Magazine article Russian Life

Alexander Godunov Defected, August 23, 1979

Magazine article Russian Life

Alexander Godunov Defected, August 23, 1979

Article excerpt

WHEN I WAS GROWING UP attending the Bolshoi Theater was an almost unimaginable treat. Of course, when I was little I was taken to see The Nutcracker, but this was followed by a rather long dry spell. Getting tickets was not easy. Then acquaintances turned up who -by hook or by crook--knew how to get us into the Bolshoi.

One of my parents' classmates--a quiet and rather uninteresting gentleman--had two amazing traits. First, he was a direct descendant of Pushkin and, as if that were not enough, he was less directly related to Gogol. Second, he saw all the ballets at the Bolshoi several times each. It was simple--he just gave the ticket-taker an old ticket with a ruble tucked underneath. Nothing to it--we were able to make our way to the balcony, where everyone knew him and let us be. But Pushkin's posterity had rather conservative tastes, so we usually wound up seeing things like Giselle and Swan Lake.

Around the same time, another even more exotic source of tickets came our way. My aunt worked for the committee that selected recipients of the Lenin Prize, the bureaucracy that decided which works of art deserved the state's highest honor. Once a year the members of the committee, which primarily consisted of "party bosses" from the literary and art worlds, convened in Moscow to have a look at the paintings, books, and plays that had been nominated. They were also sent to see whatever else was "hot" in the arts. Each of these bosses was allotted at least two tickets, but not all of them actually wanted to drag themselves to the theater. As a result, those fortunate enough to have a friend or relative on the committee staff would occasionally find themselves suddenly attending some swank premiere.

This is how I, occupying a seat that had been meant for some big-shot writer or artist who had better things to do, happened to see (several times each) the most amazing performances by Maya Plisetskaya dancing in Anna Karenina, The Carmen Suite, and The Death of the Rose.

At first, we thought of these outings as "going to see Plisetskaya" and later "going to see Plisetskaya and Godunov." At some point, many ballet fans started to just go "see Godunov."

During the years when I attended his performances, Alexander Godunov was around 25 years old. He had graduated from the Riga School of Choreography, danced in Igor Moiseyev's ensemble, and, after some ups and downs, managed to make it to the Bolshoi, where he immediately fell prey to infighting and wound up getting on artistic director Yury Grigorovich's bad side for having been favored by Maya Plisetskaya. The ballets that Plisetskaya had begun to put on were rather shocking for the conservative Bolshoi. For audiences of the 1970s, accustomed to ballets like Swan Lake, her and Godunov's strange, avant-garde contortions in The Death of the Rose were absolutely unfamiliar and left a striking artistic impression.

Today, it is hard for me to judge what I saw 35 years ago, but one thing I know for sure is that I will never forget the meeting between Vronsky-Godunov and Anna-Plisetskaya in Anna Karenina. How on earth Godunov was able to defy the law of gravity is something I cannot explain, but the entire audience had the distinct impression that Vronsky, whirling around Anna, suddenly flew up and paused midair. To this day, I have never seen anything like it.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

Godunov did not enjoy good fortune for long. Grigorovich did not want to use him in his ballets, and for a long time he was not allowed to travel abroad. Eventually, things seemed to get better. Then came 1979. Alexander Godunov, who was touring America with a troupe from the Bolshoi, decided to ask for political asylum. There are a number of first-hand accounts of what happened next.

The poet Joseph Brodsky (who had been expelled from the Soviet Union in 1972) helped Godunov during those first days: I hadn't known anything about Godunov. …

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