London — She first appeared on her toes in London in 1961. With the touring Kirov Ballet Company she danced the role of Giselle, the most lyrical and romantic of classical ballets.
Today she is here again, winning rave reviews, not as the demure, innocent peasant girl but as a versatile musical comedy actress.
Natalia Romanovna Makarovacq is a smash hit in the London theatergoer's eyes. As the tempestuous Russian dancer in the transplanted Broadway musical ''On Your Toes,'' which opened in London June 12, she shamelessly steals every scene with her slow Slavic drawl, her high kicks, and broad humor.
From the moment she is first seen on stage - two very long, lean legs, cossetted in pink, fluffy feathered slippers emerging from behind a newspaper - she knows exactly what will delight the audience, whether it be the gleam in her eye as she delivers a punch line, or the way those legs shoot up past her ears at the slightest suggestion of dance.
The play is a revival of the 1936 production by Rodgers and Hart. It was the first musical to include a ballet sequence as part of the plot. This combination of classical and modern dance worked out so well that ''On Your Toes'' laid the foundation for dance extravaganzas in musicals such as ''Oklahoma!'' and ''West Side Story.''
The original choreography was done by the late George Balanchine, who had arrived in the United States only three years before the production. Fascinated with the American jazz scene, he poured this new-found technique into the stunning finale, ''Slaughter on Tenth Avenue.''
When the show was revived on the East Coast in 1982, Balanchine again supervised the choreography and auditioned the cast. Makarova came on stage to try out for the leading role, and Balanchine - who had known her for years - asked with a straight face, ''Oh yes, she can act - but can she dance?'' She won the role.
Veteran director George Abbott, who collabrated on the original book, has staged this new version here. He has retained the period and mood of the 1930s with the original score and arrangements.
The play is one lavish Cecil B. De Mille-type event. Emphasis is on the visual rather than on the story, for the latter is very much the product of the early musicals, with just a thin baseline plot. Elegant, elaborate costumes and slick, speedy scene changes keep the action moving smoothly and sellout audiences happy. The music is the kind that has the audience swaying gently in time to it in their seats and humming the refrains as they set off homeward.
The most famous part of the show (other than ''Slaughter'') is the song ''There's a Small Hotel,'' but the title song - performed as a lively, accented dance debate between classic satin-pointe-slippered ballerinas and modern tap-shoed dancers challenging each other - stopped the show. The chorus line of young dancers and singers was a credit to the production, and all expressed great enthusiasm and energy.
Making his debut in the London West End is a talented young Texan named Tim Flavin who plays the role of ''Junior,'' acting, singing, dancing, and partnering Makarova with style and conviction. With slicked-down hair and spectacles a la Clark Kent-Superman, he plays a serious young music professor who becomes involved in the eccentric world of Russian dancers. As a child, Junior had been a member of a vaudeville tap-dancing family, so he is able to step into the shoes (or slippers) of a slave in the ballet ''La Princesse Zenobia.'' And that's when the fun starts.
When the tongue-in-cheek miniballet (a take-off of ''Scheherazade, or a Thousand and One Nights'') was originally performed, the 1930s audience did not know how to react - to titter would have seemed uncouth. The mid-1980s London audience wiped tears from its eyes from laughing so much.
Makarova, born and trained in Leningrad, abruptly left the Kirov Company when it was on tour in London in 1970 and asked for asylum on the ground of artistic freedom. Since then she has appeared as guest artist with most of the major ballet companies of the world. She has staged ''La Bayadere'' for the American Ballet Theatre, and last fall made some successful appearances in London at the Royal Opera House in ballets and the opera-ballet of ''Le Rossignol'' with Antony Dowell.