CYNTHIA GREGORY AT 40: ‘I DID IT THE HARD WAY’
Cynthia Gregory looked thoughtfully at a steaming plate of bacon and eggs just set before her and stubbed out a cigarette in an ashtray. The arrival of food interrupted her flow of talk after a recent late morning class at Stanley Holden’s dance studio in West Los Angeles. With unflappable grace, the former Angelena resumed her discourse on life as a big-time ballerina.
At 40, the tall, dark-haired dancer was peering back over her shoulder, a natural perspective, given the fact that she had already received an extravagant tribute for her 20 stellar years at American Ballet Theatre.
That celebration occurred at the Metropolitan Opera House in June, 1985. The company lavished on Gregory a gala in which she danced favorite choreography (including the Rose Adagio from “Sleeping Beauty” and excepts from “Miss Julie”) with favorite partners (among them Fernando Bujones, Ted Kivitt and William Carter).
Pelted with petals and bouquets and streamers, she might as well have been the subject of a ticker-tape parade.
“It was a fantastic night,” recalled the honoree, in reserved and evenly modulated tones that seemed to belie the substance of her words. But Gregory sloughed off any intimation that the fete was offered as compensation for slights suffered in the course of those two decades.
“I’m not bitter,” she explained, referring to her several door-slamming exits from Ballet Theatre earlier on and the many publicized unhappinesses she voiced in the past about allegedly unfair treatment by company management. “I don’t hold grudges. The company didn’t need to compensate me. If anything, the evening became an incentive to do new things.”
What she chose, as an alternative to watching the career, in her words, “go downhill from there,” was a tour package inspired by the gala itself. Producer Akiva Talmi saw the show, Gregory said, and “asked me to put together what we’re calling ‘Cynthia Gregory and Company: The Celebration Tour.’ ”
Sponsored by various health and rehabilitation charities, the 30-city traveling show arrives March 9 at the Los Angeles Music Center during Ballet Theatre’s March season in Shrine Auditorium. And it promises Linda Ronstadt, singing songs from her album “Sentimental Reasons” to which Michael Smuin has set the choreography that Gregory dances.
The sleekly groomed ballerina expressed concern over what she sees as an unlucky timing coincidence.
“I haven’t spoken to anyone about the (local tour) date,” she confessed. “When I signed this contract, Misha (Baryshnikov) was in Europe with half of the company filming the new ‘Giselle.’ And then came the fall layoff, with everybody scattered. But I’ve jumped to the conclusion that they won’t want me if my single night at the Pavilion is seen as competition.
“As it stands, the number of performances I’ll do this season with Ballet Theatre comes to half of what I usually did. Most likely, I’ll dance just once in Los Angeles, a ‘Sleeping Beauty.’ But the tour keeps me busy and so do my commitments to the Cleveland/San Jose Ballet where I’ve agreed to be a principal guest for two seasons.
“What’s important to me now is making wise moves. I have roughly five more good years and I want to make the most of them.”
Gregory joined Ballet Theatre as a principal dancer in 1965, when the company was making its name both by enticing glittery foreign-born stars to its stage and by developing native dancers into Terpsichore’s heroes and heroines.
But in the ‘70s, when such Russian eminences as Natalia Makarova and Baryshnikov captured the imagination of press and public alike, she and other members of the American contingent felt they were unjustifiably eclipsed. Having achieved a grand status but arguably never quite matching the Russians’ e clat , she came to personify the syndrome of discontent.
“We surely weren’t in the limelight after the defectors arrived,” mused Gregory. “But we all got to dance. We did it the hard way, the American way.
“Sometimes it seems like more people know me for my TV commercials than for performing a role. But making the American Express and Raytheon ads was fun and fantastic publicity and lots of money.”
At one point during the Soviet influx, Gregory thought she had come in for a windfall. Alexander Godunov made his getaway from the Bolshoi Ballet during a New York visit. And the ballerina who suffered a shortage of tall, charismatic partners--on pointe she stands six feet tall--clapped her hands at the prospect of dancing with him.
But not long after joining Ballet Theatre, the blond danseur’ s career took a swing toward Hollywood, leaving Gregory where she began.
