fist. “When I have no more juice, I am happy.”
Nureyev lay down on the carpet two feet from Geneva to demonstrate a writhing motion. “For modern dance, I must relax back. Contract, not expand muscles, move into floor. You are tree or animal. You make knots, tie and untie self on floor.” Then he got up and looked over the edge of the box to the stage below where Georgina Parkinson was teaching Makarova her steps for Juliet’s visit to the Friar. At the moment that Makarova ran from side to side with the vial of the Friar’s sleeping potion raised in her hands, Nureyev extended his arms over his head and gave a great yawn that made everyone below turn their heads toward him.
He bowed slightly to Geneva, doffed his cap, sprang two steps upward and out of the Royal Box, leaving Geneva alone to face Natalia Makarova’s dark eyes.
By the time Geneva stumbled down the stairs to sit in the back of the orchestra, Makarova was lying in the family crypt in pretend-death from the friar’s potion. Nureyev arrived, picked up a knife, and stabbed himself several times, rolling his eyes before falling on the stage. Makarova rose and walked stiff-legged into the wings.
Nureyev stripped off his leg warmers and began to unroll another layer from his waist until between his flesh-colored unitard and bulging dance belt there was little to imagine. Geneva heard him say, “Natasha, come. Time is money.” He crooked his finger toward the wings. “Come, Natasha, let us work.”
For the next hour, Nureyev rehearsed Makarova in Romeo and Juliet. He was gentle, even paternal, with his ballerina.