Nureyev, a divine gift, is dead at 54: John Gregory assesses the turbulent life of the greatest dancer since Nijinsky

RUDOLF NUREYEV, the most celebrated ballet dancer of our time, died yesterday in Paris of a cardiac complication after a long illness, aged 54. He had suffered from a serious heart condition which was made worse by the HIV virus. His death was long expected, and artistically he had been in the shadows for some time.

Nureyev was a natural genius, a kind of male Isadora Duncan; sometimes he seemed like a divine gift to the dance, and he accepted everything he received as if it was his due. His life was farfetched, improbable and ultimately tragic.

Nureyev was born in a train near Lake Baikal, in Siberia, in 1938. He arrived like a gipsy at the age of 18 at the Vaganova Choreographic Academy in Leningrad to be coached by a teacher he loved, Alexander Pushkin, and to find himself one of a galaxy of stars in the world's leading ballet, the Kirov. His inflammable temperament could not be disciplined in that august temple; he had to break out and his sensational leap to the West at Paris airport in 1961 was a world coup.

The Royal Ballet took advantage of his arrival. One could say he transformed British ballet, lifting it from torpor, but his influence was not always for the best. Too many young males tried to copy his panache, with rather unequal results. Nevertheless, he transformed Margot Fonteyn from a demure and beautiful ornament into a ravishing ballerina of temperament and humanity. Nureyev's fame rippled round the world.

He was the greatest actor- dancer since Nijinsky: a phenomenon. Audiences everywhere were at his feet. He was sought after on every continent, but for some years he spent most of the time with Fonteyn and the Royal Ballet. His legend grew. He made films, appearing in the nude when he played the part of Rudolph Valentino. He had run the gamut; but in the end he bore a resentment, he felt he had been exploited.

He toured the world; he danced classical and modern; he organised performances of Nureyev and Friends; he became director of the Paris Opera Ballet; he returned to the Kirov; he did everything, and yet he was a lonely man.

Nureyev was a kind of teddy boy of the ballet: he could turn his hand, or rather his body, to any style of dance, and he was completely convincing, thrilling, and exceptional; but in civilised company he was never at home. He was without manners - uncivilised to the last.

As a choreographer he was inclined to over-stretch himself. He was on safe ground with the classics, several of which were stored in his remarkable memory; but his own few works lacked originality, or, in the other extreme, depth. It was all too easy for him, and he was ruined by excessive adulation. The real trouble was that he was unable to escape from Rudolf. So full of his own ego, he sometimes forgot whom he was partnering, or to whom he was acting.

Nureyev amassed a fortune, but never lived anywhere long enough to enjoy it, not even on Leonide Massine's Mediterranean island of Galli, which he acquired. He was never happy except when performing. For such a performer, it was a devastating punishment to lose his handsome looks, his athleticism; to be riddled with disease; to suffer the humiliation of being a grave disappointment to audiences who in the past had cheered him to the heights.

If he had cared for his precious gift, he might have become a grand seigneur and lived to enjoy his rewards. Instead, he finished up, to quote his reproach to the Royal Ballet when they failed to renew his contract, 'with a pail of shit'.

Only two months ago he survived his last triumph, a spectacular production of La Bayadere at the Paris Opera. Unable to walk, he was supported on to the stage to take his call. The dancers on stage and members of the audience wept at the tragic spectacle. Nureyev was a performer to the last.

John Gregory, a ballet historian and former dancer and choreographer, is the author of Leningrad's Ballet (1981).

Tributes, page 2

Obituary, page 31

(Photograph omitted)

Sport
The sun rises over St Andrews golf course, but will it be a new dawn for the Royal and Ancient Golf Club?
sportAnd it's Yes to women (at the R&A)
Arts and Entertainment
Friends is celebrating its 20th anniversary this year
tvSeries celebrates 20th anniversary
Sport
Yaya Touré (left) and Bayern Munich’s Spanish defender Juan Bernat
footballToure's lack of defensive work is big problem for City
Voices
voicesApple continually kill off smaller app developers, and that's no good for anyone
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
Liam Neeson said he wouldn't
tv

Liam Neeson's Downton dreams

Sport
Wembley Stadium
footballNews follows deal with Germany
Arts and Entertainment
A spell in the sun: Emma Stone and Colin Firth star in ‘Magic in the Moonlight’
filmReview: Magic In The Moonlight
Sport
A 'Sir Alex Feguson' tattoo
football

Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear
tv

Thriller is set in the secret world of British espionage

Life and Style
life

News
ScienceGallery: Otherwise known as 'the best damn photos of space you'll see till 2015'
Life and Style
fashion

Bomber jacket worn by Mary Berry sells out within an hour

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

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Volunteer your expertise as Trustee for The Society of Experimental Biology

Unpaid Voluntary Position : Reach Volunteering: Promising volunteer Trustee op...

Email Designer

£30000 - £35000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client is curr...

Psychology Teacher

£110 - £130 per hour: Randstad Education Reading: Psychology Teacher needed fo...

Food Technology Teacher

£85 - £120 per day: Randstad Education Cheshire: Randstad Education are curren...

Day In a Page

Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week