Veronika Part as Manon in Neumeier's Lady of the Camellias. Photo by Matthew Karas.
In 1999, when the Kirov Ballet brought its reconstruction of the original Sleeping Beauty to Lincoln Center, a young soloist of special radiance kept stealing the show. Her name was Veronika Part, and although she did not dance the role of Aurora she was clearly a ballet princess born and bred. First there was the instrument: even by ballet's perfectionist standards Part's physique was remarkable for its long, sculpted limbs, exquisitely arched feet, and a neck and shoulder line of Renaissance grace. Then there was the technique: correct yet lush, nuanced yet breathtakingly large-scale. And finally her face: Part was a dark-haired, pale-skinned beauty with a smile of sheer enchantment. In that New York engagement, the Kirov unveiled her as the Lilac Fairy, classical dance's supreme expression of divine right.
“It was an open graciousness," says Kevin McKenzie, the artistic director of American Ballet Theatre, when asked what struck him about Part in those Beautys. “It was this warm, embracing presence."
When the Kirov returned to Lincoln Center three years later, in 2002, Part danced a mesmerizing Swan Lake, her “embracing presence" more luminous than ever. McKenzie invited her to join American Ballet Theatre and she said yes.
Part was born in St. Petersburg, Russia, in 1978. Prophetically, the doctor who delivered her said, “Oh, she has pretty legs." Thus Part's mother decided that her new daughter should be a ballerina. For six years, however, starting at age 4, Part studied gymnastics. “I was happy with what I was doing," she says. “I was a professional athlete already, doing all these competitions." At 10, Part was taken to the Vaganova Academy for an audition. “My mom wanted me to have a different life from her, because at that time there was the Iron Curtain. Nobody could go outside the country, or see other cultures." Part passed the rigorous three-part audition and began studying classical dance.
From her first days in the school Part attracted the attention of star ballerinas who had retired and become teachers or coaches. And in a generation that included classmates like Diana Vishneva, Daria Pavlenko, and Svetlana Zakharova, Part was recognized as one of the most exceptional students the Academy had ever seen. “She was unlike any other," says Irina Kolpakova, the legendary Kirov ballerina who coaches her at ABT.
Part joined the Kirov Ballet at 18. Her first coach in the company was the versatile Gabriella Komleva, and then she worked with Ninel Kurgapkina and Yelena Yevteyeva. “Kurgapkina was more bravura," Part says. “Yevteyeva had a Romantic style. Every person can give you something different. Later, I worked most of the time with Lubov Kunakova. She's like my second family." At 20, and while still a Kirov soloist, Part danced Odette/Odile and Raymonda. When the company mounted Balanchine's Jewels in 1999, she danced the lead in “Diamonds" and the second lead in “Emeralds." So the big roles were coming. Yet the offer from ABT meant that Part could experience another country, could test herself in a new environment with new choreographers. She made the leap.
That said, the transition from a state-supported company in her own hometown to an American company in noisy New York City was not easy. And Part was shy. She arrived in Manhattan in August of 2002, with “just two suitcases. I didn't even have toe shoes, just clothes. I was completely alone. I didn't have any friends. I had a job, but that was pretty much it."
“She appeared on our doorstep," recalls McKenzie, “this fabulous dancer who didn't have a lot of English, didn't know how to deal with a bank account or even write a check. Once the living thing was confronted, there was the professional etiquette she needed to assimilate. She went from the careful preparation that comes from the Soviet system to ABT, where you do everything all the time all at once. So it was a big adjustment."
It became clear that McKenzie was going to bring Part along slowly. Ranked a soloist, she was cast in supporting roles—Queen of the Dryads in Don Quixote, Lady Capulet in Romeo and Juliet—and each season she received more leads: Mozartiana, Ballet Imperial, Swan Lake, Raymonda, La Bayadère. To every role Part brought a clarity that read as poetry. The cathedral spaces in her port de bras, the strong extensions elegantly placed, an extremely deep plié, and an arabesque to die for—here was Imperial style in its purest form.
