Dance Me to the End of Love

A month ago, Ilana Yellin-Panov jumped to her death from the apartment she shared with her husband, the legendary ballet dancer Valery Panov. She left behind a dance troupe she created with her own hands, an embittered mother, and a child left adrift in a family that lived only for art.

In the modest offices of the Panov Ballet Theater in Ashdod, the phone rings. The caller, a woman who clearly hasn't heard about the tragedy, wants to know when the premiere of "Cinderella" - the well-known ballet choreographed by Valery Panov - will take place. Leonid Eliazarov, a close friend of the Panovs, replies in a broken voice: "The premiere will not take place soon, because the company's director committed suicide. Yes. Ilana, the wife of Valery Panov. We are sitting shivah for her. Yes, she was a prima ballerina in Europe. Excuse me, madam, I must hang up now," Eliazarov apologizes.

But the woman on the other end refuses to hang up. She wants to know why Ilana Yellin-Panov took her life and how old she was - and in the same breath she asks when a new date for the premiere will be announced. "I don't know," Eliazarov answers quietly, "but 'Cinderella' will be performed."

Less than a month ago, on Saturday, December 19, Ilana Yellin-Panov jumped to her death from the bathroom window in her apartment, located on the top floor - the 18th - of a luxurious apartment building opposite the port of Ashdod. She was 42. "From that height, nothing was left of her," Eliazarov says. "Even identifying her was difficult."

The apartment is a three-minute walk from the Panov Ballet Theater - the company that Yellin-Panov and her husband, now widower, Valery Panov, 71, established 10 years ago in Ashdod. Yellin-Panov also left behind a son, Zlil, aged two and a half, and her mother, the noted pianist and piano teacher Esther Yellin, 70.

In the weeks before her death, Yellin-Panov stood on the ledge of the window on several occasions - the last time the day before she jumped. Valery Panov, who suffers from back and joint problems resulting from his magnificent international dancing career, would drag her back in with all his remaining strength.

Since the birth of her son, Ilana Panov had been in the grip of a mental and physical health crisis - she underwent surgery in Switzerland to repair a heart defect - and spent very little time with the boy.

'Not willing to go on'

As a young man, Valery Panov was the renowned soloist of the Leningrad-based Kirov Ballet and was considered one of the greatest dancers of the former Soviet Union, alongside Mikhail Baryshnikov and Rudolf Nureyev. The latter two defected to the West, but Panov fought the authorities for a permit to immigrate to Israel. Finally, in 1974, he arrived here with his second wife, prima ballerina Galina Panov. After a short time, he went on to develop an international career in Europe, most notably Germany and Switzerland.

Ilana Yellin and her mother, Esther, immigrated to Israel from Latvia when Ilana was seven. Esther is the daughter of the Yiddish writer Meir Yellin and the niece of Chaim Yellin, leader of the anti-fascist underground in the Kovno ghetto. Chaim was murdered in 1944 after being caught smuggling fighters out of the ghetto. Esther, who was three at the time, was sheltered in Benedictine institutions and at the end of the war was reunited with her parents. At the age of nine, she was already appearing as a solo pianist in the Soviet Union.

In 1973 Esther Yellin secretly immigrated to Israel with her husband, her daughter and her elderly parents. However, her career ground to a halt here, and after a few tough years she went to Europe with Ilana, then 15, and again enjoyed success. Yellin divorced Ilana's father shortly after she moved to Israel and relations with him were completely severed. In recent years Yellin has lived in Switzerland, which is where her grandson Zlil, son of Ilana and Valery, was brought to be raised shortly after he was born.

When she was 15, Ilana Yellin-Panov was a dancer at the Bonn Ballet, whose artistic director was Valery Panov. She told friends that she had been in love with Panov her whole life - her mother took her to meet him when she was a child of 8 at his Tel Aviv studio - but it was not until she was 30, after Panov and Galina were divorced, that the two became a couple. Two years later, Ilana, who considered Israel her only home, insisted that Panov return here and the two established a local ballet company.

"It was love like in the fairy tales," Eliazarov says. "Everything Valery has in his life here is thanks to her. She brought him back to Israel, founded the company with her own hands and was a patriot of a kind you no longer see. He didn't know how to do anything - except ballet."

Esther Yellin says Panov did not properly protect Ilana during the most difficult period of her life. She suffered from a congenital heart defect, which became more acute after the birth of her son. The doctors said she needed heart-valve surgery, and after some agonizing, and under pressure from her mother, Yellin-Panov decided to have it done in Switzerland. To pay for the operation, which in Israel would have been covered by National Health Insurance, Esther Yellin sold a rare grand piano for half a million shekels. The operation last September was a success, but Yellin-Panov was unable to cope with the results.

