Though he has yet to dance a step on a U.S. stage since his defection from the U.S.S.R., Aleksandr Godunov has been getting consistently bad notices. In ballet circles he’s said to be haughty, rude and roisterous as a Tartar. “He’s everything ‘un’ you can think of,” a former associate says. “Unpleasant, unfeeling …” Godunov’s behavior has already cost him Gelsey Kirkland as a partner. But he may well meet his match in his first scheduled full-length role in Chicago this week. It’s Swan Lake with Martine van Hamel.
The 34-year-old Dutch ballerina is impassive to fame and imposing in her confidence. “It will be a treat to dance with someone who is really ripe,” she says, “and who could give me as much as I could give him—possibly.” Van Hamel needs a strong partner to complement her commanding (5’7″, 120-pound) presence. If the 6’2″ Godunov is stormy, she will cope. “I’m not neurotic,” she says.
Her intelligence and musicality have made van Hamel a great dancer (unconventional postures, angles and phrasing are her trademark), but she has succeeded ultimately by being the workhorse of the American Ballet Theatre. Now that Kirkland and Cynthia Gregory have quit and Leslie Browne is on leave, Martine and Natalia Makarova are the pillars of the diminished troupe which Mikhail Baryshnikov will take over next September. Misha met van Hamel in 1966 when both won gold medals at the celebrated ballet competition in Varna, Bulgaria. “It has taken the world as long to discover the value of gold as it has to discover Martine,” he smiles.
The youngest of three children of a Dutch diplomat (who is now retired and making violas in Woodstock, N.Y.), van Hamel began dancing at 4. Possibly because her family moved so often—to posts in Denmark, Indonesia, Venezuela and Canada—and she changed teachers so frequently, she developed a very personal style. At 18, she became a soloist, and subsequently a star, with the National Ballet of Canada. In 1969 she resigned and headed for New York. She failed to meld with the Joffrey Ballet and after six months had to take a lowly corps job with the ABT. “I was so depressed that I got married [to a musician with the company]. I stopped dancing and hit the bottom of my life.” That lasted about as long as the marriage—one year. Moving up through the ranks once again with outstanding performances in Giselle and Swan Lake, she was the surprise choice of Twyla Tharp for the lead in Push Comes to Shove in 1976.
Ever since, van Hamel has had an enthusiastic following, although she has been partnered mostly by boys on the way up. “That has its fun,” she says. “I feel their excitement, but they can’t bring out much in me.” With Dutch bluntness, she adds: “In a way fame and Godunov have come too late.”
Van Hamel shares a spacious apartment on Manhattan’s West Side with Beverly Lauridsen, a cellist she met through her ex-husband. Martine’s lover, David Devanne, keeps his own apartment, and after five years together, the couple have no plans, or, says she, “necessity,” to get married. They differ on matters such as children (“He wants them but I’ve never liked kids—the thought of having them seems too enormous”). Their relationship, however, “doesn’t need verification,” van Hamel maintains. Devanne (who Martine says obliquely is “in shipping”) takes her away from the ballet world to snorkel and sail at his family home in the Florida Keys. “He leads me in another direction,” she says.
So might Godunov in another sort of way. He reportedly chose van Hamel as his debut partner because she was unlikely to upstage him. “Godunov is going to be distinguished,” she says with delicacy, but adds firmly, “I intend to be his equal.”