Natalia Makarova Honoured at The 35th Annual Kennedy Center Honours

Natalia Makarova and Carmen de Lavallade.<br />© Scott Suchman. (Click image for larger version)
Natalia Makarova and Carmen de Lavallade.
© Scott Suchman. (Click image for larger version)

Natalia Makarova
Dance Honoree The 35th Annual Kennedy Center Honors

Washington, Kennedy Center Opera House
2 December 2012

Makarova interview – by Sarah Kaufman – Nov 2012
lengthy and full of interesting detail.
Interview by Allan Ulrich – Dec 2012

35th Annual Kennedy Center Honors

It was Washington’s grandest cultural event of the year – the big party night when celebrities from Hollywood, New York and the music and dance world joined the President of the United States and Mrs. Obama at the White House and later in the evening at the Kennedy Center Opera House to salute the Honorees of the 35th Annual Kennedy Center Honors.

The Honors are America’s highest award for those whose creative triumphs influenced and enhanced American culture. This is a celebration of their outstanding careers and extraordinary talents and appreciation of their unyielding commitment and contribution to the arts.

This year’s Honorees are bluesman Buddy Guy, actor Dustin Hoffman, television host David Letterman, ballerina Natalia Makarova and rock band Led Zeppelin (all surviving members of the band – John Paul Jones, Jimmy Page, and Robert Plant – received the award.)

Natalia Makarova, a Ballerina Who Followed Her Dream

When asked whether she considered herself a Russian or an American ballerina, Natalia Makarova, speaking in her native Russian, answered simply. “I am a ballerina.  For me ballet has no borders, no barriers – it’s a universal art form. I am a dancer of this planet,” she replied with a smile.

Accompanied by her handsome 34-year old son, Andrei Karkar, on the red carpet of the Kennedy Center Honors Gala, she looked radiant and delighted, talking about her career and her award. “It’s a huge honor for me,” she said. “One can never get used to such an honor, when the President himself congratulates you, speaks about you and your career.

I am so honored to receive this award, and this day is especially important for me because my son can share it with me.”

Natalia Makarova on the red carpet.<br />© Scott Suchman. (Click image for larger version)
Natalia Makarova on the red carpet.
© Scott Suchman. (Click image for larger version)

Russian Period

Natalia Romanovna Makarova was born in 1940 in Leningrad(now St. Petersburg) and studied at the renowned Vaganova School of Ballet, where her prodigious gifts for ballet were recognized and furthered by her teachers, Tatiana Vecheslova and Natalia Dudinaskaya. In 1956, after her graduation, she joined the legendary Kirov Ballet (now the Mariinsky), where she quickly moved through the ranks, achieving prima ballerina status. In 1965, she won the gold medal at the Varna International Dance Competition,  and in 1970, she was awarded the Pavlova Prize. During her years at the Kirov Ballet she danced all the leading roles of the classical repertory – Giselle, Swan Lake, Raymonda, and The Sleeping Beauty. Yet, she felt confined and stifled artistically. She wanted to broaden her creative horizons, but at the Kirov she was given too few roles in which she could progress and develop her own style.

Dancing in the West

In 1970 she made a pivotal decision to seek artistic freedom in the West and left her native Russia. That same year she had accepted an invitation to join American Ballet Theatre (ABT), a company which at that time had the widest repertoire of modern and classical ballets in the United States. The range of dance choices in New Yorkwas the world’s biggest. “It was exactly this range of experiment, the sense of openness to all creative ideas, however unexpected or bizarre, the eclecticism of the dance world, that most impressed Makarova when she came to work in the United States. Here was a complete contrast to the ballet scene in the Soviet Union, so rigid in its aesthetics, so narrow in its concept of the dance,” wrote Richard Austin in his book Natalia Makarova, Ballerina.

