Makarova was born in 1940 in Leningrad in former Soviet Russia. At the age of 12, she auditioned for the Leningrad Choreographic School (formerly the Imperial Ballet School), and was accepted although most students join the school at the age of 10.
Makarova was a permanent member of the Kirov Ballet in Leningrad from 1956 to 1970, achieving prima ballerina status during the 1960s. Soon after Makarova defected to the West in 1970, she began performing with the American Ballet Theatre in New York and the Royal Ballet in London.
When she first arrived in the West, Makarova was eager to expand her choreography by dancing ballets by modern choreographers. At the same time, she remained most identified with classical roles such as Odette/Odile in Swan Lake and Giselle. She was featured in the 1976 live American Ballet Theatre production of Swan Lake, simulcast from Lincoln Center on both PBS and NPR.
Makarova continued to excel in many different roles,most notably, her title role in Giselle. She was slim and slight, and combined a delicacy and lyricism with impeccable classical training. The History of Dance, published in 1981, notes that "Her performances set standards of artistry and aristocracy of dance which mark her as the finest ballerina of her generation in the West."
In 1989, Natalia Makarova returned to her home theater of the Kirov Ballet and was reunited with her family and with former colleagues and teachers. Her emotional homecoming was documented in the film Makarova Returns. After her performance at the Kirov, she retired from dancing, donating her shoes and costumes to the Kirov Museum. Today Makarova stages ballets such as Swan Lake, La Bayadère, and Sleeping Beauty for companies across the world.
In the opening week of On Your Toes at the Kennedy Center in Washington D.C., Natalia Makarova was accidentally struck and injured during a performance. With her arm in a cast, she returned to New York, unable to finish the engagement. To recover from this unfortunate accident and prepare for her debut on Broadway, she sought the private and personalized help of her good friends Lynn Stanford and David Howard. For more than two months, David prepared special exercizes to aid in Natalia's recovery while Lynn created music to help her forget the pain and make her want to dance. "In Private" is the result of this extremely unique situation and contains a wonderful variety of melodies and rhythms for the ballet class. In addition to being an internationally renowned ballerina, Makarova won a Tony Award for her performance in the show On Your Toes.
She appeared as Lydia Lopokova (Lady Keynes) in Wooing in Absence, compiled by Patrick Garland. It was first performed at Charleston Farmhouse and then at the Tate Britain.
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