By Susan Reed
June 23, 1986 12:00 PM

On the eve of her first trip to North America, 25-year-old prima ballerina Altinay Asylmuratova stashed cans of soup, vegetables and tea in her suitcases. She wasn’t anticipating starvation abroad. She just wanted to be able to spend her per diem travel allowance on presents such as videotape recorders from the decadent West, because neither Altinay nor many of her 130 compatriots in the renowned Kirov Ballet of Leningrad had ever performed or traveled in North America. The last tour the company had made to the U.S. was in 1964 when Altinay, now among the stars of one of the most influential ballet companies in dance history, was just 3 years old.

The causes of this extraordinary cultural gap were both political and artistic. Between 1961 and 1974, one after the other, dancers with the names Nureyev, Makarova and Baryshnikov abandoned the conservative Kirov and defected for glamorous—and highly rewarded—careers on the West’s wider and more experimental stage. Embarrassed, the great company cut itself off from the U.S. in a balletic xenophobia.

Now, thanks to a cultural exchange agreement signed at the Geneva Summit last November, the Kirov has returned, performing recently in seven cities in the U.S. and Canada. Headlining a new generation of Kirov talent is Altinay, perhaps the most gifted dancer of this decade. Newsweek called her the “crown jewel of the Kirov.” The Washington Post described her as “an artist whose silky, generous phrasing, unaffected musicality, technical finesse and exquisite line would set her apart anywhere.”

The Kirov’s fresh look involves far more than new names, however. In 1977, the 203-year-old company, which had consistently produced dancers of the purest form and most breathtaking technique, promoted choreographer Oleg Vinogradov, then 40, to artistic director and ordered him to perform an artistic overhaul. “Quite a few of the bright stars had had problems,” the director concedes of the rigid seniority system that had contributed to the defections. “They danced the same roles once a month because the number of soloists was so large.”

Vinogradov eliminated the rotating system and chose only those dancers he wanted as principals; that reduced the number of performances of the classical ballets, allowing him to stage his own works.

Lately, and more adventurously, Vinogradov has initiated an artistic cross-pollination with the West, inviting Maurice Bejart and Roland Petit to stage their ballets for the Kirov. He is also discussing visits by Martha Graham and Jerome Robbins, and recently acquired the rights to stage Balanchine in the Soviet Union for the first time in over 20 years. Indirectly he is even willing to discuss the windfalls that defections from the Kirov have given the West. “Who is in charge of the best ballet school in France?” he asks. “Who is in charge of the best ballet theater in the United States?” The answers, of course, are Nureyev and Baryshnikov. “We helped you a lot, and we wouldn’t mind if you help us, too.”

The soul of Vinogradov’s new ballet is personified in Altinay, a languid, Oriental-looking beauty from Alma-Ata, a lush oasis in the Soviet Central Asian republic of Kazakhstan. He first spotted her in 1971 at the legendary Vaganova school in Leningrad (the same school that produced Pavlova, Nijinsky, Balanchine, Nureyev, Makarova and Baryshnikov). “She stood out. She was exotic, yet very natural,” he says of Altinay, who dances with a degree of musicality and expressiveness rare in the ballet world. The daughter of classically trained Soviet dancers, she always had “lots of music at home and always danced.” At 10, her real training began when she was accepted at Vaganova. “I couldn’t imagine how hard the job was,” she says, but like all dancers her dream remained the epitome of classical ballet, the Kirov.

Vinogradov wasn’t the only one immediately struck by Altinay’s exotic beauty. She also impressed Konstantin Zaklinsky, 31, a handsome principal dancer with the Kirov. “She has the special look of the Orient, not the West,” he says. The two were married in 1980, and that year Vinogradov cast the precocious ballerina in the lead of Swan Lake. Over the next four years she expanded her repertoire to include leading roles in Giselle, La Bayadère and Swan Lake, which she occasionally dances with her husband. They now are the first couple of Soviet ballet and live in a comfortable state-subsidized apartment in Leningrad. “They are well looked after,” says Vinogradov, who himself owns two sailboats.

In the expanding repertoire and the youth and beauty of his company, Vinogradov sees the Kirov’s future as well as the reclamation of its esteemed past. “You see,” he says, “the Bolshoi is very musical, they dance very well to music. But the Kirovsky is music itself.”