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Sassy and Sexier at 35, Prima Ballerina Cynthia Gregory Gives Her Nice-Girl Image the Boot

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In ballet circles she’s known simply as “the Body”—a statuesque Californian, more than six feet on point, whose 32 consecutive whiplike turns in Swan Lake take the breath away. Until recently, though, her commanding style onstage was chaste and perfectly controlled, projecting traces of her innocent Catholic girlhood. No more. During American Ballet Theatre’s current cross-country tour, Cynthia Gregory, 35, is broiling the stage—in the impassioned title role of Carmen and as the sexy siren in The Prodigal Son. Wrote one critic of her performance with Mikhail Baryshnikov in the latter work: “He approached her like she was the Seventh Wonder of the World, and she just swallowed him up like a python.”

What is the source of the new earthiness in America’s finest ballerina and the only non-Russian woman among ballet’s top box office draws? Friends credit her husband of five years, John Hemminger, a former rock manager. “He’s freed her from being stilted,” says one ballet director. Hemminger’s tough business approach to ballet also changed the formerly docile Gregory into something of a tigress. She twice resigned from ABT over partnering and money. When she was bumped from one role on opening night by Cynthia Harvey two years ago, Hemminger sued for breach of contract—and won $20,000. Subsequently he negotiated a two-to-three-performances-a-week schedule; with guest performances, she makes about $250,000 a year, more than any other ballerina.

Amazingly, Hemminger’s hard bargaining has not adversely affected Cynthia’s career. Baryshnikov, ABT’s artistic director, is an unabashed fan. “I only wish I were a little taller,” says the 5’7″ dancer, whose height has kept him from being Gregory’s most frequent partner.

Gregory and Hemminger, 39, started dating during her first brush with superstardom as Rudolf Nureyev’s partner in 1975. At the time her 10-year marriage to fellow dancer Terry Orr was breaking up. “I tried with Terry,” she explains, “but I was always torn between being a housewife and a ballerina.” Hemminger saw something altogether sexier. “In a Bob Mackie outfit,” he says, “you couldn’t tell her apart from Cher.”

When the acclaim of dancing with Nureyev brought “just too much pressure,” Gregory quit ballet in December 1975 and fled with John to a California condo where she “sunbathed, loafed and baked 34 chocolate cakes the first week.” On the day she divorced Orr she married Hemminger. Not long after, he found her weeping in front of a televised Swan Lake and urged her to go back to work.

Fresh and relaxed, Cynthia no longer focuses exclusively on ballet and is certainly not reverential. During one tedious passage in a performance with Fernando Bujones, she glided onstage at the Met puffing a cigarette, then stylishly stubbed it out with her satin toe shoe. It was an unheard-of breach of discipline. “I was bored,” she says with a shrug. A favorite retreat is a rock hangout called Deanie’s in Woodstock, N.Y. At home in their downtown Manhattan loft, she likes “to soak in the hot tub with John.” At his suggestion, she did a cameo performance in the TV soap Edge of Night, and is now pondering commercials: “If Chris Evert can do it, why can’t I?”

At the ABT, Cynthia hears criticism of Hemminger’s Svengali-like influence, but she doesn’t care. “I’m not as naive as people used to think,” she says. “Little Cynthia has grown up.”