"Before the operation," says Esther Yellin, who flew to Israel with Zlil to attend her daughter's funeral, "she thought that the next day she would get up and go back to work. Well, that's Ilana."

But 10 days after the operation, while still in Switzerland, Yellin-Panov collapsed and was hospitalized again. Her speech was impaired. After the physicians ruled out various possible causes, such as a stroke, it was suggested that she enter a psychiatric hospital to have her mental condition diagnosed. "I told myself that from that experience alone, Ilana would go crazy," her mother says. However, Yellin-Panov was released without a diagnosis and returned to Israel a few weeks later.

Eliazarov: "She did not succeed in resuming her regular workload. Before the operation she was a workhorse. From morning to night she worked only for the ballet, and everything this company has today she achieved from scratch. After the operation, not even half of Ilana was left, a quarter of Ilana. She told me, 'I enter the office and I can't bear the noise of the electric kettle, of the keyboard. Everything bothers me. I make a few phone calls and immediately get tired. I'm not willing to go on like this.'"

In the weeks before her death, the physicians who treated her locally found that in addition to the difficulties of her physical rehabilitation, Yellin-Panov was suffering from deep depression, which was untreated. The family doctor prescribed Cipralex, but she took the antidepressant for only four days, because she could not deal with the side effects.

"She felt she was going crazy," Valery Panov says. "Her hands shook, she was unable to sleep and she was angry at everyone. She was told that at first it gets worse and afterward it gets better, but she simply didn't believe it. Her greatest fear was of being confined to a mental institution against her will. She was afraid people would say she was crazy and was ashamed that her son would grow up and see her like that. Ilana is a naturally strong person and she is a fighter - more like a man than a woman. What went through her head must have been terrible."

Broken-hearted prodigies

Esther Yellin maintains that the medical treatment her daughter received in Israel was one of the two major causes of Ilana's death. The second cause was "him" - i.e., Panov - who failed to prevent her from jumping. She is especially angry because he revealed her daughter's mental state to a physician.

Yellin says that giving Ilana the antidepressant was a serious mistake: "She went to some acquaintance of Panov's, an idiot who gave her pills. She called me and was actually happy. 'At last I have a diagnosis,' she told me. Instinctively I said, 'Throw all those pills into the garbage.' ... A few days later she threw out the pills and went to a psychiatrist, who told her she had done the right thing by tossing them out and prescribed new pills. The same thing happened: She took them for a few days and then threw them out. The doctor should never have given her the pills in the first place. She should have called me. And Panov should have arranged for people to watch over her."

On the Sunday after she killed herself, Yellin-Panov was to have entered Kaplan Hospital in Rehovot for a series of tests. The bag she packed is still standing at the foot of the Panovs' bed.

Yellin: "She wanted to go to the hospital because she was promised that it would be a regular ward, for general physiological tests - not psychological ones. They said maybe a psychiatrist would also come, but as one of a group of doctors, not alone."

In his referral, the physician who spoke with Valery Panov had noted that Yellin-Panov had suicidal tendencies. "Ilana saw the referral," her mother says scathingly, "and she told Panov: 'You've shut the door on me. Now no one will examine me - they will send me straight to a closed ward.' Ilana was perfectly normal, but she was afraid that she would enter a psychiatric ward and never come out. Panov should have known that and not spoken with the doctor."

Contrary to his mother-in-law, Panov believes that if his wife had originally undergone her operation in Israel, as he preferred, she would still be alive today.

At the moment, both Esther Yellin and Valery Panov, two broken-hearted and aging artistic prodigies, are living in the apartment from which Ilana jumped to her death. This is a temporary arrangement. Meanwhile, the two try to avoid each other and live in separate worlds, buckling under their personal grief. Yellin is visibly shrinking, the agony etched into her face. Panov closets himself in his room when he is not working. And Zlil, the son and grandson, is also in a world of his own: He is well dressed, but does not cry or talk, although he is two and a half, and is left to watch television for hours at a time. He does not look for his mother. Once, during the shivah, he fell down while running around, but got up immediately without a sound and bit his lip. He limped out of the room quickly, unwilling to allow anyone to show pity for him.

'She's too intelligent'

Valery Panov and Esther Yellin actually knew each other long before Ilana was born: The two child prodigies attended the same night school in Vilna, after World War II. They were the only children in a class of adults - two Jewish geniuses who went to school at night and practiced during the day: she on the piano, he on the dance floor.

