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Sixteen years ago, a 10-year-old girl started to dream about one day dancing Swan Lake on the New York stage just as her idol, Natalia Makarova, had done in 1976. That 10-year-old girl was me. Little did I know that nine years later, my dream would come true, and on the exact same stage as Makarova had performed. Since then I have gotten to perform Odette/Odile about 10 times, and every time I go back to the tape of Makarova I've studied for over 16 years. No one can compare to the fragile strength of her arms, or the intense fear she has in her eyes when first faced with the prince. It was never about the tricks or the turns, but how she embodied every single aspect of her character, how she captivated the audience with every single movement of her head or hands. Even the way she bowed made the audience clap for more.
In early October, I found out that Makarova was receiving the Kennedy Center Honor. At that moment, I made it my mission to find a way to get to the ceremony on December 2 to see this in person. To sum it up, the Kennedy Center honor is the highest honor as an artist that one can receive in America. To me, this was a dream come true, as an artist and ballerina, to see my idol awarded this highest honor and to know that I could be there to witness it. Needless to say, after many emails and three, in particular, very gracious women, I had a ticket and dinner seat at the most prestigious arts ceremony in American culture.
When the day came, I boarded the train to DC, and the next thing I know I am dressed in my J. Mendel gown and arriving at the Kennedy Center. I decide not to walk the red carpet, but to go right inside the theater, to find that my seat was in the front row! At that moment, it all became real for me; that I was meant to be here to witness this iconic moment in time. I watched as all the celebrities and dignitaries made there way in, until all were seated before the President, First Lady, and honorees arrived. That night Makarova was surrounded by Dustin Hoffman, Buddy Guy, David Letterman, and the surviving members of Led Zeppelin. She wore a striking red headscarf that matched her dress.
The ceremony began with a video of President Obama presenting the honorees with their medallions. The first of two moments that brought me to tears that night was the words of the President: “They don't do this for the money, they do this because they have no other choice but to do this.” For an artist, life chooses this path for you and there is no way to turn it down.
Makarova was the second of the night to be honored. When Judith Jamison presented to her, the tears immediately started to roll down my face; this was the moment I had dreamed about for months. I held onto every word she said about Natalia and would turn to look back to see her reactions, all the while shaking as if I was about to be the one honored. They showed a video montage of her great performances and interviews, and every word and vision captivated me as if I was seeing her dance and speak for the first time. I suddenly became 10 years old again, and at that moment I felt like being there meant more to me then anyone else in that room. I tried to take a picture of her when everyone stood up to applaud but I was shaking too much and for sure making a fool of myself by yelling brava way too many times.
I was very lucky to be able to watch some of my colleagues that I admire and respect: Tiler Peck, David Hallberg and Marcelo Gomes. They danced with such beauty and grace that I'm sure that if I got asked to dance, I would not compare to what they showed.
The night continued into a blues concert, then a comedy show, and ended with a rock concert. All in all, I would say it was one of the most memorable performances I have ever been to or will ever see.
After the performance was over, the dinner was set up in the grand foyer, illuminated with purple lights shining from everywhere. It was like a fairy tale ball at Cinderella's palace. I was so unbelievably lucky to be seated at one of Makarova’s tables, with all the dancers, previous honorees, family, and friends. The moment of truth was upon me, I would once again meet Makarova, but this time as a ballerina. I had met her briefly when I was 16; the New York City Ballet was honoring her and I got the chance to dance for her as a student of the School of American Ballet.
After dinner was served, I saw her rise from her chair; she walked over to where I was, put her hands around my face, and said, “Hi!” All of a sudden, my mouth became dry and words were not able to form. I didn't have any plan of what I was going to say to her, but it didn't matter at that point. Not many words were exchanged, but she did say, “You don't look like I thought you would in person. Onstage you are very dramatic.” Again, I didn't know what to say. In all honesty, I didn't think a conversation was possible because I wouldn't have been able to put sentences together. Just to be in her presence was more than my dreams had imagined. The last thing she said to me was “Good luck with Swan Lake.”
The night ended and I walked out by myself as I had walked in, but my life had been changed. I couldn't fall asleep that night and didn’t want to take off my gown.
If you ever get the chance to be near or have an experience with your idol, don't expect much of yourself and just live in the moment. Words may not be exchanged but they know, and you know, how important that moment of silence is. I get teary-eyed just thinking about it and I suspect that will never leave me. Her legacy and career will continue to inspire me until the day dance leaves my body. I will forever strive for the embodiment, the passion, the dedication she gave to the art form of ballet. Thank you Makarova for forever inspiring me and making a 10-year-old’s dream come true.
NOTE: The broadcast of the Kennedy Center Honors will air on CBS, Dec. 26 at 9 p.m. ET.
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