Ballet, the Cold War, and Me

I fell in love with ballet at the age of 8 when my maternal grandmother took me to see a performance by Alexandra Danilova at the Syria Mosque (1911-1991) in Pittsburgh.

Born in Russia in 1903, Danilova left her native country in 1924 and became an American citizen in 1946, two years before I saw her in 1948.

This video shows her performing as the Sugar Plum Fairy in “The Nutcracker” at Jacob’s Pillow in 1952. She retired as a ballerina five years later.

By 1948, World War II’s alliance between the Big Four — the United States, the Soviet Union, England, and France — was deteriorating into the Cold War. Before I graduated from high school in June 1958, the Soviet Union had inaugurated the Space Age with its October 4, 1957, launch of Sputnik 1, the world’s first artificial Earth satellite. Although the first U.S. satellite, Explorer, was launched shortly thereafter, on January 31, 1958, the Soviets went on to achieve a series of other space firsts: first man in space, first woman, first three men, first space walk, first spacecraft to impact the Moon, first to orbit the Moon, first to impact Venus, and first craft to soft-land on the Moon.

But, for the Russians, scientific and technical superiority weren’t enough. In the spring of 1961, as I was finishing up Smith College’s Junior Year Abroad in Geneva, Switzerland, Leningrad’s Kirov Ballet announced an extended European tour. The Kirov, under artistic director, choreographer, and leading male dancer Konstantin Sergeyev (1910-1992), was synonymous with classical ballet, as evidenced by the 1953 Pas de Deux from “Swan Lake” that Sergeyev performed with Galina Ulanova at the Bolshoi Theatre

The Kirov’s most promising male dancer was not scheduled for the European tour. The company – and the KGB – considered the rebellious, non-conformist, but brilliant 23-year-old Rudolph Nureyev a “flight risk.”

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Rudolf Nureyev in Germany, August 1961. Source: www.stripes.com

Then, in April, fate intervened. Sergeyev was injured. While he still went on the European tour as choreographer, Nureyev was selected to replace him as a dancer. “Paris was entranced by Nureyev’s dancing, but off stage he irritated his French hosts just as much as his Russian minders. Capricious and willful, he behaved like a spoilt child. . . . Soviet sympathisers in Paris tried to destroy his confidence by pelting him with missiles and catcalls on stage. When these efforts failed, the KGB made other plans, one of which was to break his legs.”[1]

According to a 1998 Nureyev biography by Diane Solway, “On June 3, the KGB ordered the Soviet Embassy to send Nureyev back to Moscow. ‘The KGB was concerned only with state security,’ Ms. Solway said. . . . ‘To the Soviet Embassy and the Kirov leadership, the chief mission of the tour was to demonstrate Soviet cultural supremacy. . . . They felt the KGB were cultural philistines, and said they couldn’t send him home.’ Officials in Paris resisted two separate orders from the KGB. Finally, as Nureyev and his fellow dancers were about to fly to London, a third KGB directive left Kirov officials no choice but to comply. As Nureyev waited for his plane, according to Ms. Solway’s account, the Kirov’s artistic director, Konstantin Sergeyev, suddenly told him: ‘You won’t be coming with us now. Khrushchev wants you to go to Moscow and dance a special gala for him.’ Then Sergeyev told Nureyev that his mother was ill. ‘He absolutely panicked,’ said Ms. Solway, ‘because he realized he was not only being sent back, but would probably not be let out of the country again, and banished to a remote section.’ Nureyev threatened to kill himself. At a crucial moment, Ms. Solway’s book relates, a high-ranking police officer at the Paris airport stepped in. The officer, Gregory Alexinsky, was a White Russian with no love for the Communists. His father, who had been a lawmaker in the Duma, had been imprisoned for criticizing Lenin. When Ms. Solway tracked down Mr. Alexinsky near Paris, he told her that he sequestered Nureyev and dispatched him secretly through a back door to French police headquarters. There, after being interrogated, he said, Nureyev was granted a refugee visa. In Communist Party archives, Ms. Solway discovered a damage report completed two days after the defection by Aleksandr Shelepin, the chief of the KGB, concluding that Nureyev should never have been sent abroad. Nureyev was tried in absentia for state treason and pronounced guilty. The defection was a serious propaganda blow to the Soviet authorities, and they clamped down on the travel of other artists.”[2]

