Nureyev; the last 10 years

A new BBC documentary seeks to suggest that Rudolf Nureyev's last decade was lived and danced beneath the shadow of impending death. John Percival, the star's friend and biographer, begs to disagree
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De mortuis - well, it used to be nothing but good that should be spoken of the dead, but now the idea seems to be that dishing the dirt is what matters. This is not just a question of the way newspaper obituaries have become more frank and honest over recent years - that is cause for gratitude - but elsewhere the trend has gone too far. And I am not the only person who will be hopping mad about the Omnibus programme marking the fourth anniversary of Rudolf Nureyev's death, to be shown by BBC1 on Tuesday.

What an opportunity lost! Granted, this programme does not parade supposed facts which are simply untrue; in that respect, it is unlike two biographies of Nureyev (one English, one American) that were rushed out once he could no longer sue. But the documentary, covering the last 10 years of his life, is both incomplete and heavily slanted, its bias indicated by the title: "Dancing through Darkness".

At least two of Nureyev's closest friends, the American Wallace Potts and the French Douce Francois, withdrew their co-operation from the programme- makers during filming because, Potts told me, "their approach was misleading - they had said it was about his professional life, but it became clear that they wanted to concentrate on his illness." Other witnesses who did take part, such as Nureyev's colleague Patricia Ruanne, can be seen on camera gritting their teeth against questions they find inappropriate. And some dancers are shown only in brief snippets although they actually recorded far more; did their comments not fit the chosen line?

People with much less knowledge of Nureyev, however, are allowed to pontificate about his thoughts and motives. Among these I am inclined to place the American agent, Andrew Grossman, who took over from Nureyev's long-term adviser, Sandor Gorlinsky. Grossman reveals a somewhat shaky grasp of what Nureyev actually achieved during his time in Paris, and his surprise at his client's reluctance to sign a contract for The King and I is revealing. Maybe he did not realise that what Nureyev really wanted at that point was a renewal of his Paris contract on acceptable terms.

"He made a million dollars" from The King and I, Grossman claims. Nureyev liked to make money, but after 1975 it all went to the Foundation he had set up. Some was invested in the paintings and antique furniture that filled his various homes, but when his dearest friend Maude Gosling expressed worries about his extravagance, he begged her "Don't stop me, because I love to have them around me. When I'm gone, they can all be sold." The proceeds, after providing for his relatives, were to benefit dance, and especially young dancers; and indeed several scholarships have already been awarded.

The starting (and finishing) point of the BBC programme is Nureyev's last big production: an opulent version of the classic La Bayadere, premiered at the Paris Opera on 8 October 1992. Nureyev had not long recovered from painful kidney stones, then struggled against a heavy respiratory infection to stage the three-act work in just three weeks. The film shows him taking a rehearsal, hardly able to talk but his eyes not missing a point, conveying his corrections by gestures and through an assistant.

No wonder that, by opening night, he was worn out and had to watch the performance from a couch in a stage-box. Cameras focus on his gaunt face as he is helped on stage to acknowledge an ovation. This is a sad sight, and the implication we are left with is that afterwards he just curled up in a corner and waited to die.

Actually, no, he didn't. At the dinner after the premiere, he talked to Maude Gosling about his plans for choreographing Hans Werner Henze's Ondine. When I visited him two days later in his apartment on the Quai Voltaire, he was delighted that he had persuaded his doctor, Michel Canesi, to certify him fit to fly the next day to the Caribbean island of Saint- Barthelemy, where he had a house. "I'll never shake this off in all the cold and damp here in Paris," he told me, "but in the sun I'll soon be better." That evening he went off to the Opera-Comique to watch Roland Petit's Marseilles Ballet and afterwards to discuss plans for conducting some performances of Petit's Coppelia. And when his dancer friends Charles Jude and Florence Clerc accompanied him to Saint-Barth's, Nureyev started working out movements on Jude for a future production of Britten's The Prince of the Pagodas.

All his life Nureyev had been used to overcoming illness and injury. Rather than lose his role in a new ballet by Frederick Ashton, he struggled into Covent Garden with a temperature of 102 for the premiere of Jazz Calendar. (Royal Ballet dancers punningly nicknamed him Randolph Neveroff.) When an injury during Act 1 of La Sylphide once forced him to allow a replacement to go on in Act 2, he still got on stage somehow for the evening's last ballet, The Lesson, where he could adjust the steps to save the hurt leg, and his acting could cover any shortcomings in technique. And after one performance, I remember watching him remove yards of elastic bandage worn for support like a puttee round one ankle under his tights.

So when Dr Canesi diagnosed him as HIV-positive in 1984, this did not make him change his professional way of life. The film's implication that he began rushing to cram everything in is a misreading: he had always rushed, all his life wanted to do more than there was time for, simply because he had so many ambitions and interests. Besides, as Canesi says, at that time the expectation was that Aids would kill only one in 10; the grimmer, longer-term truth became apparent only gradually. And Nureyev acted as if he would beat this illness like the others.

The 10 years covered by the programme were a period of astonishing achievement. Nureyev's transformation of the Paris Opera Ballet is described by the ballet master Patrice Bart, but it could surely have been made clearer to a non-specialist audience just how he changed the dancers' approach, allowed young talent its head, and widened their range with a whole new repertoire. From historical re-creations to new commissions, from classic revivals to the most extreme modernists, from his own productions to a steady stream of visiting choreographers, they tackled everything and did it well.

I cannot think of anyone else who has achieved so much on taking over an established company. What Nureyev did at the Paris Opera would have been a full-time job for anyone else, but (while keeping in touch via daily phone calls whenever he was absent) he combined it with guest appearances and productions, world tours, and launching a further career as a conductor.

That was not just a whim but a way of continuing to perform when he could no longer dance, and also of enriching his love of music. Herbert von Karajan had advised him to do it and even said "I'll teach you". Nureyev studied conducting seriously in Vienna and California, directed concerts, and conducted an American Ballet Theatre gala of the Prokofiev Romeo and Juliet. A fascinating development for a dancer - but one that is not shown at all in this programme, and gets only a throwaway mention: "He conducted and choreographed and continued to dance."

How good it would have been to see some of this, as well as more detail about what happened in Paris, instead of the interminably repeated pictures of dancers walking through corridors, interspersed with the most hackneyed and irrelevant background shots of motor traffic and trains, people smoking or sitting in cafes, even that wonderful old cliche, the Eiffel Tower. Add lots of slow motion and soft focus, with a melancholy soundtrack specially composed by Alexander Balanescu, and you have what often looks more like a travel commercial than an arts documentary.

The programme's makers might have probed further into why, after such a triumph as ballet director, Nureyev's contract was not renewed. Jack Lang, the former Arts Minister who originally appointed him to the job, claims not to know why Nureyev was edged out, but mutters darkly about "personal problems" and his health. Nobody breathes the name Pierre Berge (head of Yves Saint-Laurent) who had been put in charge of both the Paris opera houses and whose main achievement there was to have sacked not only Nureyev but the musical director Daniel Barenboim in favour of replacements neither of whom lasted long.

Still, Nureyev (as so often in life) actually has the last laugh in this programme. Forget the baleful comments; ignore the lugubrious background music. Just look at Nureyev's face. In almost every shot, he is either smiling or laughing outright. And this is the man under imminent threat, the man "dancing through darkness"? Or is it the man I remember, who loved life and enjoyed it to the full? Decide for yourself.

`Omnibus' 10.45pm Tuesday, BBC1