WHEN newly defected Russian dancer Andrei Ustinov heard talk around him about the possible demise of his new workplace, the Dallas Ballet, he had to wonder if the company's problems were somehow his fault. Quite the contrary, as it turns out.
If the financially beleaguered Dallas Ballet manages to pull through its traditional Nutcracker run next month and to complete the rest of its 1988 season, thanks will be due, at least in part, to the young Russian dancer's decision to walk out a side door of a Dallas Holiday Inn Oct. 15 and into American life.
By taking that step during the Moscow Ballet's recent American tour, Mr. Ustinov brought the glare of local and national media upon himself. Once he accepted an offer to stay put and dance in this city, he also caused a renewed wave of interest to wash over the Dallas Ballet.
The ballet needs public interest - and support. Its dancers have already taken to the streets in tights and tutus once this year to solicit enough money to keep the company going.
Last week Ustinov was showered with red, white, and blue balloons in the finale of ``Gala USA,'' a five-day show hastily assembled to highlight his talents. As unusual as it may have been to see a Russian dance to the beat of John Philip Sousa - ``It's a different style, yes?, but it's important to try everything,'' Ustinov says - still more unusual for Dallas were the performances' near-sellout audiences.
Though the Dallas Ballet is considered a talented regional company, the city has never made it a ``hot'' event the way it has the opera, and ticket sales have reflected that lack of enthusiasm.
At the same time, no one has ever claimed the ballet company was a paragon of good management. Its lackluster reputation in that regard may in fact have turned off some potential patrons in this city that reveres business success.
Ustinov, whose knowledge of the English language dates essentially from his defection a month ago, has little comprehension of the budgetary problems his company must resolve to survive. ``I need freedom, work,'' he says, brandishing his hands as if they might speak the words he cannot.
Then joined by a translator, he continues, ``The most important thing is my performance,'' referring to Gala USA. ``I don't want others to think I don't deserve all this attention. I want to leave a good impression on the people who have welcomed me here.''
The interpreter is Constantin Apetrei, also a dancer with the Dallas Ballet, and like Ustinov, a defector from his native land. Mr. Apetrei left Romania six years ago after he decided he could no longer live under a system that stifled freedom and expected people to accept living poorly.
Together, Ustinov and Apetrei offer a vivid picture, with some contrasts, of the life that awaits artists who defect from behind the iron curtain to the United States - especially when they don't have a name like Baryshnikov.
Apetrei knew before coming here in 1982 on the first US tour of a Romanian ballet that he was going to defect; Ustinov did not. Apetrei, unable to find a job with a dance company, bused tables at a Russian restaurant and pounded nails before landing a position with the Delta Festival Ballet of New Orleans; Ustinov defected to instant celebrity and dance employment.
Both men say they have no regrets about their decision to defect: Ustinov, after only a little over a month in the US, Apetrei with the benefit of six years' experience.
``If anything, I would say it has been better than I expected,'' says Apetrei, drinking coffee from a Dallas Cowboys plastic mug. ``My daddy always told me to work hard, but back there, even though you were secure, there was little reason to work so hard. Here,'' he continues, ``there are many challenges, but it's exciting. The opportunities are there, so what my daddy told me finally comes in handy.''
The 28-year-old Apetrei, who has been with the Dallas Ballet since 1984, studied three years with the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow before returning to Romania. It was during dance tours of Western Europe that he first thought of leaving his country. ``I'd go home to no heat and coupons for food, after having tasted how the world outside lives,'' he says. His next tour was to the US. Before leaving Romanian soil, he decided that, once in America, he would stay.
He recalls with difficulty the hardest part of his decision: ``I knew I couldn't tell anyone, so when my father said goodbye, and he'd see me after the tour, I only could say, `Yes.''' Several weeks later Apetrei left his Seattle hotel early one morning and took a train to Los Angeles, where some Romanian immigrants attending a performance had said with no explanation, ``If you need help, call us.''
``That is why I try to help Andrei as much as I can,'' he says, ``although he doesn't need as much help.''
Ustinov, a Leningrad dancer on tour with the Moscow Ballet, received special attention almost from the hour he defected. After wandering about a North Dallas neighborhood, he approached a young woman in a supermarket parking lot and said simply, ``Please help me.'' The Federal Bureau of Investigation was called, and within days the 32-year-old dancer met the news media - as a dancer with at least a three-month stint with the Dallas Ballet.
``Nyet,'' Ustinov responds, he did not decide before leaving Russia that he would seek to remain in the US. ``I wanted to see how it was going to be first,'' he says. But he says he had tired of the ``Soviet Union system'' where everything from dance to touring assignments was based on ``how does he live, is he a communist or not?''
``Someone there who doesn't know anything about art says, `You are going, you are not, you dance, you not,''' he says, dropping his fist in a free fall to the table. ``It goes by bureaucracy.''
The claustrophobia Ustinov felt only got worse during the tour, he says, as each minute off the stage was programmed: ``They say `Now we watch TV, now we go to bed.'''
As the Moscow Ballet's tour reached its eighth American city, Dallas, Ustinov says he was spending an increasing amount of time with Americans he met at performances. ``I knew that didn't look good, they kept telling me I couldn't talk to Americans,'' he says. ``When I realized my actions meant this would probably be my last tour, [that] they would never let me go again if I went back, I decided, defect.''
What helped him decide to stay in the US, he says, is ``the wide-open perspective of things here, of opportunities. People work hard here, but then rest, yes?'' he adds. ``It is balanced life.'' Most important to him, however, is his observation that ``there is no standard that everyone has to stand straight. You can be an individual.''
Dallas Ballet president Karl Zavitkovsky describes Ustinov's arrival as fortunate, adding, ``It helps to spotlight a good ballet company that hasn't had such a good response at the gate.'' With a $1.8 million debt hanging over the ballet's head, Mr. Zavitkovsky quips sardonically, ``I hope he'll be able to stay with us - I hope we'll be able to stay with us.''
After three years in Dallas, Apetrei says it's hard to believe such a wealthy city can't support a good ballet company the way it supports its symphony, opera, and museum. ``To me it's like the family with 10 kids at the table - there's always room for the 11th.''
But he adds that, even if he ends up without a job for a year, he still feels he's better off here. Under the Soviet system, he says, ``You are not afraid of what tomorrow's going to bring. But then, tomorrow is not so pretty there, so you say, `So what?'''
``In Romania they pack the theaters, and you know you get your salary every month, but that doesn't make you happy,'' he says. ``American life, I think it is the best in the world. Every country has its bad and its good, but nowhere has its good like here.''