“The West was quick to claim a political victory [even though Nureyev’s] choice [to defect] was practical rather than ideological. Nureyev had no interest in politics. He was a natural rebel against authority, whatever its political stripe. In Russia, he saw little chance of spreading his wings. So, with one or two discreet friends, he had been toying with defection, but he had made no plans. He just knew what he had to do when the moment came.”[3]

Within a week, he was signed up by the Grand Ballet du Marquis de Cuevas and was performing “The Sleeping Beauty” with Nina Vyroubova, but, personally, he was lonely and depressed. When he telephoned home, his father refused to speak to him and his mother tugged at his heart-strings as the KGB listened.[4]

7127875081_dfbc91a38a_z Royal Opera House www.roh.org.uk

Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, London

In the meantime, the Kirov traveled to London for four-weeks, from June 19-July 15, 1961. Their performances were part of a simultaneous exchange of British and Russian ballet companies, with The Royal Ballet appearing both in Leningrad and at the Bolshoi Theatre in Moscow, while the Kirov Ballet dazzled audiences, including me, at the Royal Opera House at Covent Garden.

I must have seen the last week of performances because I did not leave Geneva until after the 4th of July and it took several days to travel by train from Geneva to Le Havre and then by boat and train to London. The first full day I was in London, I took a double-decker bus tour. Sitting on the upper deck, I saw the sign at Covent Garden advertising the ballet. The next morning, I went to Covent Garden and purchased standing-room-only tickets. I stood in line until the afternoon performance, then stood in the back of the orchestra section for the entire performance. For one penny, I purchased the program that still carried Nureyev’s name on the second line of male dancers. I repeated this process for at least the next two days, seeing “Swan Lake,” “Giselle,” and “The Sleeping Beauty.”

ROH_auditorium_001 Wikipedia

Royal Opera House. My seat was in the first box on the first row of boxes on the left.

A lady recognized me on the third day and, taking pity on me and my sore feet, offered me a seat in her box, located at the front of the first row on the left (see the theater photo above). It had an incredible view. The dancers were right in front of us, as if my friend and I were the only people at the performance. But, after the first act, I thanked her and returned to standing in the back of the orchestra section.

Why?

Due to the influence of Konstantin Sergeyev, in the 1950s, the Kirov had “virtually eliminated mime and stressed the choreography’s pure-dance aspects.”[5] This, I discovered, when sitting in the box, meant that, no matter what emotion their bodies expressed, their faces never changed. Happy or sad, they were wooden, painted dolls.

It completely destroyed the magic of the ballet for me.

On November 13, 1962, almost a year and a half after seeing the Kirov in London, I delighted in the drama of the Bolshoi Ballet’s “Swan Lake” in Washington, D.C. During the intervening 18 months, I had graduated from Smith College (Francis Plimpton, father of George Plimpton and Deputy Representative to Adlai Stevenson, the U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations, was our commencement speaker on June 3, 1962), taken a job as a newspaper reader, then Indexer, with U.S. News & World Report, and, at my father’s insistence, signed up for an evening shorthand class. Life in the capital during the Kennedy Era was glamorous, exciting, and increasingly tense as the Cold War heated up.

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Piece of the Berlin Wall. Baker Institute, Rice University. Photo: Wayne Lorenz

On August 13, 1961, the German Democratic Republic completely cut off West Berlin from surrounding East Germany and East Berlin with the Berlin Wall. “Early successful escapes involved people jumping the initial barbed wire or leaping out of apartment windows along the line, but these ended as the wall was fortified. . . . On 15 August 1961, Conrad Schumann was the first East German border guard to escape by jumping the barbed wire to West Berlin. On 22 August 1961, Ida Siekmann was the first casualty at the Berlin Wall: she died after she jumped out of her third floor apartment at 48 Bernauer Strasse. The first person to be shot and killed while trying to cross to West Berlin was Günter Litfin, a twenty-four-year-old tailor. He attempted to swim across the Spree Canal to West Germany on 24 August 1961, the same day that East German police had received shoot-to-kill orders to prevent anyone from escaping.” By the time I graduated from Smith and moved to Washington, D.C., it had become apparent that the Berlin Wall was a public relations disaster for the Communist Bloc.