Western ballet companies opened their doors for Natalia. She traveled the world dancing to great acclaim, most notably with the Royal Ballet, Paris Opera Ballet, La Scala Ballet, Royal Swedish Ballet, Scottish Ballet, and Zurich Ballet as well as giving regular guest performances with ABT. She worked with such choreographers as Antony Tudor, John Neumeier, Jerome Robbins, Kenneth MacMillan, Frederick Ashton, Serge Lifar, Roland Petit, and Alvin Ailey. Her performances inspired tremendous admiration among audiences and critics alike. “What distinguished Makarova’s interpretations was her power to discern, to intensify, the emotional and choreographic force of her roles, and to inspire her colleagues. In everything, every step, depth of emotion and physical intensity shaped dance and drama,” wrote dance critic Clement Crisp.

Awards have come her way, too. Among them, she won a 1983 Tony Award and a 1984 Laurence Olivier Award as Best Actress in a Musical for her performance in a 1982 Kennedy Center production of On Your Toes. In 1985, Princess Diana presented her with London’s Evening Standard Award for her performance in Onegin with the London Festival Ballet.

Beyond Dancing

Her legacy, however, has reached far beyond her dancing career. Makarova has dedicated herself to preserving and revitalizing the tradition of classical ballet, staging such classics as Giselle, The Sleeping Beauty, and Swan Lake for ballet companies around the world. Her staging of La Bayadere has been widely considered Makarova’s calling card and has proven to be the most important influence on classical ballet of today.

American Ballet Theatre in Act II of Makarova's <I>La Bayadere</I>.<br />© Marty Sohl. (Click image for larger version)
American Ballet Theatre in Act II of Makarova’s La Bayadere.
© Marty Sohl. (Click image for larger version)

At 72, Makarova showed no signs of slowing down and laughed when I asked if she had ever considered retirement. “Not at all, I am so busy!” she exclaimed. “Next year will be especially eventful for me,” she continued. “In February, Kiev Ballet will have a premier of my production of La Bayadere and then, in summer, I am staging it for Moscow’s Stanislavsky and Nemirovich-Danchenko Music Theater.” “Everyone wants La Bayadere!” she said laughing.

Describing her production of La Bayadere for American Ballet Theatre, the company’s artistic director, Kevin McKenzie, who was among the Kennedy Center Gala guests, called it “groundbreaking.”

“She took that great classic and restored it as much as she could to the original conception, distilling it through the years,” he said during the red carpet interview. “By doing this, she has also created fabulous dancers.” Speaking about Makarova’s influence on the current generation of dancers, McKenzie noted: “Natasha has no time for someone with a closed mind, but if the dancers demonstrate openness she will do everything she can to make them the best they can be. Over the years’ she has had a huge effect on ABT dancers – her example is exquisite. She reshaped the corps de ballet. She made a point that the corps de ballet is the measure of the standard for ballet; if the corps de ballet doesn’t breathe, the ballet doesn’t work.”

Commenting on Makarova’s Honor McKenzie said, “Natalia’s award is a wonderful affirmation of a great career.  I am so thrilled that she has called American Ballet Theatre home for 40 years.”

The Gala

In her opening remarks, presenting Natalia Makarova as one of this year’s Honorees, host Caroline Kennedy described Natalia as “a lithe beauty from St. Petersburg whose passion and elegance filled the movements with meaning, giving new excitement to the words prima ballerina.”

After a short video of the President’s welcoming speech at the White House reception, in which Obama quipped, describing the Honorees as “some extraordinary people who have no business being on the same stage together,” the Honorees were greeted: Dustin Hoffman (introduced by Robert De Niro), Natalia Makarova (by Judith Jamison), Buddy Guy (by Morgan Freeman), David Letterman (by Tina Fey), and the final tribute of the evening for Led Zeppelin (by Jack Black). Jamison, who introduced Makarova, is a former artistic director of the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater and a 1999 Honoree.

