I feel as if I went to my own funeral,” says dancer Ivan Nagy. In a way he did, for two weeks ago the ballet world gathered at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House to mourn the 35-year-old Nagy’s self-imposed retirement. The elegant, green-eyed Hungarian, who made his reputation—and $100,000 a year—by “being a little in love with my partners,” has always been the darling of prima ballerinas. They preferred his self-effacing, attentive ways to the competitiveness of the more dazzling Mikhail Baryshnikov. Nagy could be counted on to show them off. “You have to give up some of yourself,” he explains. “You must follow your ballerina to make togetherness happen.”
At the Met farewell Nagy danced four strenuous roles with Natalia Makarova and Cynthia Gregory. “I was very nervous,” he admits. “I’d rehearsed like a lunatic. So many people depended on me, I had to be extra good.” For 10 years Nagy had been the American Ballet Theatre’s ever reliable and often underrated star. In the 60 days before his retirement gala he performed 50 times. The evening was his reward.
Close friend Makarova sighs, “It is sad, a great loss. Ivan is in top form; he is quitting too soon.” Nagy disagrees. “I’ve peaked,” he says. “I want to go out gracefully. I always hoped I’d be smart enough to quit at the top. When you are young and supple, dancing is wonderful. When you’re older, you get rusty and it’s painful. [He has been hospitalized several times with a slipped disk.] I admire Garbo for not letting people see her deteriorate. I could never bear to watch myself going downhill.”
To spare himself that fate, Nagy has sublet his terraced Manhattan penthouse. After the fall ballet season ends (his last performance will be December 17 in Washington), he plans to move his wife, Marilyn, and daughters Aniko, 10, and Tatjana, 6, to the farmhouse he owns on Majorca. “We have been on a honeymoon for 12 years, because we’re not together 24 hours a day,” he smiles. “Now we will see if it will be different.”
Nagy met his wife, a dancer with the London Festival Ballet until she quit six years ago, when he came to the West to perform with Washington’s National Ballet in 1965. Nagy returned to Hungary, but “after realizing my career was in the U.S.,” he asked for political asylum during a 1967 tour. He and Marilyn were wed soon after. Both had been previously married. After retiring Nagy will join his wife in her regular ballet classes. It is a matter of fitness, he claims: “I tried jogging, but it doesn’t compare. I hate class but probably will always take it.”
An avid collector of contemporary art, Nagy wants time at the easel himself and says he will take up skiing and consider his future. “I’ve had offers to teach and to work in men’s fashion. I love to eat and entertain. Perhaps I’ll run a restaurant. Now there are many chances to start a new life. At 401 might never do it.”
Skeptics predict he will succumb to offers to perform, but Nagy says no: “All that is over. I will have many gloomy days and miss the reason I dance: a chance to show feelings that aren’t always the same offstage. I would have been bitter had someone else made the decision for me. This way I am at peace.”