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)

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