"Ilana was 8 at the time and was taking ballet lessons on Dizengoff Street [in Tel Aviv]. Every day she made the trip from Kiron to Dizengoff. She had fantastic discipline when it came to ballet, but for her to have a professional classical career we would have had to go to Europe. The problem was I wasn't sure Ilana's body was right for professional ballet. I saw that she did not have a fantastic build, not like a swan. She was more massive ...

"I decided to show Ilana to Panov, so he could say whether the girl had a professional future. I went with her to a gala performance by Galina and Valery Panov in Tel Aviv, but I was not allowed to take Ilana into their rooms, even though I begged. So I stood next to Valery, who was surrounded by people, and decided not to speak, to see if he would recognize me. He looked at me and went on talking to someone. And then he looked again, and yet again. 'Where do I know you from?' he asked. 'Could it be that we met once after a performance in Moscow?' I said 'Nyet,' and then he shouted, 'Galina, come over here, this is Esther Yellinaita,' which was my name in Vilna.

"Afterward I went with Ilana to the Hilton. I knocked on the door and he opened it wearing a bathrobe. Right off he said, 'What a beautiful daughter you have,' but in regard to [her talent for] ballet he was less enthusiastic. Galina was more positive and flattering. She said everything was fantastic. Valery said nothing, but left me a note in which he wrote, 'There is talent but not a maximum level. She will have a very hard time - think twice.' But it was already impossible to stop Ilana. Even though she could have been a painter or a singer: She sung operas by Strauss or Wagner from start to finish. She wrote letters to her grandfather in wonderful German. He always said she had a great literary gift ... Panov too once said, 'She is too intelligent to be a ballet star.'"

Yellin emphasizes that "Ilana was a very well-educated person. She had an excellent education. She knew philosophy and had a highly developed musical sense. At the age of one, she could say 'Debussy' and 'Byahms' - meaning Brahms; at three she could read Russian well. She had a stronger character than I do, and I could not educate her, exactly. She had a high regard for my work and I admired her talents."

Panov remembers that meeting vividly: He takes out a photo of Yellin-Panov at 15 in a festive dress, embracing the late maestro Leonard Bernstein, and says, "This was exactly the age at which I saw her for the first time. Bernstein was wild over Ilana. He said she was the greatest beauty in the world. She was an unforgettable girl. Her personality, her beauty. Of course I noticed that, too."

But you had reservations about her future as a dancer.

Panov: "I never changed my mind. There was potential, but not greatness. I said then that if she worked double-hard, she'd be all right. She really did work very hard, and she learned fast."

Years later, after she had left Israel with her mother, Ilana danced in Panov's companies in Bonn and Switzerland. Of her love for him, he says, "Ilana loved me from the age of 12. Her whole life. I knew she was in love with me, of course. She talked about it with everyone. I thought that maybe she would get over it, but she didn't. She is a strong person. If she wants something, she gets it. When I divorced Galina, [Ilana] immediately drew closer."

Panov once stated proudly in an interview that when he was in jail as a Prisoner of Zion in the USSR, he was visited by "my wife and two lovers." He may have enjoyed cultivating his image as a lover, but once the image was stripped away, things were very different.

"My life was terrible," he says. "Everyone always said that Valery Panov is a Don Juan, a lady-killer. But the truth is far from that: Women loved me in order to get a job or to win fame or get protection or money. I was always lonely, even when I was with women. One, two, three, and always alone. Now, after Ilana, I don't think I will see even the profile of a woman again. The most beautiful women in the world wanted me, but they always wanted something from me. All of them, except Ilana. She was the only one who loved me truly, who did not need anything from me."

Did Ilana have ties with her biological father?

"No. She never forgave her father. He left when she was a little girl. I don't want to talk about that; it was a very painful subject for her."

For Esther Yellin, too, the subject of Ilana's father is taboo. Asked about his place in Ilana's life, she gets angry: For the first time in the interview, she refuses vehemently to answer, on or off the record, and is plainly in distress.

"I don't want to hurt him, let him live his life in peace," she says finally, and then adds, "He does not deserve the honor to be Ilana's father. He did not arrive to recite Kaddish at her grave."

At this point, she is hushed by Eliazarov and by a young man named Ophir Halfi, one of her piano students, who came to Israel with her after the tragedy. Yellin shifts from English into Russian, and admits her greatest fear: that her former husband will want to establish ties with Zlil, his grandson.

Son and grandson

"When Ilana was pregnant," Eliazarov relates, "she often said, 'This son is not for me - it's a grandson for my mother. I have the ballet.' It was a joke, but not exactly."