In spite of the Soviet Union’s initial success in space exploration, the United States was determined to win the race to the Moon, as demonstrated by President Kennedy’s forceful speech at Rice University on September 12, 1962.

jfkrice JSC NASA file

President John F. Kennedy’s “Going to the Moon” speech at Rice University on September 12, 1962. JSC photo.

And the Cuban Missile Crisis was in full swing by October.

On Monday, October 22, President Kennedy announced in a televised speech that Russian missiles had been discovered in Cuba and that, in response, the U.S. would implement a naval quarantine of Cuba the next day. In retaliation, Soviet submarines moved into the Caribbean and the Russian oil tanker “Bucharest” steamed towards Cuba.[6] 

Soon after the start of my shorthand class on Tuesday, October 23, our instructor turned away from the blackboard, put her chalk down on her desk, and looked up at the class. She said she could not continue to teach the class because her husband was in the Navy and was on one of the quarantine ships heading to Cuba. She said she had told him “goodbye” that morning and that she did not know if he would live or die or if she would ever see him again. The class quietly filed out of the room. The capital, also, was quiet, waiting to see what would happen next.

We all relaxed a little when, on Wednesday, October 24, the first Soviet ships approaching the quarantine line turned around. They’d avoided confrontation, clearly on orders from Moscow. But the crisis was far from over.

Adlai_Stevenson_shows_missiles_to_UN_Security_Council_with_David_Parker_standing wikipedia

Emergency Session of the United Nations Security Council called by the U.S. to discuss the Cuban Missile Crisis, October 25, 1962.

The next day, October 25, at an emergency meeting of the United Nations Security Council requested by the U.S., Adlai Stevenson confronted Soviet Ambassador to the United Nations, Valerian Zorin:  “Do you, Ambassador Zorin, deny that the U.S.S.R. has placed and is placing medium- and intermediate-range missiles and sites in Cuba? Yes or no. Don’t wait for the translation. Yes or no?”

Zorin did not reply.

Stevenson continued, “I am prepared to wait for my answer until hell freezes over, if that’s your decision. And I am also prepared to present the evidence in this room.”

Stevenson and the U.S. delegation then presented photographs to the Security Council, similar to the one below, which was taken two days later.

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Medium Range Ballistic Missile Launch Site 3, San Cristobal, Cuba, October 27, 1962.

When U2 flights over Cuba showed that the missiles would soon be operational, the U.S. military put troops, bombers, and missiles at the highest alert level. Any small skirmish could trigger a nuclear war. Kennedy knew this. Khrushchev knew it as well. What we and Kennedy did not know was that Soviet commanders on the ground in Cuba had nuclear weapons and the authority to use them against U.S. forces should an invasion occur.

On Friday, October 26, Aleksandr Fomin, a KGB station chief based in Washington, requested a meeting with ABC newsman John Scali, who had connections high up in the U.S. State Department. They discussed Fomin’s proposal for ending the crisis: The Soviet Union would remove its missiles if the U.S. publicly stated that it would not invade Cuba. Scali presented this information to U.S. Secretary of State Dean Rusk.

The same day, a private cable arrived from Khrushchev: “If, however, you have not lost your self-control and sensibly conceive what this might lead to, then, Mr. President, we and you ought not now to pull on the ends of the rope in which you have tied the knot of war, because the more the two of us pull, the tighter that knot will be tied.” The cable included the same proposal that Fomin had discussed with Scali.

But neither the U.S. nor the Soviet Union had counted on Fidel Castro’s position. On the same day, October 26, Castro sent the “Armageddon Letter” to Khrushchev, urging the Soviet Union to use a preemptive nuclear strike on the U.S. “I believe the imperialists’ aggressiveness is extremely dangerous and if they actually carry out the brutal act of invading Cuba in violation of international law and morality, that would be the moment to eliminate such danger forever through an act of clear legitimate defense, however harsh and terrible the solution would be.” Luckily, Khrushchev ignored Castro’s letter.

