Alexander “Sasha” Godunov, 1949 – 1995.

One ballet dancer that appears to have been forgotten with the passage of time is Alexander “Sasha” Godunov.

Alexander Godunov, born on the 28th November 1949, Sakhalin Island, Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR), to Boris Godunov and Lidia Nicholaevna Studentova.

Alexander’s parents divorced at a young age, which had a profound effect on him, as he would never hear from his father again. Alexander would always wait and hope for contact. Alexander, his brother, Oleg, and their mother moved to Riga, Latvia.

Alexander Godunov, Mikhail Baryshnikov at Riga Choreography School

Alexander’s mother did not want him to fall in with the local hooligans, thus enrolled Alexander at the age of 9 years into Riga Choreography School (1958), so he would get the discipline that was absent in his life. Alexander was one of the 12 successful students, out of 250 who auditioned. Alexander quickly made friends with another student, Mikhail Baryshnikov. Both become very good friends at this time that lasted for many years until about 1982.

Alexander was never happy with his Mum’s idea that he should study ballet. He started off as a short and awkward dancer in his ballet classes. This, of course, was not to last too long, as he was growing in height and becoming a much better dancer. Indeed he became one of the standout dancers/performers for Riga Choreography School. By this time Alexander was in his mid-teens and was attracting the eye of Russian officials in a positive way.

Alexander graduated from Riga Choreography School (1966) at the age of 17 years. He went on to perform as an accomplished dancer in classical and contemporary ballet. This led to Alexander joining Igor Moiseyev Young Ballet, where he toured with the Company for 2 to 3 years.

Alexander then joined the prestigious Bolshoi Ballet in 1971, bypassing Corps De Ballet, and becoming their youngest Principal Ballet Dancer. Legendary Prima Ballerina Maya Plisetskaya chose Alexander to dance opposite her.

Alexander Godunov Maya Plisetskaya Los Angeles 1988

Alexander, the lithe Ballet Dancer who stood 6ft 1in with long flaxen hair, stunned theatre audiences with his 1973 debut in Swan Lake.

In the same year Alexander married Company Soloist Lyudmila Vlasova and also entered the prestigious third International Ballet Competition, receiving a prize and gold medal.

Whilst performing with Bolshoi Ballet, Alexander toured the United States of America; around 1973 and 1974. The tour was a triumphant success for Alexander and the Bolshoi Ballet whilst in the USA, the theatre audiences fell in love with Alexander, but USSR officials had become concerned with his growing outside the USSR. Present in the minds of the USSR officials was that Mikhail Baryshnikov had defected in June 1974 to the West whilst in Canada, so for the next 5 years Alexander was forbidden to travel outside the USSR.

Alexander’s lifestyle and respect within USSR was still at a level most citizens would never be able to attain in The Motherland. He qualified for benefits like limousine travel to and from performances, but this was also a way of Officialdom to keep an eye on him and his growing Western World mind. It was during this time Alexander had time to reflect and regain the trust of the USSR officials.

Alexander talks about these 5 years:

Alexander Godunov and Nina Timofeyeva Don Quixote 1976

”When Misha Baryshnikov defected I was very jealous. I wanted to be in his place. Of course, we all knew about Nureyev and Makarova, but nobody dared discuss them openly, because one wrong word and we would never be allowed to travel out of the country. So, one kept one’s mouth shut. But during my last five years in Moscow, I was very unhappy. I was considered a star and people complimented me and considered me the best partner of Maya Plisetskaya. In actuality, I did not dance all that much, and I felt myself fading from the life of the theatre. At one point, I had a big fight with Yuri Grigorovich, the Director of the Bolshoi, and after that I became something of a persona non grata. I wanted to dance more, but wasn’t given the chance. There were months and months when I would go crazy for lack of performances. I began to doubt my value as a dancer – I lost heart. I would take daily class and have the occasional performance, but finally I felt I was being pushed down, and I was frustrated and furious. When I learned the Bolshoi would be coming to America, I considered it a miracle to have been included in the tour. It was my chance for freedom.”

Finally, in 1979, Bolshoi Director Yuri Grigorovich allowed Alexander to travel, accompanied by his wife, and perform with the Bolshoi Ballet in the USA.

It was reported in the New York Times (1979) that Principal Ballerina of American Ballet Theatre (ABT) Miss Cynthia Gregory said, “I wish Alexander Godunov of the Bolshoi Ballet would defect for me. I love his Prince Valiant look, and he’s so exciting.”

Miss Gregory, who is of similar height, had been known to complain about the lack of dancers who matched her height.