During the pregnancy, Yellin-Panov continued to work as usual, accompanying the company to every performance and also running the office. But one day, while the company was performing in Kfar Sava, she collapsed.

"She had pains," her mother says, "but she did not go to the hospital, because she was in charge of the performance. But after the show was over, the dancers said nothing to her but behind her back told the driver to go to Ichilov [Hospital] without her knowing. At the hospital they wanted her to stay three days for tests, but she refused. She said she had work to do."

Zlil is the fourth child Panov has fathered, to the best of his knowledge. A son from his first marriage, Andrei, died of a disease. A second son, Matvei, from his marriage to Galina, lives in Russia. Panov notes that his relations with him have diminished since the divorce from Galina. He also has a daughter from a European lover, but is in infrequent touch with her.

Where do you see Zlil's future?

Panov: "I don't know. I am afraid. I have a ballet company. I have to work very hard, because Ilana effectively did not work for half a year, and without her we entered into debt. I am committed to our audience. This is the only company in the world that gives 200 performances a year - all of them sold out. I have to preserve my strength in order to rebuild everything. If I open my eyes, I work; if I close my eyes, I sleep. I don't have time for anyone else."

Asked if he had planned to have a child with his wife, Panov replies with a smile, "What can I do, I am still functioning." He then adds, "We wanted a child, because Ilana was already 40, and the Yellin family ends after Ilana. The family wanted continuity."

Are you talking about Esther, because there are no other Yellins?

"I am talking about the Yellin family."

But did Ilana want a child?

"Ilana wanted to create a ballet company in Israel. That is what she wanted. As for a child, it was not said explicitly but hinted to us, that it would be better if there was one, for the sake of continuity."

Is it possible that Ilana suffered from postpartum depression?

"No. The depression was from the operation. Many people go into depression from this operation, because of sadness - from touching the heart."

When Zlil was born Esther Yellin came to stay and took care of the baby so Ilana could go back to work. Eight months later she went back to Switzerland.

"In December 2008," Yellin says, "Ilana called from the airport and said: 'We are bringing you the child.' But they did not plan on his staying with me for such a long time."

So how did it happen?

"They did not have a nanny and they had many performances, and then a war broke out in Israel. They held a big audition for dancers in Switzerland and said that until April the boy would stay with me. And then until the operation. They had planned to do the heart surgery in July; all she talked about at the time was 'Cinderella.' We quarreled. But it did not happen in July. She came down with the flu, because she is obsessive about cleanliness and decided to clean all the windows in my house. The operation was postponed to September. Then came all the medical complications and 'Cinderella' fell by the wayside, and she blamed me, of course. She was supposed to take the boy after the premiere in December, but they had to postpone it."

After returning to Israel following the operation in Switzerland, Yellin-Panov asked her mother not to visit her with Zlil. "She was overly concerned about the boy when she was around him. It only caused disquiet. Her nerves were shot."

Now Yellin is worried that she will have to forgo her musical career in order to devote herself to the boy. The mere thought of this drives her to tears. Speaking to dancers from the company during the week of mourning, she agonized aloud about where it would be best for her grandson to grow up.

"Israel is a good place for early childhood," she said, "but after that you need a solid European base. On the other hand, I might not live that long. What I would like most is to distance myself from everything. Just to get far away from here. But how can I?"

In a conversation, Yellin admits that even if Israel would be best for Zlil at this time, she is not yet ready "to liquidate" her career abroad: "I am a director in the Heinrich Neuhaus Foundation, named for the famous pianist and pedagogue. We hold master classes and concerts and support young pianists. In order to move here with the child, I have to end all my work. I have sacrificed so much until now. I still have a great deal of energy and a great deal of strength to do things. It would be a pity for all that strength to go only to raise Ilana's child. This is something I am not allowed to do. My students and people who have attended my concerts will tell you - I will not say it about myself."

What do you mean by "not allowed"?

"I am not allowed to stop my work, to stop playing. My students will be too sorry."

Ophir interrupts: "Because of the artist she is, Esther does not have the right only to raise Ilana's son. In terms of what she has to give to the world, she is like 10 Panovs."

Yellin hushes her faithful pupil and reflects aloud: "It is possible that if I return to Israel, where there are warm people who loved Ilana and who will help me, I will be able to go on playing. No, it's impossible. I have to continue to play in Europe, in order to support the company economically."

Do you still support the company?

Yellin: "Of course. At first I was a big funder, but afterward I supported Ilana and Panov the whole time. That is actually like helping the company. I sold two apartments that I owned in Israel to buy them this apartment. They took very small salaries, because the company had no money.

