Everyone has a story.
This story belongs to two people, both long time Taos residents and friends of mine.
You have seen Derek Hart’s photography on this blog since its inception; his image of Taos Mountain, graced my first post. He has contributed frequently since. But there is so much more to Derek than his impeccable eye, including this incredible story.
When Derek met Ludmilla Lopukhova at the Kirov while doing pre-production work for his seminal documentary for Armand Hammer Films, Backstage At The Kirov, he’d already lived a life most dream of.
Born in South Africa (our mothers attended the same school – Parktown Convent – in Johannesburg, and knew one another), he left with his mother and older brother for London after his parents divorced. He would return to S.A. for summer holidays that were spent with his father’s new family in Durban and the Valley of a Thousand Hills.
We met through a mutual friend at Taos Pueblo one San Geronimo Day over two decades ago. Needless to say we have been friends ever since.
By the time he was living in Los Angeles, working for Armand Hammer, Derek had graduated from Oxford University, become a principal dancer with Ballet Rambert (he began dancing after Oxford), and had decided a career in film was the next step on his almost implausible creative journey.
Meeting Ludmilla while taking class at the Kirov on his recconnosaince mission, he says he fell in love at first sight.
So did she.
His documentary chronicles St. Petersburg’s legendary Kirov Ballet as it prepares for a performance of “Swan Lake,” and in particular young ballerina Altynai Asylmuratova’s tireless preparation for the title role.
We are given an unprecedented look backstage at the fiercely dedicated members of the troupe, which was comprised of young, up-and-coming dancers, as well as performers at the end of their careers.
With Derek’s sensitive direction, the Kirov Ballet – arguably the best classical ballet troupe in the world (the company was responsible for producing Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, and The Nutcracker as well as Baryshnikov, Makarova, Nureyev, Pavlova and Nijinsky), we are taken into the rarefied world that dancers inhabit.
Long story short, Luda and Derek fell madly in love and after the filming was over and a long distance romance proved too difficult to sustain, they applied for permission to marry. Unbelievably it was granted and they were married in the Palace of Marriages, before honeymooning in Siberia, where Derek took these amazing photographs of his new bride,
During the early 80’s the Cold War was still very much in effect and it was not easy to leave the Soviet Union, let alone come and go, but within months, after applying for an exit visa, Luda joined Derek in Rome and from there, they came to America, where they have lived ever since.
In the current exhibition at the Wende Museum in Los Angeles, Red Shoes: Love, Politics, and Dance During The Cold War., Luda is featured among the other greats, most of whom defected from Russia during that Era, including Natalia Makarova, Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov.
The Museum’s program states that: Ballet was part of the high drama of the “culture wars,” as the US and USSR jockeyed for position during the Cold War. The Soviet Union produced some of the greatest dancers the world has ever known, with the Bolshoi and Kirov companies as standard bearers. But there were also painful losses, such as the defections of star dancers Nureyev, Makarova, and Baryshnikov, and the stifling of dance innovation during a time of great creativity in the West. This included Russian-born choreographer George Balanchine’s landmark achievements with New York City Ballet – all too evident when after more than 40 years he returned to the USSR for performances in 1962. How did the culture wars fit into the larger context of Soviet and American ballet, and the place of dance in Soviet life? Curated by psychologist and Wende Museum Board Member Thomas E. Backer, PhD, the exhibition explores this question, with a focus on the personal stories of two couples dancing across Cold War borders. Kent Stowell, who performed with New York City Ballet in its historic 1962 USSR tour, and his wife, Francia Russell, who staged one of Balanchine’s works in the USSR in 1988, are the co-founders of the world-renowned Pacific Northwest Ballet. Kirov soloist Ludmila Lopukhova left the USSR for the United States (and stardom with San Francisco Ballet), after meeting and marrying Derek Hart, British former dancer who directed the 1983 documentary Backstage at the Kirov. Their stories illuminate another side of the Cold War – one fought not with threats of nuclear war but with fierce competition for cultural dominance.
Soon after her arrival in L.A. Luda ran into Baryshnikov whom she had known at the Kirov. He offered her a position with the corps de ballet at the American Ballet Theatre, where he was the Artistic Director.
Luda says he told her he could not offer her a role as a principal dancer due to politics; the Americans were sensitive to Russian dancers usurping their positions, but that she could “work her way up.”
For Luda who already had worked her way up, this was a deal breaker. She said no, and went on to dance as a principal dancer at the San Francisco Ballet for several years, before she and Derek relocated to New Mexico shortly before that fateful day beside the Rio Pueblo, outside Rhoda Concha Hopper’s house.
There’s an old superstition I’ve heard bandied about in Taos since I first arrived here in the early 80’s. Come with a partner and you’ll break up eventually. Well that was true for me and true for this star-crossed couple as well. Except Derek and Ludmilla remain best friends and are in one another’s company more often than not.
“Soulmates.” Luda laughs.
Their story was once optioned for a movie, but fell through. When they were approached once more, Ludmilla turned down the offer. She didn’t want to sell out their story.
Years later, Derek says he asked her if she regretted that decision.
“She looked at me and shrugged,” he laughs now at the memory, “and then she said, “yes, because now we have no love and no money!” Luda laughs with him.
We are sitting outside on Derek’s portal, at his beautiful home in the Talpa foothills. The sweeping views to the east, west and north are breathtaking. The colours of the changing leaves shimmer red and gold in the afternoon sun, as we sip our tea and talk about their lives together here in Taos.
For several years Ludmilla taught ballet at the Betty Winslow Studio, before Betty passed on and the studio changed hands, but these days you are far more likely to find her with a paintbrush in her hand, at the easel rather than the barre. Luda is an accomplished painter.
This was a second marriage for both of them – Derek has a son from his first (also to a dancer), but clearly although this one ended on paper, the bond between these two is eternal.
A few years ago both of them left Taos and decamped to Sarasota Florida, where Ludmilla was involved with the Sarasota Ballet, teaching. But the Sunshine State proved no match for The Land of Enchantment, and they soon returned.
These days neither of them dance, nor do they teach dance. Derek remains an avid photographer and skier (another athletic challenge he came to later than most and excelled in.) His work with the Midwifery Center (and program), over the years continues and his gardens have become a new passion when he’s not traveling.
Ludmilla lives in San Cristobal in a house she bought bordering the forest.
“I’m a hermit.” She says.
“I’m not!” Derek retorts.
They both laugh, looking at one another like couples do when they have shared a lifetime of memories.
For more about the exhibit at the Wende Museum : Red Shoes: Love, Politics, and Dance During The Cold War., please visit their site linked below. I’ve included a link to purchase Backstage At The Kirov, from Amazon.
All photographs thanks to Derek Hart