Monday, February 24, 2014

Ivan Nagy: They also serve...

Ivan Nagy, perhaps the greatest ballet partner of the 20th century, died this weekend in Budapest. He was never as famous as many peers, especially Mikhail Baryshnikov or (early in Nagy's career) Rudolf Nureyev. But Natalia Makarova called him her favorite partner, and this pas de deux from "Swan Lake" shows why. (Violinist Itzhak Perlman and cellist Lynn Harrell are playing the solos onstage.)

The focus is obviously on her; the choreographer wants us to see the woman-as-swan most clearly. But look how easily she takes to the air in his arms: She really seems to be a bird caught between flights. Cynthia Gregory, a principal with Nagy in American Ballet Theatre, told the Cincinnati Enquirer, "I danced my first 'Giselle' with him. It's a performance that is still emblazoned in my head and in my heart. I felt I was floating with him. That's when I fell in love with him. He was so dreamy." (Nagy was artistic director of Cincinnati Ballet in the late 1980s.)

He never had the outgoing stage personality that defines a star the whole world can embrace. He had beauty of line, aristocratic poise and a sense of calm; every dancer from Gregory to Princess Diana knew she was safe in his arms. (He danced a foxtrot with Diana at a London gala after becoming artistic director of English National Ballet in 1989.)

Most newspapers overlooked his passing; the Charlotte Observer didn't mention it, and I couldn't even find an obituary on the New York Times site. He performed in the shadows, metaphorically speaking, through his whole career -- either the shadows of more overtly charismatic male dancers or the great women he partnered. Here's some rare footage of him, proving he was as supportive to his ballerinas in the rehearsal room as onstage:

In a sense, Nagy typifies all the supporting players without whom the stars and divas of the world would lose luster: Character actors who let the leads take the spotlight, best-friend opera mezzos who leave the high Cs to the sopranos, orchestral musicians who provide such a crucial texture to a soloist's flights in a concerto. Like all of them, Ivan Nagy was essential to the art form he loved.


mkling said...

No balletomane who ever saw him dance could forget Ivan Nagy. He had a presence and a quality that made you believe for a couple of hours in the make-believe world of enchanted swan princesses and spirits. Etched in my memory is the way in which he would conclude Act 1 of Swan Lake, as the famous theme music swelled, by following an imaginary flock of swans flying overhead with his eyes and an upraised hand, until you believed that you saw them, too. He stopped dancing at the peak of his beauty and powers, leaving us always wanting more.