“Her great gift is the line of her body," says Kolpakova. “Her arms and eyes and neck. And she understands music. She always listens."
Indeed, Part's listening is visible in phrasing that is sensitive and soulful. In describing the quality of her dancing, critics have reached for words like “creamy," “cantilena," “sensuous," and “singing." In her years at ABT, Part has proved herself to be the great adagio artist of our time.
Nevertheless, we live in the fast-paced era of allegro. Part, at 5' 8", had to strive for the speed and attack that is so valued in America. “I have a very specific body that makes my life onstage more difficult," Part explains. “Long legs, flexible and hyper-extended. A big arch and a very thin ankle."
“Because Veronika's feet are so long and thin," says Kolpakova, “they're not strong. Her leg—it's beautiful but not straight. She works very hard to understand each position."
To watch Kolpakova coaching Part in Aurora's wedding variation is to witness the tiny and seemingly endless calibrations of hip and shoulder that are required to keep her pirouettes plumb and her pointe work lively. It's like watching two scientists in a lab, where even facial expression is discussed. Part remembers that in Russia they were told to wear a serene expression like that of the Mona Lisa. Kolpakova retorts, “You are Veronika Part—as Aurora in this moment! Not a Mona Lisa for all ages."
Of her early years at ABT, Part says, “You see yourself in the mirror every day, and you see how imperfect you are and it makes you afraid. I always raised the bar too high. I had to learn to change my attitude from 'Oh, no, I can't do this' to 'Yes, I can.' I had to learn how to condition my body and mind to go onstage no matter what."
With the conditioning of her body, the control of her emotions, and a growing ability to relax and roll with the punches, everything came together in 2009 and Part was promoted to principal. She danced brilliantly, fearlessly, ravishing Swan Lakes, high-flying Mozartianas, transcendent Lilac Fairys. Last year saw a New York performance of Aurora that was the most tenderly musical and stylistically expressive that this writer has ever seen. And last December, in Alexei Ratmansky's new Nutcracker, Part's performances were ecstatically received.
“Her Nutcracker, my god, it was out of this world," says McKenzie. “She's done Swan Lakes that are just amazing, some Queen of the Wilis that are chilling. Mercedes in Don Q—it's like, Holy Shomoly, clear the decks!"
Add to this Part's trusting and ever-deepening onstage partnership with Marcelo Gomes—a pairing one might describe as tall, dark, and glamorous—and you have stage magic.
“When Veronika is really being Veronika," says Gomes, “and we are out there onstage and everything is going well and she is at her ultimate peak, for me it's such a joy as a partner to see that and to be able to feel it in my own hands. Partnering is about coordination between you and your partner, and Veronika really helps you. She's got that jump, that ballon. And she surprises me in a really good way. She's got a great, great imagination."
Part has roles she's eager to try. Giselle is one of them: “I want to find a more dramatic side of myself," she says. Don Q's Kitri is another, “because I want to challenge my technique, I want to be stronger, and there's only one way to do it: to go through hard stuff that's not natural for you." Still, Part feels happiness in everything she dances. “Every role I'm doing, I'm living it. I never think who I am, I just know. I feel."
“She's a very different dancer than when she came to ABT," reflects Gomes. “She has matured as a woman and as an artist. Veronika was a ballerina when she got here, but I think she's gone on to become much bigger—a very grand lyrical ballerina."
“I think that what struck me initially," McKenzie says, “and what has continued to fascinate me, is she's got an inner strength to want to adapt. She wants to learn, to keep adding not only to her repertoire but to her knowledge. She loves the art form, and she's got this wonderful gift that works for the art form. But that's somehow not good enough for Veronika, she wants to go further."
And where Veronika goes, the ballet follows.
Laura Jacobs is the dance critic at The New Criterion and a staff writer at Vanity Fair.
Pictured inset: In rehearsal for a piece by Avi Scher. Photo by Matthew Murphy.
