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)

Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksAn introduction to the ground rules of British democracy
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

Recruitment Genius: Business Analyst - 12 Month FTC - Entry Level

£23000 - £27000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A Business Analyst is required ...

Recruitment Genius: Chefs - All Levels

£16000 - £23000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: To succeed, you will need to ha...

Recruitment Genius: Maintenance Engineer

£8 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity to join an award winni...

Recruitment Genius: Telesales Executive & Customer Service - Call Centre Jobs!

£7 - £9 per hour: Recruitment Genius: Are you outgoing? Do you want to work in...

Day In a Page

Isis in Syria: Influential tribal leaders hold secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over possibility of mobilising against militants

Tribal gathering

Influential clans in Syria have held secret talks with Western powers and Gulf states over the possibility of mobilising against Isis. But they are determined not to be pitted against each other
Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians

Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

A growing population and a compromised and depleted aquifer leaves water in scarce supply for Palestinians
Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously

Illnesses, car crashes and suicides

Dozens of politicians, bureaucrats and businessmen linked to Indian bribery scandal die mysteriously
10 best trays

Get carried away with 10 best trays

Serve with ceremony on a tray chic carrier
Greece debt crisis: EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

EU 'family' needs to forgive rather than punish an impoverished state

An outbreak of malaria in Greece four years ago helps us understand the crisis, says Robert Fisk
Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge: The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas

Gaza, a year on from Operation Protective Edge

The traumatised kibbutz on Israel's front line, still recovering from last summer's war with Hamas
How to survive electrical storms: What are the chances of being hit by lightning?

Heavy weather

What are the chances of being hit by lightning?
World Bodypainting Festival 2015: Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'

World Bodypainting Festival 2015

Bizarre and brilliant photos celebrate 'the body as art'
alt-j: A private jet, a Mercury Prize and Latitude headliners

Don't call us nerds

Craig Mclean meets alt-j - the math-folk act who are flying high
How to find gold: The Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge

How to find gold

Steve Boggan finds himself in the Californian badlands, digging out crevasses and sifting sludge
Singing accents: From Herman's Hermits and David Bowie to Alesha Dixon

Not born in the USA

Lay off Alesha Dixon: songs sound better in US accents, even our national anthem
10 best balsamic vinegars

10 best balsamic vinegars

Drizzle it over salad, enjoy it with ciabatta, marinate vegetables, or use it to add depth to a sauce - this versatile staple is a cook's best friend
Wimbledon 2015: Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

Brief glimpses of the old Venus but Williams sisters' epic wars belong to history

Serena dispatched her elder sister 6-4, 6-3 in eight minutes more than an hour
Greece says 'No': A night of huge celebrations in Athens as voters decisively back Tsipras and his anti-austerity stance in historic referendum

Greece referendum

Greeks say 'No' to austerity and plunge Europe into crisis
Ten years after the 7/7 terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?

7/7 bombings anniversary

Ten years after the terror attacks, is Britain an altered state?