330px-Jupiter_IRBM US secretly agreed to remove them from Turkey Wikipedia

A nuclear-armed Jupiter intermediate-range ballistic missile. The U.S. secretly agreed to withdraw these missiles from Italy and Turkey. Source: Wikipedia.

The next day, Saturday, October 27, a new cable arrived from Moscow. This one was public. It made the same offer, but added the condition that U. S. missiles in Turkey be removed. Kennedy was furious. Removing missiles from Turkey was not something he was prepared to do. But going into all-out war over the missiles, which were obsolete, was also untenable.

Pressure built again.

  • In another meeting, Scali told Fomin that he had been double crossed.
  • A U2 plane flying over Cuba was shot down under orders from Castro. Kennedy could have given in to U.S. military hawks and retaliated.
  • Then an American pilot flew off course into Soviet airspace and had to be escorted back by U.S. planes. The Soviet military could have retaliated.

Neither happened. But time was running out.

Kennedy, his brother, U.S. Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, and their advisers then devised the “Trollope Ploy,” after a 19th-century novel written by Anthony Trollope in which a woman interprets a casual romantic gesture as a marriage proposal. Kennedy decided to respond “yes” to Khrushchev’s first proposal and ignore the ultimatum in his second.

But what about the U.S. missiles in Turkey? Robert Kennedy held a secret meeting that evening (Saturday, October 27), with Soviet ambassador Anatole Dobrynin at which an agreement was reached that the U.S. would remove its missiles from Turkey within six months.

The most dangerous period of the Cuban Missile Crisis ended on Sunday morning, October 28, when Radio Moscow announced that Khrushchev had sent a letter to Kennedy affirming that the missiles would be removed in exchange for a non-invasion pledge from the United States.

Nuclear war had been averted.

plisetskays Maya Plisetskaya

Bolshoi ballerina, Maya Plisetskaya, shared a birthday with Robert Kennedy.

On Monday, November 12, the Bolshoi Ballet arrived in Washington, D.C. That evening, Dobrynin again met with Robert Kennedy at the Soviet embassy to negotiate the resolution of the Cuban Missile Crisis. The meeting “began with Dobrynin’s handing over a confidential oral message from Khrushchev to President Kennedy that included a congratulatory note on the results of the Congressional elections, with special reference to the defeat of Kennedy’s erstwhile presidential rival, former Vice-President Richard M. Nixon, in the California gubernatorial contest.”

As Kennedy was leaving the Embassy, “he glimpsed a crowd of dancing couples in the embassy’s parlor. Realizing that this was a friendly welcome party arranged by the embassy community for the Bolshoi Theater troupe that had just arrived in Washington, he said that he would like to meet with the troupe. Mingling with and greeting almost all the members of the troupe, he delivered a welcome speech in which he said that the President was preparing to attend their premier the following evening. At the end, he kissed Maya Plisetskaya when he found out that he and she had been born in the same year, month, and day, and said they would celebrate their birthdays in a week.”[7]

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President and Mrs. Kennedy arrive at the Capitol Theater on November 13, 1962.

The Bolshoi’s performance was Kennedy’s first social outing after the crisis. “He reportedly clapped louder and longer than anyone in his section, and went backstage with Ambassador Dobrynin to greet the dancers. Jackie Kennedy hosted the dancers at the White House, with Mrs. Dobrynin on hand as interpreter, and took young Caroline to watch the Bolshoi’s leading ballerina, Maya Plisetskaya, in rehearsal. The President’s mother and his brother Ted hosted the company on Cape Cod, throwing a Thanksgiving-style dinner party for Plisetskaya’s birthday.”

Anatoly-Dobrynin-001 1962 The Guardian

Soviet Ambassador to the United States Anatole Dobrynin meeting with President Kennedy in the Oval Office shortly after his arrival in Washington, D.C. in 1962. Source: The Guardian.

I, too, attended the Bolshoi Ballet’s three-and-a-half-hour performance of “Swan Lake” at the Capitol Theater. My ticket was for an aisle seat in the first balcony on the right side of the theater, directly over Kennedy’s rocking chair in the mezzanine box below me. I never saw more than his hands. Instead, I watched Anatole Dobrynin, the chubby Soviet ambassador, in the box on the left side of the theater.

