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A Soviet Ballet Star Gains a New Country and Career, but Loses His Troubled Wife

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As two people who shared the rigors of a life in art, Bolshoi dancers Aleksandr Godunov and his wife, Lyudmila Vlasova, made an enchanting couple. He was a star, she a minor soloist, divorced and seven years older than he. She was also Jewish, an obvious complication in the Soviet Union. Yet their eight-year marriage seemed stable and happy. They were inseparable during the Bolshoi tour of the U.S., which began August 1. Only two weeks ago Aleksandr took Lyudmila to dinner at the Manhattan apartment of dance critic Clive Barnes. “There was a wonderful tenderness between them,” Barnes’ wife, Trish, recalls. “They were holding hands—relaxed, warm, totally happy with each other.”

Less than 24 hours later Godunov defected—without his wife. Ironically, the ordeal that was to wrench them apart was something both knew they would have to face someday—and were powerless to prevent. He had often talked of exile. During the Bolshoi’s first days in New York, Lyudmila, 37, had told him frankly: “I’m going to go home. You can stay here.” But when his bold leap to freedom was over, Godunov, 30, could not bear her decision. He tried telephoning her, but Soviet officials reportedly kept the calls from going through. At the same time they frightened Lyudmila by invoking rumors (published by a New York tabloid) that she was considered a KGB agent by the U.S. and would be mistreated here. Stiff-arming pleas by the State Department, burly, grim-faced KGB agents whisked Lyudmila to Kennedy Airport and aboard the Soviet airline’s next flight to Moscow. When Washington ordered police to ground the jet, Aleksandr secretly followed his wife to the airport. During the 72-hour diplomatic standoff that ensued, he stayed close by—and spent one night standing on the runway in a pouring rain, trying to catch a glimpse of her.

He never did. He wrote her one last impassioned letter, which U.S. negotiator Donald McHenry carried into his 20-minute meeting with Lyudmila, at which she reiterated her desire to go home. She was hurt that Aleksandr had not called—and said she did not care to hear from him again. As her plane finally took off through a rainbow after a sudden thunderstorm, McHenry still had the letter in his pocket—and Godunov was in tears. “He really thought she was going to come back from the plane with us,” says his lawyer, Orville Schell. “When he realized it wasn’t to be, you could see his shock give way to desolation.”

On one level, the defection of Aleksandr Godunov was high diplomatic drama. He is the first Soviet artist ever to ask for asylum while in the U.S. and the first principal dancer Moscow’s legendary Bolshoi company has ever lost. (The other prominent Soviet dancers in exile—Rudolf Nureyev, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Natalia Makarova and Valery and Galina Panov—had been with Leningrad’s Kirov Ballet.) The marathon wrangle over Lyudmila, moreover, was an unprecedented public face-off between the two superpowers.

On another level, Godunov’s decision was less a matter of politics than of art. At his friend Baryshnikov’s American Ballet Theatre in New York, where he is widely expected to settle, the prima ballerinas are ecstatic over the prospect of a new male partner. Though not as lyrical as other Soviet stars, Aleksandr has a dazzling technique, a towering 6’2″ physique and the dominant poise of a Russian prince. The ABT’s Cynthia Gregory (6′ on point) openly invited him to defect for her last spring, and Martine van Hamel and Makarova are clamoring to dance with him. “He will be a wonderful partner for me,” Natalia gushes. “So tall, so beautiful, a little like a hippie—fantastic for modern works.”

But the most compelling aspect of Godunov’s defection is the human drama of two separated lovers. Their situation is unlike any other. Makarova says she left two ex-husbands in Russia without a backward glance to defect. The Kirov’s Valery Panov demanded that his partner, wife Galina, be allowed to move to Israel with him in 1974, and Soviet authorities ultimately gave in. Some observers see in Lyudmila’s return to Moscow a suggestion that theirs was one of the Bolshoi’s many arranged marriages, that she was little more than a mother to Aleksandr and left him without great pain. But an old friend of Godunov’s, photographer Vladimir Bliokh, strongly disagrees: “They were a beautiful pair. That last week they ate all their meals together, talked and shared experiences. She had begun to speak hopefully of having children. There was no evidence of any rift or lack of feelings. They were very much in love.”

Indeed, the most credible explanation to emerge from their circle of friends is that Lyudmila went home because of KGB threats and the dismal prospect of watching Aleksandr’s ascent while her career declined. He stayed because a celebrity’s life, which seems almost unavoidable, best answers his flamboyant needs.

Born on the island of Sakhalin, just north of Japan, Boris Aleksandr Godunov was enrolled by his mother in the famous Latvian dance school in Riga at age 9. “My mother wanted me to go to some kind of school in the afternoon because I was a hooligan,” he once joked. “You know, in every family there’s one who’s crazy.” Baryshnikov was in Riga too, a few classes ahead, and the two boys became fast friends. A maverick, Aleksandr boasted that he would skip the mandatory two-year apprenticeship and head straight for the Bolshoi, camping out on its doorstep if necessary. Instead, he spent four years with the preparatory Moiseyev company before going to Moscow in 1971.

He married Lyudmila, who had divorced Bolshoi soloist and choreographer Vladimir Vlasov not long before—and the same year made a glorious debut as Siegfried in Swan Lake. But neither marriage nor success calmed his high-strung temperament. He skirmished over choreography even with his mentor and partner, Maya Plisetskaya. “He was very nice, warm and gentle,” recalls Elena Tchernischova, a former Soviet dancer who is now Baryshnikov’s assistant, “but he was very independent too. That kind of character doesn’t do well in Russia.”

Godunov, whose nickname is Sasha, reportedly spoke of defecting during his first U.S. tour in 1974—and returned only because the aging Plisetskaya needed him for her film version of Anna Karenina. Nevertheless, Soviet officials knew of his flirtation with exile and clamped down, sending him to the provinces for two years, canceling his role in Elizabeth Taylor’s movie The Bluebird, scratching him from Bolshoi tours and limiting him to one performance a month. Gradually he worked himself back into the authorities’ good graces, but it was only in reluctant deference to his value as a dancer—and the KGB’s talent for surveillance—that Bolshoi director Yuri Grigorovich allowed him to accompany the Bolshoi on its current tour.

Having seized his chance, he is faced with a bittersweet future: superstar fees, glamor, acclaim and the high life that is a perquisite of American success; but also displacement, fear of retribution against the mother he left behind, and the plaguing thought he may never see Lyudmila again or have a chance to explain himself.

As for her, she landed at Moscow’s Sheremetyevo Airport to a hero’s welcome—walking off the blue-and-white Aeroflot jet into waves of flowers and beaming Soviet officials, who praised her “great civic duty and courage.” Embracing her sobbing mother, the ballerina murmured, “It’s nothing, it’s nothing, please, Mama, please don’t cry—I’m back.” Soviet officials, for all their endearments, are not expected to forget or forgive her for Aleksandr’s defection and the crisis at Kennedy. No one expects any harm to come to Lyudmila, unless she was less willing to return than she seemed to U.S. officials. But the assumption is that her career with the Bolshoi will soon end with a pension—and that she will never be let out of Russia again.