Panov lands on his feet

'This is the best time of my life," says Valery Panov. And that means a lot coming from a man who has suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous - if not fortune, then certainly - fame. One of the principal dancers of the Kirov Ballet - on a par with his friend and colleague Rudolf Nureyev - Panov had attained tremendous acclaim. In 1960 he became the Kirov's premier solo dancer. But after Nureyev defected to the West in 1961, the Soviet authorities wouldn't permit Panov to perform outside the country for fear that he too might escape. When he applied for an exit visa to Israel in 1972, Panov was not only refused permission to leave and fired from the Kirov but was told his legs would be broken if he stirred up trouble. Worldwide outrage ensued, manifested by support from cultural and political entities, public protests and a plan to boycott the Kirov Ballet. After a two-year struggle, Panov and his (non-Jewish) ballerina wife Galina, featured in the recently released documentary Refusenik, were granted permission to make aliya in 1974. Turning from dancer to choreographer, Panov applied his highly honed skills to choreographing original ballets for some of Europe's major companies. But his real vision came to fruition in 1993, when he opened his ballet school and choreographic academy in Ashdod, the Panov Ballet Theater of Israel. This month, audiences in Jerusalem, Netanya and Tel Aviv can share in the passion as the consummate choreographer presents Panovaria, a selection of 25 short pieces in two series. Performed by some 20 members of his company, the works are culled from a variety of what Panov considers to be his best efforts over the years. The selections include his classical pieces such as Rimski-Korsakov's Scheherazade; a work that revolves around a Japanese folk song; and a dance that is set to three Jacques Brel chansons. Further plans for the season include a special production in February to celebrate Israel's 60th anniversary. The story of the State of Israel will be told in visual songs, says Panov, because "Israel is always singing." In June he plans to stage a revival of his ballet The Idiot, based on the novel by Dostoyevsky, followed in July by a performance of King David and Bathsheba. "It is hard work," says Panov, who will turn 70 in March. "But I am building a new generation of dancers - the best dancers - with my own hands. It is a beautiful thing." On a personal level, he is also building a new Panov generation. He and Galina are no longer together; she lives in New York with their son Matvei. For the past 10 years, Panov has been in a relationship with Ilana Yelin, a former student and the current administrative director of the theater school. "We have a son who is two and a half months old," says the proud Panov. "His name is Zlil Meir. He is named after his maternal grandfather, who was an engineer and a well-known Yiddish writer." In a follow-up conversation with Ilana, I congratulated her on the birth of their son. "Thank you," she said. And added: "In-between rehearsals." Panovaria will be performed at the Jerusalem Theater on Tuesday at 8:30 p.m.; in Netanya at Heichal Hatarbut on January 19 at 8:30 p.m. and at the Tel Aviv Opera House on January 21 at 8 p.m.