Depending on your cultural proclivities, the name ‘Gisele’ conjures very different associations. Mention it to a New England Patriots fan or your average fashionphile and Ms. Bündchen’s curvaceous physique might catwalk into mind. Balletomanes, however, think of another Giselle: Russian dancer Natalia Makarova, who attained legendary status after first performing the titular role in a 1961 Kirov production of the canonical ballet.

Just such dance aficionados packed a screening of the documentary Makarova: In a Class of her Own Friday afternoon at the Walter Reade Theatre. Filmed in 1985, just two years after the classically schooled Makarova broke boundaries with her Tony award-winning performance in the musical comedy On Your Toes, the movie intersperses tight shots of her rigorous daily training with footage of her musings on the nature of contemporary ballet. Audience members got an added treat when Makarova herself fielded questions post-viewing.

“All of the very important events in my life happen by chance,” said the now retired 72 year old, who was born in Leningrad and began dancing as a teenager when she spotted a poster advertising an experimental class. She joined the Kirov in 1959, but only when a sick company member couldn’t perform the “parrot dance” in La Bayadere, leaving Makarova to step in. Having only practiced sans bird prop, she found herself mercilessly out of sync on stage. She was convinced it meant the end to her career. Instead, the Kirov’s director asked her to dance Odette in Swan Lake. “I don’t advise soloists to mess up a ballet,” she cautioned to much laughter.

She described her chemistry with her famous partners—Erik Bruhn, Jorge Donn, Mikhail Baryshnikov—as “like a good marriage that doesn’t become a love affair.” (Misha was a source of “emotional madness.”)

Mr. B (or George Balanchine) taught her, among other things, “how to appreciate good red wine. I’m still using that skill.”

Makarova did Mr. B proud at an intimate luncheon that followed at Petrossian, which also served as a kick-off for the April 28 Youth American Grand Prix’s Legend in Dance Gala, where Makarova will be honored. Surrounded by appreciative American Ballet Theatre board members (she is currently helping to rehearse their dancers for an upcoming production of La Bayadere, presumably with parrot props), the petite Makarova fielded questions between bites of caviar, blinis, grilled hangar steak, and yes, sips of red wine. Now based out of San Francisco with a home in Napa and an apartment in New York, she showed off pictures of her financier son (“he has a better instep than I do. It’s a shame”) and chatted about her current daily dance routine. It seems her critical eye for her own work hasn’t mellowed over the years.

“It’s not possible to be perfect—you can always do something better. I’m never proud of what I’ve done,” she said of watching recordings of her performances. Then she added, “Sometimes, I’m not ashamed.”

Photos: © 2012 by Gregory Partanio