"This is not perfectionism, rather pure professionalism. Perfectionism has an end, because at some point it reaches wholeness, but professionalism has no end, and that is the problem. That is the absolutist way of art: You only think you have reached the horizon, but when you get close it recedes. That is true talent. You know, I have been a concert soloist since the age of nine, first in Lithuania and then in Moscow. People told me after concerts that they went mad - that they did not sleep the whole night. But for me such talk always goes in one ear and out the other, because I know better than everyone when I blunder. But I didn't care if people flattered me."

Yellin suddenly stops and becomes reflective for a moment. "Oy, the boy is neglected. He hasn't eaten a thing since the morning," she remembers, and gets up to heat Zlil's bottle. Ophir, the only person toward whom Zlil displays any sign of affection, says, "You don't sterilize bottles after the age of six months."

Yellin ignores him, absolutely refusing to give the hungry boy one of the muffins on the table. She insists on giving him mashed food, like an infant eats. She straps him into a high chair in front of a children's TV show and crushes strawberries into a bowl of cream cheese. It's clear that Yellin herself has barely eaten for days and that she is exhausted. She feeds Zlil silently.

Crying and working

Ashdod Mayor Dr. Yehiel Lasri, who is friendly with Panov, told Haaretz that he considers the Panov Ballet Theater to be "one of the most important cultural institutions in Israel. There are not many companies that have such a distinctive character. That model has succeeded and has been built with the work of many years. It is a [cultural] flagship."

"That's the tragedy," Eliazarov says. "Ilana fought 10 years to reach this moment. And just as she realized her dream, she took her life."

For Panov it is important to continue. "Every show from today will be a tribute to Ilana," he says. On the day after the shivah, he was planning to resume work on "Cinderella" and to start thinking about a new ballet. "Maybe 'The Blue Danube,'" he says.

So soon?

Panov: "Of course. Otherwise we will only cry all the time. Now we will cry and work. From now on we will have to do everything ourselves. We have to find a sponsor for the sets, we need another NIS 200,000. The troupe itself is ready, but the municipal corporation doesn't want to give us the money. If Ilana were in her usual form, there would be no problem getting it. But there is a community-center mentality here. Provincial. Ilana dreamed of establishing a ballet company precisely here, in Ashdod. She said that if you wanted to start from scratch you need a place that's empty. I actually still believe that."

Throughout the seven days of mourning, in fact from the first day after Yellin-Panov's death, the dancers met every morning for a lesson and rehearsal, and then went to the Panov home.

"When the dancers came to me at home I started to cry like a crazy man," Panov relates, "because Ilana hired each one of them, looked after them, gave them everything - and died. I saw her work on the faces of the foreign dancers. She worked so hard to make it possible for them to come here."

The arrival of the dancers from abroad - from Japan, Latvia, England, Germany and Bulgaria - constituted a quantum leap in the company's qualitative development. They have joined the veteran dancers, most of whom studied ballet in the former Soviet Union.

Panov: "That was Ilana's dream: for dancers to come to Israel and stay in Israel. All those who danced in my company and went abroad found work, of course, but they are not happy. You ask a dancer where he dances and he answers proudly, at the grand opera. But what he doesn't say is what he does there. A grand opera has 200 dancers in its ballet company, and most are part of the corps de ballet and will never get a solo. In my company, everyone has solos."

The rehearsals during the shivah were conducted by the veteran soloist Larisa Chernitzky, who has been with the Panov company for a decade. The company learned the order of movements for "Cinderella" from a 27-year-old video, in which Panov is a soloist.

"After the order is known," Chernitzky says, "Valery makes corrections ... He comes in after everyone knows where he should be, and adds color."

Another veteran soloist in the company is Kiril Panfilov, who also participated in the second season of the popular television show "Born to Dance" together with his wife, Lidia Rotterdamsky. The Panovs persuaded them to stay in Israel when they came to the country to perform with a foreign troupe. But after some time, Rotterdamsky had problems with Yellin-Panov and left to become a soloist with the Israel Ballet.

Nevertheless, Rotterdamsky, like many others in the company, obtained a teaching certificate from the Seminar Hakibbutzim Teachers' College, in a program initiated by Yellin-Panov, in order to help them in the future and to develop them intellectually. Yellin-Panov also looked after former dancers no longer affiliated with the company.

"Ilana lived for other people," her mother says. "It was important for her to help all the dancers. To make sure they had a place to live, that they got a decent salary, all the big and little things. She helped a great many people. She had unusual strength." W