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Ballerina Is a Great Believer in Fairy Tales--Especially the One She’s Living

When the San Francisco Ballet brings its widely acclaimed production of “Swan Lake” to San Diego this week, the poetic pathos of the beloved fairy-tale ballet will have a real-life counterpart. It’s a case of life imitating art, and ballerina Ludmila Lopukhova is the central figure.

Lopukhova was a soloist with the great Kirov when film maker Derek Hart entered her life. Hart came to the ballet company to film “Backstage at the Kirov,” a movie celebrating the 200th anniversary of the venerable institution. For Lopukhova and Hart, it was love at first sight--backstage at the Kirov. The romance blossomed behind the scenes during the making of the movie.

“When Derek and I met, it was just like a fairy tale,” Lopukhova said during a break from rehearsing her dual role as Odette/Odile. “He came to the Kirov to film a movie, and he imagined me as a Russian princess. Then he came to kiss me and free me from the spell that was cast over me. It was like something out of ‘Swan Lake.’ ”

Lopukhova and Hart kept their romance a secret from everyone, and Hart deliberately chose another ballerina to star in the film.

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“If they knew about us, they could have stopped his film,” said Lopukhova, “or they could have separated us. I was afraid they would send him away or send me away, so we pretended we didn’t know each other.”

Neither spoke the other’s language at first, but the language barrier couldn’t curb the course of true love.

“The second time he came we began communicating very badly--with a dictionary,” said Lopukhova. “But we still couldn’t take a chance being seen together. People in this country don’t know what it’s like, because you’re so free, but we took a lot of risks to see each other in Russia.”

Why did Lopukhova chance those clandestine rendezvous with Hart when so much was at stake for both of them?

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“I fell in love, and it was like an explosion,” she said. “That was the only reason. I couldn’t hold back.”

When the film was completed, Hart had to leave the Soviet Union, but he returned soon afterward, armed with a tourist visa and a private agenda.

“We got the marriage papers in secret, because, if they knew what we were planning, they would never have given Derek a visa to come back to Russia,” said Lopukhova. “He came as a tourist. If anyone knew he was really coming to marry me, they would have stopped us.”

Even after they were married, their future together was in doubt.

“I didn’t think I’d be able to leave,” she said. “I just had to hope. But, after a year and a half, they finally let me go. If you’re Jewish, you give up your Soviet citizenship to leave the country, but I can still go back if I wanted to, because I left legally.”

Other Soviet artists have defected to the West to seek artistic and political freedom, but that option was never open to Lopukhova.

“How could I? It was not possible for me to leave,” she said. “I didn’t travel like the others.”

Lopukhova’s friends at the Kirov were “very happy for us when they found out we were married,” she said.

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Ironically, the film that set her storybook romance in motion has never been seen in the Soviet Union--at least not in the form its creator envisioned.

“They refused to show the film in Russia,” Lopukhova said. “Later, when they did release it, it was cut to pieces.

They cut me out of it completely.”

Why blackball the ballerina if she was not even branded as a defector?

“One arm doesn’t know what the other arm is doing there,” she said. “They didn’t know whether it was OK to show me in the film, so they decided it’s safer to cut me out completely.”

That’s all in the past for the characters in this real-life fairy tale. The story had the obligatory happy ending with the lovers united--sort of--in the United States.

“Derek lives in Los Angeles, and I have an apartment in San Francisco,” said Lopukhova, “so we’re often kept apart, but we get together every weekend. In fact, Derek will be joining me in San Diego while we’re here.”

Perhaps it comes as no surprise that the 36-year-old ballerina still believes in fairy tales.

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“Of course I do,” she said. “I was brought up with fairy tales until I was 15, and then I danced a lot of fairy tales. Fairy tales can come true. It’s possible, so why shouldn’t I believe in them?”

This weekend, when the San Francisco Ballet dances three performances of its lavish, full-length “Swan Lake” at the Civic Theatre downtown, Lopukhova will be part of the opulent fantasy. Evelyn Cisneros will open the three-night series tonight and dance the final performance Saturday, but Lopukhova will evoke the swan/girl at 8 p.m. Friday. All three performances will feature live accompaniment by the San Diego Symphony.

Each ballerina brings another dimension to the role, as Lopukhova acknowledged.

“It depends on the individual. Evelyn is Mexican and she’s very warm. I was brought up the Russian way. We are expressive, but the facial expressions are gentle, not as much emotion as the Americans.”

This celebrated staging, by San Francisco Ballet director Helgi Tomasson, takes a different approach than the traditional one performed by the Kirov.

“In Russia, it’s not as tragic. The ballet has a happy ending, with the swan becoming a girl,” Lopukhova said. “But in this ‘Swan Lake,’ both Odette and the prince die. She says he betrayed her, and she has to go and die, and he follows her.”

Despite her fierce belief in fairy tales, Lopukhova prefers the not-so-happily-ever-after ending.

“Audiences like it more when there’s an unhappy ending. It touches them,” she said. “They feel sorry for the young couple when it ends tragically.”

Jens-Jacob Worsaae, who designed the romantic decor and costumes, envisioned this lush “Swan Lake” as an ambiguous fusion of reality and fantasy.

“With ‘Swan Lake,’ you have a fantasy. It could be real,” he said, “but the whole ballet could just as well take place in the mind of the young prince--in a fantasy, in his dreams. It could be just an illusion.”

But for the real-life Russian princess and her Prince Charming, the fairy tale is real, and still unfolding. The couple celebrate their fifth anniversary this weekend.

“We went through a lot of difficulties, but the more difficulties we had,” she said, “the stronger we got. We’re still very much in love.”

The opening-night performance of this “Swan Lake” may also be a dream come true for some needy children. The event, sponsored by Friends of Issste-Cali Hospital in Tijuana, will benefit the hospital. Proceeds will provide medical equipment for indigent infants and children in that city.


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