The Prince of Desire
For Nureyev, ballet was the one true love.
Nureyev: The Life
By Julie Kavanagh
New York: Pantheon; 2007. 800 p.,
It’s hard to believe there’s now a generation, maybe two, that’s never heard of Rudolf Nureyev. Starting in the ’60s, his surname was a household word combining the high culture of Maria Callas, the iconoclastic glamour of Andy Warhol, and the erotic kick of Mick Jagger. Nureyev was a dancer, and when he defected from East to West in 1961, leaving Russia’s Kirov Ballet for solitary stardom in the free world, he put classical dance smack at the center of popular culture. With the Soviet Union and the United States still locked in the Cold War, Nureyev, overnight, became a worldwide symbol of freedom. Talk about a spotlight.
And was any face better made for the spotlight, the flash bulb, than Rudi’s? He had the high cheekbones of a big cat, the rapt eyes of a Romantic poet, the sensual lips of a cad. It was the decade of the photographer, and Nureyev was like solar heat, answering the camera with his own Promethean fire. His burning desire was to dance every day, every role, everywhere. His life, in fact, was about desire—his own desire for the stage, for stardom, and the world’s desire for him. His first performance after defection was in The Sleeping Beauty—the role of Prince Désiré.
Here in the West, we tend to think of Nureyev’s life as having begun on June 16, 1961, the day of his defection. And in the newsreels and photographs he does look a babe, an orphaned fledgling suddenly finding flight (his second role in the West was Sleeping Beauty’s Bluebird—notice, by the way, how happily metaphors fit this dancer). Within months he formed a now-legendary partnership with Margot Fonteyn, 19 years his senior. The maternal calm she brought to his youthful burn added a powerful poetic dimension to their stage chemistry. Nureyev, however, wasn’t as impressionable or innocent as the imagery suggests. In a fascinating new documentary, Nureyev: The Russian Years (not slated yet for release on DVD), the prehistory of Nureyev, from his birth on a Trans-Siberian train in 1938 to his Paris defection, is set before us. We see that he was already driven, opinionated, and dead set on getting his way.
He had to be. The documentary takes us to the rural city of Ufa, where Nureyev grew up in grinding poverty. It shows us the kind of local folk dance club he joined and tells of the visit to Ufa’s opera house, Rudi’s first glimpse of ballet, which ignited his passion for classical dance. Despite his father’s deep disapproval, Rudi went to ballet class on the sly. By the age of 17, through his own implacable push, he made his way to the Vaganova Academy in St. Petersburg, and once there pushed further into the fabled class of Alexander Pushkin. Interviews with roommates and friends reveal a teen who lived and breathed ballet. “I will be the number one dancer in the world,” he declared. Arrogant, yes, but he was willing to sacrifice everything to that goal.
The clips of Nureyev dancing, many of them never seen before, show us an arrowy young man with a tiny waist and an ardent intensity. His chainés are whip-quick (and would become a signature), his grand jetés not long and reaching but high and hilly. His double tours en l’aire are clean, plumb, but the fifth positions from which he takes off are a mess, something between third and fourth position. Witnesses to these early Kirov performances all remark on the wild excitement, the exotic beauty, of Nureyev. From day one, even when technically rough, he had presence. The Royal Ballet’s Ninette de Valois would later say it was the “noble dignity” of his curtain call that convinced her of his greatness.
Much of the new information on display in Nureyev: The Russian Years comes from Julie Kavanagh, the author of a new biography, Nureyev: The Life. This 800-page book was 10 years in the making, and it is the most complete account of this singular man yet written, a view in-the-round buttressed by extensive quotes from dancers, choreographers, lovers, and friends. The most striking revelation is the news that Nureyev had a secret gay relationship while at the Kirov, a crime that if discovered could have sent him to jail. But due to his personality—demanding, contrarian, insulting to Kirov superiors—Nureyev was already in trouble in Russia. The description of the Paris defection, beautifully choreographed and paced by Kavanagh, comes as a fait accompli, a choice that wasn’t a choice.
