I was lucky to have reached adulthood at approximately the same time the world of ballet hit its Golden Age. A recent commentary by dancer/choreographer Peter Martins, who first became a star four decades ago, suggested that part of the reason for this glorious period in the world of dance was the existence of the Cold War--that Americans felt both fascinated and patriotic when Soviet defectors such as Rudolph Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov escaped to the West to perform. Perhaps there is truth in this, but I know enough about the randomness of life that I have to consider the possibility that a great group of dancers simply came to the fore at the same time, much as the Renaissance produced a raft of gifted artists whose equals did not exist in the period before or the period after or maybe ever since. Of all these artists my favorite was the prima ballerina--America's own--Cynthia Gregory. Cynthia was a prodigy, showing up on the cover of Dance Magazine as a precocious seven-year-old! By the age of 20 she had already established herself as the leading interpreter of perhaps ballet's most famous role--that of Odette/Odile in Swan Lake. Those of you who saw Natalie Portman take home an Oscar for her role as a tormented ballerina might recall how challenging it was for her to be an equally successful interpreter of both the White Swan and Black Swan roles. There were many wonderful ballerinas at that time. Natalya Makarova, Gelsey Kirkland, Marianna Tcherkassky, and Martine van Hamel were all spectacular dancers with extraordinary gifts. But there was something about Cynthia's grace and her sensitivity to both the musical composition and the line of the dance itself that compelled me to see her in all the great roles: Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, Coppelia, Giselle, and others. My two favorite partners for her were Fernando Bujones, the younger Cuban-American with extraordinary athleticism, and Ivan Nagy, a Hungarian emigre who sought asylum in the U.S., and "presented" a ballerina more effectively than any other dancer I ever saw. He sacrificed much of his own personality during the pas de deux to make his partner shine. And shine Cynthia did. Below is a clip of a more mature Cynthia Gregory with Fernando Bujones in a performance of the Black Swan in a production of Pyotr Ilych Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake in the 80s. Choreography by Marius Petipa. Unfortunately the full clip is forbidden under copyright law and lacks the moment when Cynthia nails the crowd-pleasing 32 fouettes and misses the rousing ovation at the end of the piece. There is a YouTube clip of her dancing the Black Swan with Ted Kivitt in 1973 below which can be found at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tnJnZoiYmZM. Finally, there is a short clip of her solo in Paquita.
I would be remiss if I didn't mention a short film I saw for the first time on Channel 13 PBS while I was home from grad school on vacation. Pachelbel's now famous Canon in D Major had yet to become a cultural standard in the U.S., but around this time it gained prominence and was soon played in films, television commercials, weddings, etc. But just before that "moment", Cynthia Gregory and Ivan Nagy danced to it in a short film that could not be more romantic, though nary a word is spoken, entitled In a Rehearsal Room.
Fortunately, there is still a good deal of YouTube footage of Miss Gregory, now long retired. But she has left me indelible memories. Below is a photo of her basking in the inevitable cascading cheers-- "Brava! Brava!" that I heard so often when I was fortunate enough to see her dance.