Edgar Degas — Ballerina, Seen from the Back

There’s the old saying, attributed to General Douglas MacArthur, that “Old soldiers never die, they just fade away.” In the world of ballet, you can substitute “dancers” for “soldiers” and “pirouette” for “fade” and it’s just as true.

Last night’s Career Transition For Dancers annual gala, held in New York City, with a scheduled appearance by the former Russian étoile Natalia Makarova, brought home that very point. Having witnessed her at the summit of her career, in what many call a “Golden Era” of ballet in the late ’70s and early ’80s, I realized I hadn’t thought about Makarova in years. And then I recalled some of her colleagues then also at the peak of their fame, like the American ballerinas Cynthia Gregory and the once-wunderkind Gelsey Kirkland, and wondered…what happened to them?

Of performing artists, ballet dancers have the most limited time in the spotlight. Unlike opera singers, for example, who are allowed to grow older (and heavier) but whose voices continue to thrive, dancers face the toughest of careers, longevity compromised by the reality of finite physical endurance. Compounding the irony is the fact that artistic maturity finally catches up when the legs don’t have as much left to give.

Margot Fonteyn

A poignant reminder of the fickleness of this most beautiful yet treacherous of avocations is the sad end of the legendary Margot Fonteyn, who died (in dire financial straits) at a hospital in Panama in 1991. Laid to rest in a pauper’s grave, it was a tragically unfit closing act for the great — some consider greatest — ballerina of the 20th Century; one would think she could have been accorded a less ignominious goodbye as a Dame of the British Empire. (Sic transit toe shoes, so to speak.) Her equally illustrious partner, Rudolf Nureyev, fared better, stylishly buried at a Russian cemetery in Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois near Paris, in a tomb draped in a mosaic of oriental carpet.

Mikhail Baryshnikov and Natalia Makarova, 1974

There are some exceptions to the fade-away rule: Mikhail Baryshnikov, of course, who went on to other endeavors after ballet superstardom, via work with modern-dance troupes and the eventual creation of the Baryshnikov Arts Center, as well as appearances in movies and on television. In Miami, New York City Ballet alumnus Edward Villella forged a world-class ballet company which magnificently carries on the traditions of his mentor, choreographer George Balanchine.

But exceptions they are. Fortunately, an organization like Career Transition, founded in 1985, recognizes the special needs of those less famous, and helps to assist in that difficult grand jeté to a post-performance life.