In Kavanagh’s superb 1996 biography of Sir Frederick Ashton, one felt her affinity with her subject, both she and Ashton being English and having a similar light touch. Here, she’s had to give herself over to an alien sensibility—Nureyev’s cruder character, his egocentric and ultimately self-isolating will. He’s a heavier subject with a narrower vision, heat without light, and he burned himself out early, constantly hopping from one company, one choreographer, to another—over 150 performances a year. Promiscuity was an after-hours dynamic as well. Nureyev had a handful of love affairs, the most serious with the Danish danseur noble Erik Bruhn, but he had an endless hunger for anonymous contacts in gay bars and baths. The tragedy, one he shared with countless others, was that he lived in the era of HIV. Nureyev died of AIDS in 1993, at the age of 54.
This is a life that begs for analysis alongside the acclaim. For instance, the compulsive artistic and sexual freedom Nureyev insisted upon, was this the existential destiny of a defector or an intrinsic night blindness? Was his rude and often brutal need for control (a trampling, of course, on the freedoms of others) a mean streak, an imbalance, or a vestige of the Soviet state that was his cradle? And in sacrificing all to art, did he not also sacrifice the emotional complexity from which art draws life? Kavanagh’s unflinching biography awakens these questions in the reader. One wishes she herself, with the intimacy and instincts of 10 years research, had ventured answers.
And what, after all, was Nureyev’s artistic legacy? Lasting choreography? No. Pedagogical or technical advances? Not exactly. He had a distinctive style, a tempestuous attack that matured into an elaborate correctness, a kind of imperious portraiture, but this was a form of commitment, not an organic advance. As for his invigoration of the male’s place in classical dancing, well, yes, it was true at the time, but even then balletomanes questioned his hogging of the limelight. And by the early ’70s, when Nureyev toured with the National Ballet of Canada in The Sleeping Beauty, even I, a teenager, could see that New York’s Edward Villella was a better dancer than the world’s Rudolf Nureyev. And still he was crowned with superlatives.
Nureyev was not an artist of refined interpretations or expressive depth. He was, let us say, a blast of energy, driven and amoral, frightening and magnetic, pushed through the prism of classical dance. He was a species of erotic phenomenon that comes rarely to any art form—Valentino in the ’20s, Elvis Presley in the ’50s, Michael Jackson in the ’80s—inspiring sobs and sighs and a frantic mass grab for tickets. What lifts Nureyev above these others was his never-ending desire for, and devotion to, his medium. He wore his love of ballet like a mantle, and for a time he made that love matter to millions. That was his greatest gift.
Laura Jacobs, dance critic of The New Criterion, is the author of Landscape with Moving Figures: A Decade on Dance.
Somewhere: The Life of Jerome Robbins
by Amanda Vaill. New York: Broadway Books, 2006.
675 pages. Illustrated. $40
Children of the baby boom knew the work of Jerome Robbins before they knew his name. All one had to do in those days was see the latest movie musical and there was a good chance you’d see his work. In the movie The King and I, for instance, there was “The Small House of Uncle Thomas,” a folk ballet as precise as classical Thai sculpture, wood-cut and gold-leafed, sprung suddenly to life. Its refrain—“Run Eliza run, run from Simon”—was tattooed on the eye and ear, unforgettably, by Robbins. In West Side Story, decades before rap and hip hop went mainstream, Robbins created the Jets and the Sharks, sexy dancing gangs—and what dancing!—breathtaking balletic leaps a la seconde, slow-boiling beatnik stabs and shrugs. Not long ago, when the Gap used this same choreography in its television ads, the kinetic kick was as contemporary as ever. Gypsy, Peter Pan, Fiddler on the Roof—whether one knew the name or not, Robbins was a player in the popular culture, a choreographer who reached and touched many lives. He was also, as Amanda Vaill shows in her new biography, Somewhere, The Life of Jerome Robbins, a gypsy himself, never emotionally settled. And a Peter Pan, never quite grown up. And a fiddler on the roof, reaching for beauty and waiting to fall.
