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

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

Arts and Entertainment
Matthew Healy of The 1975 performing on the Pyramid Stage at the Glastonbury Festival, at Worthy Farm in Somerset

music
Arts and Entertainment
booksThe Withnail and I creator, has a new theory about killer's identity
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
tvDick Clement and Ian La Frenais are back for the first time in a decade
Arts and Entertainment
The Clangers: 1969-1974
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Rocky road: Dwayne Johnson and Carla Gugino play an estranged husband and wife in 'San Andreas'
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Nicole Kidman plays Grace Kelly in the film, which was criticised by Monaco’s royal family

film
Arts and Entertainment
Emilia Clarke could have been Anastasia Steele in Fifty Shades of Grey but passed it up because of the nude scenes

film
Arts and Entertainment
A$AP Rocky and Rita Ora pictured together in 2012

music
Arts and Entertainment
A case for Mulder and Scully? David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in ‘The X-Files’

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Impressions of the Creative Community Courtyard within d3. The development is designed to 'inspire emerging designers and artists, and attract visitors'

architecture
Arts and Entertainment
Performers drink tea at the Glastonbury festival in 2010

GlastonburyWI to make debut appearance at Somerset festival

Arts and Entertainment
Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister

TV reviewIt has taken seven episodes for Game of Thrones season five to hit its stride

Arts and Entertainment
Jesuthasan Antonythasan as Dheepan

FilmPalme d'Or goes to radical and astonishing film that turns conventional thinking about immigrants on its head

Arts and Entertainment
Måns Zelmerlöw performing

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Graham Norton was back in the commentating seat for Eurovision 2015

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Hammond, Jeremy Clarkson and James May on stage

TV
Arts and Entertainment
The light stuff: Britt Robertson and George Clooney in ‘Tomorrowland: a World Beyond’
film review
Arts and Entertainment
Reawakening: can Jon Hamm’s Don Draper find enlightenment in the final ‘Mad Men’?
tv reviewNot quite, but it's an enlightening finale for Don Draper spoiler alert
Arts and Entertainment
Breakfast Show’s Nick Grimshaw

Radio
Arts and Entertainment

Eurovision
Arts and Entertainment
'Youth' cast members Paul Dano, Jane Fonda, Harvey Keitel, Rachel Weisz, and Michael Caine pose for photographers at Cannes Film Festival
film
Arts and Entertainment
Adam West as Batman and Burt Ward and Robin in the 1960s Batman TV show

Comics
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Sepp Blatter resignation: The beginning of Fifa's long road to reform?

    Does Blatter's departure mean Fifa will automatically clean up its act?

    Don't bet on it, says Tom Peck
    Charles Kennedy: The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    The baby of the House who grew into a Lib Dem giant

    Charles Kennedy was consistently a man of the centre-left, dedicated to social justice, but was also a champion of liberty and an opponent of the nanny-state, says Baroness Williams
    Syria civil war: The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of this endless conflict

    The harrowing testament of a five-year-old victim of Syria's endless civil war

    Sahar Qanbar lost her mother and brother as civilians and government soldiers fought side by side after being surrounded by brutal Islamist fighters. Robert Fisk visited her
    The future of songwriting: How streaming is changing everything we know about making music

    The future of songwriting

    How streaming is changing everything we know about making music
    William Shemin and Henry Johnson: Jewish and black soldiers receive World War I Medal of Honor amid claims of discrimination

    Recognition at long last

    Jewish and black soldiers who fought in WWI finally receive medals after claims of discrimination
    Beating obesity: The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters

    Beating obesity

    The new pacemaker which helps over-eaters
    9 best women's festival waterproofs

    Ready for rain: 9 best women's festival waterproofs

    These are the macs to keep your denim dry and your hair frizz-free(ish)
    Cycling World Hour Record: Nervous Sir Bradley Wiggins ready for pain as he prepares to go distance

    Wiggins worried

    Nervous Sir Bradley ready for pain as he prepares to attempt cycling's World Hour Record
    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Liverpool close in on Milner signing

    Reds baulk at Christian Benteke £32.5m release clause
    On your feet! Spending at least two hours a day standing reduces the risk of heart attacks, cancer and diabetes, according to new research

    On your feet!

    Spending half the day standing 'reduces risk of heart attacks and cancer'
    With scores of surgeries closing, what hope is there for the David Cameron's promise of 5,000 more GPs and a 24/7 NHS?

    The big NHS question

    Why are there so few new GPs when so many want to study medicine?
    Big knickers are back: Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Thongs ain't what they used to be

    Big knickers are back
    Thurston Moore interview

    Thurston Moore interview

    On living in London, Sonic Youth and musical memoirs
    In full bloom

    In full bloom

    Floral print womenswear
    From leading man to Elephant Man, Bradley Cooper is terrific

    From leading man to Elephant Man

    Bradley Cooper is terrific