Feature

Nadia Nerina

The ballerina who combined acrobatics with beauty

The ballerina who combined acrobatics with beautyNadia Nerina1927–2008

When Nadia Nerina was 8 years old, she twisted her ankle and, on the advice of her doctor, began taking ballet lessons. Within a few years, she was on her way to becoming one of the world’s most virtuosic ballerinas. Nerina, who died last week at 80, shone for years as a star of Great Britain’s Royal Ballet, and with her natural beauty and joyous stage presence, she triumphed in such classics as Swan Lake, The Firebird, and The Sleeping Beauty.

Born Nadine Judd in South Africa, Nerina left home at 16 to study dance in London, said the London Daily Telegraph. One of her first big roles was in choreographer Frederick Ashton’s Cinderella, in 1948, which featured her in “a luscious, bursting solo embodying the season of spring.” She was also memorable in La Fille Mal Gardée. For the production, Nerina performed an audacious maneuver called the “bum lift, in which the ballerina sits high on her partner’s outstretched hand.” Nerina’s star quality came from her ability to effortlessly combine “charm, speed, physical daring, and high, floating jumps.” She was so outstanding and popular, in fact, that it was largely expected she would take over Margot Fonteyn’s role as the Royal Ballet’s leading dancer in the early 1960s.

“But her career path was diverted by the defection of Rudolf Nureyev,” said The New York Times. When he fled the Soviet Union in 1961 and joined the Royal, his legendary pairing with Fonteyn “postponed Fonteyn’s expected retirement and revitalized interest in her career.” Nerina felt upstaged, and her relationship with Nureyev was strained. At one point, while performing Giselle with Fonteyn, “he created a sensation by inserting 16 entrechats-six”—a move in which the dancer’s high jump is accompanied by a rapid crisscrossing of the legs back and forth in the air. “Nerina, feeling this was simply showing off and not artful, rebuked Nureyev when she danced Swan Lake and inserted 32 entrechats-six.” Nureyev, who was in the audience, stormed out in fury. 

Nerina retired in 1969. She is survived by financier Charles Gordon, her husband of 52 years.

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