Vaill’s is the third Robbins biography to be published since his death in 1998 at age 79. Greg Lawrence’s Dance with Demons came first in 2001; unauthorized, it is the liveliest of the books, brimming with smart, sharp commentary from colleagues. Deborah Jowitt’s Jerome Robbins, His Life, His Theater, His Dance came out in 2004, and it’s the most elegantly written of the three, with the deepest critical insights. The books of Jowitt and Vaill were both authorized by the Robbins Trust, with Jowitt focusing on the choreography and Vaill on the life. Vaill’s book, then, is more of a psychological journey, sensitive to echoes and allusions, and steadfastly empathetic.
Quoting liberally from the diaries and journals Robbins kept all of his life—full of his plans for self-improvement, his dreams (jotted down upon waking), and his fears—Vaill locates a sort of Rosebud motif in a song from West Side Story, “Somewhere,” which yearns for a place of peace and love. For Vaill, this yearning is the recurring Robbins theme, expressed literally in a musical like Fiddler and in the abstract in a ballet like Dances at a Gathering, and it begins in his childhood, when he was simply the son of Harry and Lena Rabinowitz, émigré Russian Jews.
It was the kind of first-generation childhood experienced by millions: the old country replete with its strange language, religion, traditions, and food set against the shiny American dream of homogenized success and pasteurized prettiness. Some souls could reconcile the two. Others, Robbins included, could not. He was ashamed of being Jewish, ashamed of not looking American, ashamed when he realized he was gay. And though his parents were always present, always protective, Robbins never felt they provided what he needed most: unconditional, unjudgmental love. One might say his personality type was Glass Half Empty.
And yet what a wonderful coming of age he had. Vaill brings to life Robbins’s salad days, the passionate years of apprenticeship with all manner of Manhattan theater artist; the summers at Camp Tamiment, putting on weekly shows with soon-to-be-stars like Danny Kaye and Imogene Coca; and the astonishing generosity this small, dark, comparatively untrained dancer received from headline artists and respected choreographers. He learned discipline and stagecraft in these years, and he earned the respect and sometimes love of his colleagues.
From his first New York premiere, 1944’s Fancy Free, a ballet for American Ballet Theatre made in collaboration with Leonard Bernstein, Robbins was golden. But that title aside, he would never be free. (When the raves for Fancy Free rolled in, Robbins’s one thought was, “Now I had enough money to start analysis.”) Vaill shows again and again that success—and for Robbins the success just kept coming, as did the money—never brought peace for very long. He feared he was a fraud, a mistrust knotted up with his complaint about his parents. And tied into that was his famous temper, turned on anyone who frustrated his ferocious need for control. And tangled up with that was the famous House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) trial of 1953, where afraid for his own career he named the names of friends in the Communist Party, of which he’d been a vague member for a short time. For this fresh new shame, Vaill reveals, Robbins never forgave himself.
During this time, for NYCB, Robbins made a ballet about a colony of predatory females that webs up men and kills them. He called it The Cage. It is often viewed as an entomological take on the Wilis of Giselle, but one wonders if there isn’t a shadow subject: the HUAC’s marauding McCarthyites and their hunted victims. Finishing Somewhere, one can’t help feeling that Robbins himself was webbed up, caught “somewhere” between his incomparable mastery on Broadway and his quieter achievements in ballet, between his desire for men and his longing for marriage, between his American fame and his Jewish ancestry, and, sadly, between a lasting love for his art and no love for himself. Perhaps this is why Robbins always did best when he had a well-defined story—time and place, beginning, middle, and end. He didn’t have to know where he fit in.
Laura Jacobs, dance critic of The New Criterion, is the author of Landscape with Moving Figures: A Decade in Dance, published by Dance & Movement Press last fall.