By People Staff
December 24, 1979 12:00 PM

Ballet star Aleksandr Godunov, 30, made his bravest leap last August by defecting from the Soviet Union during a Bolshoi tour of America. A diplomatic pas de deux followed, until U.S. officials were convinced Godunov’s ballerina wife, Lyudmila Vlasova, 37, wanted to go home (she had been escorted to a flight at New York’s Kennedy Airport by KGB agents).

Godunov made the break for artistic freedom and “to dance more often.” But he has yet to give a single performance. One after another, his appearances on stage and TV have been scratched due to inadequate rehearsals, troubles with partners and a season-canceling strike by the American Ballet Theatre, which Aleksandr had joined to be with Mikhail Baryshnikov. As children, they were a class apart at the Latvian Opera Ballet School. Godunov’s father was in the army, his mother a railroad engineer.

The volatile Godunov, who signed an estimated $150,000-a-year ABT contract, alienated two partners, Cynthia Gregory and Gelsey Kirkland, with premature superstar airs. “He’s uncontrollable,” admits an associate, “regardless of the consequence.” Godunov was being called the Incredible Hulk even before he resigned from the company in November amid rumors that he would return to Moscow and his wife.

Nobody really expects the 6-footer to do that, but he is genuinely depressed over not dancing (“It would make him feel at home,” says ABT’s Martine Van Hamel) and the separation from Lyudmila. A wary émigré, he calls interviews “interrogations” and admits to shifting from his fluent English to Russian “to give myself time to size up a person.” Even now, Godunov jumps with apprehension when a stranger calls out his name.

After his streak of despondency, however, the moody Godunov has nowhere to go but up. Despite his nomadic ways (“I sleep someplace in New York—maybe the subways”), he usually awakes around 10 to a huge breakfast and private classes with Elena Tchernischova, a fellow defector who taught him as an 8-year-old. He reads books banned in the U.S.S.R., like Nabokov’s Lolita and Orwell’s 1984, and adores grocery shopping, cooking soup, and Jane Fonda. “He was impassioned about pizza,” a friend reports, “until he ate one and felt he’d been poisoned.”

Godunov discos, but his happiest times have come on country outings gathering wild flowers. He also appreciates his new freedom, shunning ties for jeans and keeping his hair as stringy and windswept as a Russian sailor’s. Instead of tomato juice and hard beds, which were a way of life in his early days with the Bolshoi, Aleksandr now drinks beer and vodka, and “I sleep on lots of soft beds. Dancing is the most important thing,” Godunov pronounces. “But first, I live.”