Nora Kovach: Prodigious Hungarian ballerina who defected to the West in 1953

The sensational defection of the Hungarian ballerina Nora Kovach in 1953 caught the imagination of both sides in the Cold War. She was an outstanding talent, decorated and feted by the communist state in Hungary, yet she decided with her then husband and partner, Istvan Rabovsky, to defect to the West. They were the first ballet dancers to escape from the Soviet bloc, and their defection caused enormous ripples that went far beyond ballet circles.

Kovach was born in the provinces in Hungary; her mother was a teacher and her father was a clerk. The family moved to the capital when Kovach was accepted in to the Hungarian State Opera School in Budapest. There, her prodigious talent and stunning beauty brought her to the attention of the ballet master Ferenc Nadasi, who soon took a special interest in her. He and his wife, who was also a ballet teacher, took Nora under their wing and treated her as if she were their own child. They knew that at the time nothing matched the excellence of the Soviet ballet and when the chance came for Kovach to go to Leningrad to study with the Kirov Company, they encouraged her to take the opportunity. Kovach’s ballet partner Rabovsky had wooed her from an early age; she eventually wed him and they travelled to the |Soviet Union as a married couple.

There the legendary teacher Agrippina Vaganova noticed Nora and helped her to mature and become an outstanding dancer. Kovach and Rabovsky were the first foreign couple to appear with the Kirov; they danced the Blue Bird pas de deux from the ballet Sleeping Beauty, and on their return home they received Hungary’s most prestigious cultural honour, the Kossuth prize.

In 1953 they were sent to East Berlin to take part in a tour. Discovering that there was an underground station beneath their hotel, they managed to shake off their minders, took a train and defected to West Berlin (the Berlin Wall had not yet been built). In later years others, including Rudolf Nureyev and Mikhail Baryshnikov, followed the same path, but Kovach and Rabovsky were the first and their story caused a huge sensation; they featured in Time magazine, and appeared on The Ed Sullivan Show in the U S.

Back in Hungary, Kovach’s mother was arrested and questioned about the couple, but she genuinely knew nothing about their escape. Thereafter it was forbidden to speak their names in Hungary or to receive news from them; nevertheless, their coded letters were circulated among ballet professionals.

Meanwhile, the American impresario Sol Hurok began to represent the couple and they appeared with major companies in Europe, the United States and Latin America; in England they danced with the Festival Ballet. They often performed an excerpt from Don Quixote which almost invariably resulted in a standing ovation; the public loved them, though some critics noticed that they occasionally strayed from the pure classical line. Nonetheless, their technique was admired, especially Kovach’s turns (the grand test of ballerinas, the famous 32 fouettés never presented any problem for her; she easily could have done 64). Their success was due not just to their bravura performances, but their vivacious temperament and their attack on stage; western audiences had not seen this type of dancing before and it was not until some years later that Soviet companies would start to visit the West.

For a few years after their flight, Kovach and Rabovsky seemed to be always in the news, attracting high drama wherever they went. In 1956 they were passengers on the Italian ocean liner Andrea Doria when it sank after colliding with a Swiss liner while en route to New York. The couple were among those rescued and returned to The Ed Sullivan Show to tell their tale. Their story was also recounted in Leap through the Curtain (1955), a book by George Mikes.

Kovach and Rabovsky never stayed long with any of the great companies, where they possibly could have achieved a more lasting artistic legacy, taking on instead a great number of commercial engagements. In the Seventies, Kovach took me to Radio City Hall in New York and told me proudly how they topped the bill there and had to do four shows a day; it might be that one show a day with the New York City ballet would have meant more. In 1969 Kovach opened her own ballet school on Long Island.

Nora Kovach was a life force. She was very outspoken, sometimes even blunt, but she had the most brilliant sense of humour. She called herself “an old fashioned girl” and to listen to her telling a story was worth several pirouettes; she remained beautiful into |her seventies.

Mia Nadasi

Nora Kovach, ballet dancer and teacher: born Sátoraljaujhely, Hungary 13 June 1931; married 1953 Istvan Rabovsky (marriage dissolved), Tibor Szegezdy (died 1985), Steve Farago; died Miami, Florida 18 January 2009.