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Nancy Tuckerman, Social Secretary to Mrs. John F. Kennedy, 1962. Source: JFK Library.

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U.S. Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall and President Kennedy on a Western trip, August 1962. Source: University of Arizona Library.

As I walked around during the two intermissions, I was mesmerized by the elegant crowd below. Here was the First Lady’s Social Secretary, Nancy Tuckerman, who dressed just like her employer, and there was the handsome Secretary of the Interior, Stewart Udall.

But the best part of the evening was the “flying swans.”

You see, at that time, our nation’s capital did not have a theater capable of hosting a large ballet company. The Capitol was a 1908 movie theater that was part of the National Press Building. The theater’s workmen wanted to spruce it up properly for “dancing,” so they waxed the floor. No one realized this until the curtain went up and the swans started sliding instead of gliding. And the male dancers did not dare imitate Nureyev’s leaps. We all clapped at the end, but it was a very embarrassing demonstration of how “uncultured” we Americans were. “A wit at the International Herald Tribune couldn’t resist: ‘We always suspected it. And now we know it. The Russians have a secret weapon — something more powerful than nuclear weapons — the Bolshoi Ballet.’”[8]

But Nureyev’s defection — and the subsequent defections of other Russian dancers — resulted in a new day. See for yourself. Compare Sergeyev and Ulanova’s 1953 pas de deux from “Swan Lake” with Nureyev’s performances with the Kirov in April 1961 before the defection and his 1963 performance in Le Corsaire after the defection. “His influence on the world of ballet changed the perception of male dancers; in his own productions of the classics the male roles received much more choreography. Another important influence was his crossing the borders between classical ballet and modern dance by performing both. Today it is normal for dancers to receive training in both styles, but Nureyev was the originator and excelled in modern and classical dance.”[9]

I leave you with videos of my favorite ballet, “Swan Lake,” by The Kirov (2012) and The Bolshoi (2013).


[1] John Bridcut, “The KGB’s long war against Rudolf Nureyev,” The Telegraph, September 17, 2007.

[2] Dinitia Smith, “New Light on Nureyev’s Grand Leap to the West,” New York Times, October 6, 1998.

[3] John Bridcut, “The KGB’s long war against Rudolf Nureyev,” The Telegraph, September 17, 2007.

[4] John Bridcut, “The KGB’s long war against Rudolf Nureyev,” The Telegraph, September 17, 2007.

[5] http://www.nytimes.com/1992/04/11/arts/konstantin-sergeyev-dies-at-82-dancer-and-kirov-director.html, accessed June 18, 2015.

[6]  http://www.jfklibrary.org/JFK/JFK-in-History/Cuban-Missile-Crisis.aspx, accessed October 12, 2012.

[7] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/November_1962, accessed November 24, 2013.

[8] http://www.huffingtonpost.com/elizabeth-kiem/foggy-bottom-ballet_b_5351378.html, May 20, 2014; accessed May 21, 2014.

[9] https://en.wikipedia.org/?title=Rudolf_Nureyev, accessed June 18, 2015.

2 comments

  • I enjoyed your writing, particularly the part about Ida Siekmann. Her saga moves me immensely. Of all the at least 138 victims of the Berlin Wall, only the saga of Hildegard Trabant (http://hildegardtrabant.blogspot.com) moves me more. The Wikipedia pages on both of these ladies are largely with my inputs.

    I do have one comment.

    This story is available from many sources; many say she jumped from the third floor, and many say she jumped from the fourth floor. One of the photos in my blog about Frau Siekmann shows that she jumped from (what we know here in the USA) the fourth floor. German writings, to include the August 22, 1961 entry in the (East German) Volkspolizei log, most likely the first writing about Frau Soekmann’s fate, say that she jumped from the third floor. This is because of the difference in the numbering systems of the stories of a building. I consider this to be significant because, referring to the annotations on the picture at https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Bundesarchiv_Bild_183-33809-0001,_Berlin,_Bernauer_Stra%C3%9Fe,_Grenze.jpg , had she jumped from the third floor, she probably could have made the third and second floor balconies, and done the journey in steps, which would have greatly increased her chances of survival.

    Thank you for posting!

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