In her introductory remarks Jamison recalled, “When I first saw Natasha, I remember saying, ‘Now that’s a ballerina!’ I believe in dancers who can dance with a capital ‘D.’ I don’t care what technique they are doing, just as long as they are fabulous and they are true to their spirit and their truth. That’s what I saw that night – she looked otherworldly. She inhabited her role with an intensity that was extraordinary. I have never seen anyone do the second act of Giselle quite like her.”

“Natalia’s is a rare story of life coming full circle,” Jamison continued. “Twenty years after she made her painful decision to leave her native land, she returned to a changingLeningradand to her beloved Kirov Theater, where she had studied and had become a star. There, at theKirov, she gave her farewell performance, dancing on the stage where it had all begun – then taking curtain calls to thunderous cheers and cascades of flowers. Natalia, your passion and your art are loved around the world. On behalf of dancers everywhere – Bravo! I salute you!”

Natalia Makarova on the red carpet.<br />© Scott Suchman. (Click image for larger version)
Natalia Makarova on the red carpet.
© Scott Suchman. (Click image for larger version)

Then it was time for a dance tribute to Makarova, which began with a fleeting solo by Grace Ann Pierce – a young student from the American Ballet Theatre’s Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis School – dancing to Chopin’s Prelude in A Major, Op. 28 No. 7. Then Tiler Peck, principal dancer of New York City Ballet, took the stage. Dressed in a flowing chiffon dress, she charmed the audience with her elegant and beautifully articulated movements, dancing an evanescent solo to Chopin’s Waltz, Op. 64, No. 3. This incandescent monologue is from Jerome Robbins’ Other Dances, a ballet made on Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov in 1976.

Watching Alina Cojocaru and Angel Corella in the excerpt from the second act pas de deux of Giselle was a double thrill. Cojocaru, principal dancer ofLondon’s Royal Ballet, is a rare guest inWashington, yet she is deeply admired here. The same can be said about Corella, a former principal dancer of ABT and currently artistic director of the Barcelona Ballet.

ABT principal dancers David Hallberg and Julie Kent enchanted the gala guests with a poignant account of the balcony pas de deux from MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet. Hallberg, who is also principal dancer with Bolshoi Ballet, enjoys great popularity in Washington. Watching him dance at the gala was a particular delight. ABT principals Marcelo Gomes and Veronika Part concluded the tribute to Makarova with a stirring rendition of a passage from the “Black Swan” pas de deux.

For the gala’s rousing finale Jason Bonham, the son of late Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham, along with Ann Wilson and Nancy Wilson from the rock band Heart, plus a string orchestra and a choir, brought the house down with an astonishing performance of “Stairway to Heaven.”

The show will be broadcast on CBS as a two-hour prime special on December 26 at 9:00 pm.

About the author

Oksana Khadarina

Oksana Khadarina is a Washington, DC–based dance writer and a long-time contributor to DanceTabs. She has been covering dance at The John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, as well as in New York City and internationally, since 2006. She has written for Dance Magazine, Pointe and Fjord Review, among other publications.


  • Oksana has given a memorable account of what must have been a fabulous evening.

    I would like to add a small piece of information regarding my understanding of Jerome Robbins’ creation of Other Dances for the two dancers from the Kirov/Maryinsky. It occurred on the occasion of a gala designed to fund The Dance Collection of the New York Public Library.. A bureaucratic snafu in Albany, NY had left research libraries without funds for the coming year. The Gala was organized to keep the Dance Collection running. I was informed by Martha Lucey, then assistant to Genevieve Oswald, that the artists donated their services to raise the funds. And The Gala more than did it.

  • On seeing the Kennedy Center Honors on CBS this evening I felt that Miss Makarova really stood out tremendously in her unique red gown and matching head scarf …

    What a marvelous talent she truly is and we are all most fortunate she chose to spend these last 42 years in America both dancing and teaching …

    This is the greatest singular honor, and most deserving too, after her lifetime in ballet for a person with such fantastic abilities …

    Additionally, thank you very much for this very well written and most informative article.


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