OBITUARY:Alexander Godunov

John Gregory,Tom Vallance
Saturday 20 May 1995 00:02 BST

Alexander Godunov was a dancer of handsome stature and blond good looks. He possessed a virtuoso technique and enjoyed a career of glamorous highlights in ballet and film; but his triumphs were short-lived.

From Igor Moiseyev's Young Dancers Company, to Bolshoi Ballet, to American Ballet Theatre, to Hollywood, he brought a glossy trail of spectacular appearances that glowed brightly in the limelight of the moment.

Born in Riga in 1949, Godunov first studied ballet in his native city where he was a classmate of Mikhail Baryshnikov. In 1964 the Wonder-Boy Baryshnikov joined the Vaganova Choreographic Academy in Leningrad. A year later Godunov endeavoured to follow him but could not obtain a permit. Much dismayed, he resorted to Moscow and continued his studies at the Bolshoi Choreographic School where he was fortunate enough to be taught by that consummate artist Sergei Koren.

After graduating in 1967 he spent three years with Moiseyev's Young Dancers Company before returning to the Bolshoi fold as a soloist. He made his debut as the youth in Chopiniana and appeared in a number of classical roles in such ballets as Swan Lake, Giselle, The Nutcracker and Don Quixote.

His fame soared when Maya Plisetskaya gave him the role of Karenin in her ballet Anna Karenina (1972). He succeeded Nicolai Fadeyechev as her regular partner and danced a flamboyant Jose to her Carmen in the Alberto Alonso production of that name. He brought a panache to everything he did. He won a gold medal in the Moscow International Ballet Competition in 1973. His future with the Bolshoi seemed assured.

He married Ludmilla Vlasova, a dancer renowned for spectacular lifts. She was considerably older than him. He was a man who needed mothering. In August 1979, during the Bolshoi season in New York, Godunov decided to defect. There were dramatic scenes, with his wife sitting for three days on a plane at Kennedy airport while Soviet officials debated her freedom of choice to stay with her husband or to separate. In the end she elected to return to the Soviet Union.

It was a curious stroke of fate that Godunov's path should cross again with that of his old class-mate Baryshnikov; or was Baryshnikov, who had become the idol of American ballet, the crucial spur for his defection? At any rate, Godunov defected in order to join American Ballet Theatre of which Baryshnikov was the star and was due to be appointed its artistic director the following year.

Godunov's career with ABT was loaded with publicity: he was the golden boy, the talk of the town. His every appearance in the repertoire was hailed by press and public with eulogies amounting almost to hysteria, but after three years he was told there were no new roles for him. He did some guest appearances in South America under the banner Godunov and Friends and danced Swan Lake with Eva Evdokimova at the Deutsche Oper, Berlin.

During this time he built up a very close friendship with the film star Jacqueline Bisset, with whom he went to live in Los Angeles. She introduced him to movie agents and a new career in film and television opened up for him.

Godunov loved the United States and took a great interest in politics. He settled permanently in Hollywood and spent much time at the studio of Tatiana Riabouchinska, widow of David Lichine, who had been a star of de Basil's Ballet Russe in the 1930s. Recently he had found time to visit his mother in Riga and only a month ago was filming in Budapest.

Playing in turn a kindly farmer, a tempestuous orchestral conductor and a vicious terrorist, Alexander Godunov displayed a remarkable range of characterisation in his first three film roles, and it can only have been his apparently tenuous grasp and pronunciation of the English language that impeded his movie career, writes Tom Vallance.

His debut, in Peter Weir's Witness (1985), was particularly well received. In this popular thriller he plays an Amish farmer in love with a young widow (Kelly McGillis) whose son has witnessed a murder in New York City. Godunov makes clear (with a minimum of dialogue) the farmer's unease as he senses a rival in the tough cop (Harrison Ford) who joins the non-violent community to trap the killers; and he retains audience sympathy with an engaging portrait of rustic equanimity.

In Richard Benjamin's hyperactive comedy The Money Pit (1986), Godunov prudently underplayed his role as a tempestuous conductor, self-described as "shallow and self-centred", lending droll understatement to expressions of his temperament ("The union forces me to allow you to go to lunch," he tells his orchestra, "in spite of the way you played") and conceit - when his ex-wife splits with her new boyfriend he comments, "He's lost a wonderful woman and I know what it's like - I've lost many." Some of his lines, though, were less easily discerned behind his thick accent.

John McTiernan's Die Hard (1988) was one of the best thrillers of the decade, and as the most sinister of the arch- villain Alan Rickman's team of lethal terrorists, Godunov uses his blond athleticism to menacing effect as he stalks the hero (Bruce Willis) through the high-rise building that has been commandeered by the killers. Their encounter culminated in a particularly ferocious hand-to- hand struggle, with Godunov ultimately the vanquished.

It is surprising that after this telling role in a cinematic blockbuster, Godunov made only two further screen appearances and in horror films that had only limited release: Willard Carroll's The Runestone (1992), in which an archaeologist is turned into a monster by a piece of rock, and Waxwork 2: Lost in Time.

Boris Alexander Godunov, dancer, actor: born Riga 28 November 1949; married 1971 Ludmilla Vlasova (marriage dissolved 1982); died Los Angeles c18 May 1995.

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