Nureyev: A life at top speed

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The Independent Culture
I FIRST saw him at the gala we held for him the year he defected. Margot (Fonteyn) and Ninette de Valois wanted to him to come to London, so they invited him to dance - at Drury Lane I think it would be then. Fred (Sir Frederick Ashton) had choreographed a solo for him that night and I just remember him rattling around in this great cloak, defying all odds.

In class, at close range, his face was so beautiful, his physique was so strong - strong like a panther - and he was so quiet. He would take off, jump, and land, silently. He wasn't anything we considered a normal human being, you see. He didn't look like one and he didn't act like one. He'd been born on a train and he spent the rest of his life going at 100 miles an hour. He thought sleeping was a waste of time. He worked relentlessly, Sundays, eight days a week. After a performance he would shower, have a massage, then entertain at his home in Sheen. It would be 20 or 30 people - Omar Sharif, Jacob Rothschild - well into the night.

People always adored seeing him. If it was New York, Bernstein would come backstage and they would go off with a crowd for supper. In Paris one time, in the Eighties, when we were there with Baryshnikov, doing A Month in the Country, we left him very late and he was still planning a business meeting and to go round to visit friends. He had no rules in his life like we had. He broke them to accommodate his tremendous energy.

Luckily I never played a part in one of his tantrums. I only saw that side when people said something stupid, or when he was very exhausted. I mean, he would criticise when he was teaching. 'You all dance like galoshes]' he'd shout, but not in anger. He just didn't suffer fools gladly. Some people say he looked arrogant, but he was so sharp, quick, that was the way he was - a true star - one of the greatest stars there has ever been. And that's why he was so important to us in the ballet world. More than almost anyone he popularised ballet, the public loved him, and he pushed forward its boundaries.

When he arrived he was technically so well equipped, he produced a higher standard of dance than we had seen. I don't think there was jealousy. I'd have known, I was married to Michael Somes at the time, and he had been Margot's partner. But Rudolf's was such an obviously extraordinary talent, he was electrifying. And for the Russians who followed him, like Baryshnikov, he was a legend.

Misha (Baryshnikov) was in Paris that time because Nureyev had asked him to stand in for him. All artists after a certain age are living with their injuries. Rudolf usually danced with an injury. He had to be really unable to walk before he would cancel a performance. One day he dragged us down to the Opera because the staff were threatening to strike. He said, 'Come on, we must go down there immediately and work at the barre, we must show them.' So we went, the three of us, and did our exercises in the room where they were having their meeting. It was to shame them, I suppose, and it worked.

Over the years I've danced many roles with him - Les Sylphides, Giselle, Swan Lake. Ashton wrote a pas de deux specially for us called Jazz Calendar, which is one of my favourites. I've danced his own Raymonda, and I was the first of my generation to dance the principal in his Bayadere. One great thing I have to thank him for is that when I went back to dancing after having my two children, I asked whether I could do the Bayadere and the Opera House was doubtful, because it's so difficult, and I said, well, I would ask Rudolf. And he said 'You think you can do it?' I said I would love to try. Maybe you could see me rehearse. And he said. 'Of course.' And I did. It was very uplifting for me.

We've had such fun over the years. He had a beautiful house in Monaco and I have an apartment there, so we would see each other. Whenever we went to the cinema together, Rudolf always insisted on sitting right in the front row. Always. I could never stand it. We'd just leave him sitting there alone.

The last time I saw him was at the gala evening we held for Margot at the Opera House, not long before she died. Rudolf danced Mercutio for her. You ask me whether someone can inherit his mantle and I'd have to say no. This is a Mozart or a Picasso. A huge virtuoso dancer. He could do anything, to perfection. He would go on and on rehearsing until one minute before the performance. This is something that doesn't touch the earth.