Alexander Godunov Prince Siegfried Tatiana Golikova as Odette Swan Lake Alexander Godunov Natalia Bessmertnova Swan Lake Alexander Godunov 03 Alexander Godunov 02 Alexander Godunov 01
Portrait of Russian American dancer Alexander Godunov (1949 - 1995), New York, 1981. (Photo by Jack Mitchell/Getty Images)

On the 22nd August 1979, whilst in New York, with just 75 cents in his pocket, Alexander sought political asylum. This set off a tense drama that unfolded over the next 3 days. USSR officials rushed Lyudmila Vlasova off to Kennedy Airport and boarded an aircraft for a quick departure. However, the aircraft that Alexander’s wife boarded was refused permission to take off, and only when Lyudmila Vlasova convinced the USA authorities that she was returning of her own volition, was the aircraft allowed to leave.

One may never know if Lyudmila was true to her word or threatened by Soviet officials. The famous husband and wife eventually divorced in 1981. Lyudmila continued to perform with Bolshoi Ballet, minus some of the benefits to which she was privileged from when she was married to Alexander.

Today, Lyudmila Vlasova is a Choreographer in the world of Figure Skating.

Alexander went on to perform in the United State of American with the prestigious American Ballet Theatre as a Soloist.

On defecting and joining the American Ballet Theatre, Alexander said,

“Ever since I came to this country six years ago, it has been my dream to work with the most outstanding choreographers of the West. Joining the American Ballet Theatre is a big step forward in fulfilling that dream, as it has a repertory which extends from the most classical to the most modern. This is a luxury which I have never had. The realization that the company has the great ballerinas to dance this varied repertory affords additional excitement.

My main aim will be to broaden my artistic horizons as quickly as possible so that in my lifetime I will have danced more than four classical and three Sovietstyle fulllength ballets, a handful of shorter works and a few pas de deux. It will also be a revelation for me to be allowed to dance on a regular basis instead of being prohibited to dance in public for months on end. For me a dream has come true.”

After leaving ABT, Alexander went on to create his own Dance Company, Godunov & Stars, and also danced with other prestigious American ballet companies, such as the José Limón Company (Moor’s Pavane), Alvin Ailey Dance Theater (Spell – 1981 with Judith Jamison), Ballanchine’s New York City Ballet, and Paul Taylor.

Other overseas ballet companies Alexander performed with were Asami Maki Ballet of Japan, the Israel Ballet and Maurice Bejart’s Ballet of the Twentieth Century.

Besides teaching at David Lichine’s Lichine Ballet Academy in Beverly Hills, Alexander started voice and acting lessons, eventually appearing on TV and in movies such as “Die Hard” and “Witness”, including having his own PBS TV. show, “Godunov: The World to Dance In”. However, Alexander Godunov had become tired of being type casted as a ballet dancer and/or a villain in his acting roles.

Unlike other famous Russian ballet dancers, Rudolf Nureyev, Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov, all of whom had defected to the West before Alexander, he just didn’t seem to gain the status enjoyed by his compatriots, whereas back in the Motherland, Alexander had been a well respected dancer with status, but now he was competing in a world where he was not the only ballet dancer of greatness.

In a 1983 interview with The Christian Science Monitor, Alexander explained his motivations for defecting were not political; he only wanted to dance. Alexander went on to explain that at the Bolshoi over the 4 to 5 years preceding his defection he would only dance once a month. Even with many invitations to dance elsewhere around the world with other ballet companies, Russian officials would not allow him to travel and they especially didn’t like his popular cult figure status.

Alexander spoke about dancers in the United States of American and the difficult times in the Soviet Union,

”Here dancers have much more possibility to be on stage and more choices to dance all over the country. That results in better dancers because dancers here are in good shape all the time because they work a lot. In Russia you are on stage only once in a while, and it is hard to keep your body in shape that way.”

Alexander Godunov on his Artistry:

”When I am on stage I try to be there with a certain character which I am creating. It is good that the people do not know if they are talking about me as a personality or commenting about my technique. That’s why Nureyev and Baryshnikov are superstars. In any performing art if you do not have soul and your own interpretation, you are nothing.”

Sadly for someone who rose to the rank of Premier Danseur Noble and had the world at his feet, opportunities, lifestyle and a talent that very few ever gain in their life, Alexander did not seem to be happy in his later years. Alexander’s health had been taking a toll on him and eventually died of chronic alcoholism at the age of 45, West Hollywood, California, on May 18th 1995.

Feature image: Alexander Godunov and Maya Plisetskaya