Now there are other concerns. Since Baryshnikov took over the company’s direction, many senior principals have complained of being bypassed for plucked-from-the-corps fledglings.
Gregory, again in a mild voice, pinpointed the phenomenon: “Some people think a ballerina is any little girl who can dance.”
The statuesque dancer also lamented the passing of one-act ballets choreographed by her peers.
“We used to have Dennis Nahat and Eliot Feld and others constantly feeding us new stimulating works,” she recalled. “Now all they’re publicizing are the full-length staples. The repertory is shrinking. There are fewer and fewer things for us to dance.”
As a result, some of Gregory’s options have been less than ideal. Dancing “La Sylphide” and “Giselle"--ballets that thrive on ephemeral images of smallness and frailty--seemed strange choices for her. But she seized the opportunity anyway.
“I was excluded from ‘Romeo and Juliet’ because of my size,” she said. “But I don’t believe in typecasting. A true artist can make a role valid by bending it to her needs. Erik Bruhn, no less, told me that I was one of the best Sylphides he ever saw. That surely cancels out any negative reviews.”
As an alternative to the Romantic path Gregory has aptly sought out theatrically bold roles, among them the psycho-dramatic Antony Tudor ballets. But her single appearance in his “Pillar of Fire” brought the choreographer’s disapproval.
Tudor has commented on the incident by saying that he prefers to have this ballet danced only by “those who do not resort to ham-acting.” Gregory’s explanation: “He didn’t prefer me. It’s more gratifying for him to work with those he can mold: young, inexperienced dancers.”
Gregory is not the only dancer at Ballet Theatre to have made several departures, although hers were short-lived. Bujones’ turned out to be momentous, with angry words between him and Baryshnikov being exchanged in print. And then there’s Gelsey Kirkland, whose autobiographical confessions (“Dancing on My Grave”) documented her devastating career crash through drugs.
At first, Gregory waved aside questions about her colleagues, saying she “knows nothing about the Bujones saga” and insisting she had “not read Kirkland"--whose book implicates many others as drug users.
But the issue came ultimately close when she discussed how her husband, rock band manager John Hemminger, died of a heart attack two years ago. Gregory acknowledged that drugs may have contributed to his death.
“I tried to help him,” she said. “He had a cocaine problem and being in the rock and roll business, where drugs are rampant, made it very hard to control. But I got him to reform for six months at a time. Always, though, he would go back.
“He warned dancers not to do drugs. I like to think his death will help people. I doubt if Kirkland’s book will do anything positive. Her charges are grossly exaggerated. Dancers simply can’t perform when they’re stoned.”
Gregory described herself, in contrast to Kirkland, as having “the steady confidence and sense of humor, the talent and the personality, to make a career work.” She also said she prefers to avoid ballet scandals and harsh criticism of all kinds. “I try to carry on the Margot Fonteyn image: To project a gracious, chin-up attitude and not dwell on the seamy side. Actually, I’d rather talk about my new exercise book.”
And about being married to New York lawyer/businessman Hillary Miller for the past year.
Gregory spoke of the current tour as an enormous boost to her self-esteem. She put the entire program together, chose the 10 dancers--including Clark Tippet, the only Ballet Theatre member in the ensemble--and acted as artistic director. She was particularly proud of having Nancy Reagan serve as chairwoman and of knowing that the concerts will benefit various good causes--in Los Angeles, the American Diabetes Assn.
Still, it’s just a one-time thing, said the dancer, not substantial enough to provide artistic satisfaction on a continuing basis, although “Misha does this kind of tour package pretty regularly.
“But, more than a showcase, it’s a new role to experience. The dancers look to me for advice and direction. And I’ve grown up as a result. I’m not dependent on a company anymore, like a child.
“John (Hemminger) taught me to believe in myself and that’s what I’m doing. It feels good to crusade for the independence of other dancers, too. Maybe Fernando and I and a few others (who have lost the Ballet Theatre platform) will do a week together in New York.
“I’m sorry, though, to see ballet in its current slump. The bodies may be better than ever, but there’s just not enough soul.
“At least I can remember the good times . . . when dancers like (Carla) Fracci and Bruhn lit up the theater.”