Obituary: Rudolf Nureyev

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The Independent Online
Rudolf Hametovich Nureyev, dancer, director, choreographer and producer, born Razdolnaya Lake Baikal 17 March 1938, Soloist Kirov Ballet Leningrad 1958-61, Dance Magazine Award 1973, naturalised an Austrian citizen 1982, Ballet Director Paris Opera 1983-89, Principal Choreographer 1989-92, Commandeur des Arts et Lettres 1992, author of Nureyev, An Autobiography 1962, died Paris 6 January 1993.

BALLET CRITICS will eulogise the magic successes and crowed-over failures of Nureyev's career as a dancer; gossip columnists will recollect with delight the frequent scandals and fracas of his lively public personality; trendy disparagers will sneer at his ventures into film and television, writes Philip Core.

So I will happily leave to those pundits memories that future generations will scarcely credit of how moving was the lifeless, rolling corpse Margot Fonteyn partnered so perfectly in the last scene of Romeo and Juliet to Prokofiev's music. I will not attempt to record the dance-logic behind an electrical storm generated each time the young dancer performed in Swan Lake with one continuous burst of legato passion from start to finish. I will only suggest that, even in the mid-Eighties, Nureyev could bring to a trio of ballets on the theme of Carnival - organised to celebrate the season in frozen February Venice - three distinct and majestic manners, ranging from the wittily rococo, through the weepingly romantic, to the frenetically modern-classic.

Instead, I would like to speak of a spirit memorable through its art for all the qualities that art alone can incorporate; I would like to consider the true freedom which distinguished Nureyev from the discipline-obsessed stars with which he shared a metier.

Any such evaluation can only be a personal one, and, indeed, my sense of Nureyev's place in our times originated from his effect on my own career. His arrival in Boston, a few months after the famous defection, at a time when many of my friends were dancers, heralded novel delights. Richard Avedon's magnificent nude photographs (airbrushed, as one realises now that the originals have been published) had already made me familiar with an animal beauty of limb, a grace of line more akin to aeronautical prototypes than a traditional dancer.

But to the possibility of seeing this young legend another, submerged, stratum of anticipation contributed a deeper signifigance. Russia itself, its poetry, barbaric history, and the horror it represented to the anti- Communist American establishment I despised, seemed to be incarnate in this wild dancer. The Tartars who had been described to me by a friend's White Russian uncle had bred this rebel from the Tsarist state of Khrushchev's USSR. The shadow of Nijinsky, with whom my sister's ballet teacher had danced, and whose heaviness in air had been recreated for me by Mrs Meyer - Brancusi's great American patron - and by my grandfather, lay behind this new light of balletic effort. And, perhaps most of all, the period itself, the crazy mid-Sixties of rebellion and change, the 'pop' or 'swinging' decade, breathed a heady air - an air of anticipation where new gods were eagerly awaited in the gutted temples.

Harvard was a particularly difficult temple, and my own personality only precariously fitted to its faiths. When I saw Swan Lake from atop a gigantic packing-crate beside the stage of the Boston Theatre hosting the Royal Ballet, it changed my life. I had met Nureyev the day before, with a friend who was giving him the huge drawing I had done from an Avedon picture. It was the conjunction of his absolutely direct interest in my work, my thoughts and myself with his character onstage beyond personal contact, caught up in one pure sweep of movement, encompassing all emotions - which galvanised me. A fan, I was also - in some strange way that recurred at peculiarly symbolic moments over the next 20 years - a friend, and a pupil.

'Pupil' is that word which defines the point at which, I believe, Nureyev's genius as a dancer overstepped the bounds of in-house stardom. In his stage presence, but also in his temperamental private life, in his voracious sexual life and his compelling intellectual fraternities, he taught - by living - a continuous lesson. From the historic precedent of that 'leap to freedom' at Le Bourget airport (in defiance of Soviet officials returning him to Russia for too many late nights in Parisian gay clubs and too much success), to his revitalising reign as Directeur de Danse at the Paris Opera, Nureyev showed a fierce, informed, intractable truth to self.

Perhaps it took a childhood in postwar provincial Russia, a late start as a dancer, and years concealing the flame of genius he knew he possessed, to instil into Nureyev this particular credo of selfless devotion to self. Vanity certainly played a part in it. There can have been few men in our times whose physical presence was acknowledged by so many people as a powerful erotic force; I have known men who would have never otherwise considered the idea who were proud to have enjoyed love with Nureyev; I have seen women literally crazed with desire in his company.

If this version of stardom can be seen as a sacrifice, a submission to something he knew we all needed, then Nureyev's effect on the classical repertoire of the ballet becomes comprehensible. He put the male dancer where only Nijinsky had been before, into the role of ambiguous but steely vehicle for dreams. That he also abrogated to the male dancer, or at least to himself, many of the privileges of the prima donna is now history. I would not want to pass over his furious rows with impresarios, fellow dancers (he stamped on Carla Fracci's foot at La Scala) or anyone who failed to see things his way. His infamous defecation in front of the judges at an Italian festival of the arts, who had given him a second prize, is worth remembering. Is this not what the dance is all about - a bodily art that can only express emotion by act; and is it not the peculiar ferocity with which Nureyev combined the leonine will of the Russian psyche with act that epitomises his achievement?

Audiences who can recollect Nureyev in the London Festival Ballet revivals of Nijinsky's great vehicle Le Spectre de la Rose will be able to visualise a physical example of this synthesis of will and act: the great final leap through a window, where Nureyev appeared - as Nijinsky had before him - literally to fly. Exhaling before he leapt, he took a deep breath at the apex of his jete, and seemed, from the expansion of his chest thus occasioned, and from a sudden twist in the direction of his trajectory, to hover in mid-air. The will to give spectators the miracle 'Spectre' 's hypnotic music had led them to expect, and the technique required for the physical act created, a lesson in fulfilment beyond simple theatrics.

This compulsion to reach the viewer showed in Nureyev's performance as Valentino, in Ken Russell's idiosyncratic film; it showed in his very un- Shakespearean Hamlet to Frederick Ashton's choreography; it showed even in late, provincial performances for yet another cycle of screaming gallery girls. If such madness of communication is self-absorbed and relentless, it is also a great avatar of love, a passion for the 'others' in life that remains as fertile as it is didactic. Which leaves us with the question, where in the world does a young dancer (Nureyev was 23 when he took the West by storm) acquire the knowledge of feelings and needs which his art can teach the layman?

Here Nureyev's body contains the answers. His slant eyes, the same as those of countless generations who had crossed the Russian steppes in seas of blood or wastes of cold; his broad hips and footballer's legs, trained in the Russian manner by slow repetitive movements to an incredible elasticity; his flat masculine hands, reaching like a child's in a pleading gesture he fused with any choreography; his feet which never stopped, to start again, but moved continuously in a role - all these attributes spoke the tribal language of an ancient race - a stupid, powerful, aggressive language - which by unique fluke had produced a sensitive and inquiring intellect.

When Nureyev once described to me a nightmare, where he saw a huge shadow behind himself as he danced, which began eventually to dance its own choreography, until it swamped him in a suffocating darkness from which he awoke in tears, it was easy to sense the effect of his predecessors in the Ballet, and the pressures of his own stardom; but was this not also the very voice of Dostoevsky, the direct subconscious memory of emotion - fear and dissatisfaction with self in this instance - that had made the greatest Russian art? To me it was, and I always drew great confidence from the recollection of such an interior struggle behind such opulent success. For me Rudolf Nureyev flawlessly personified CP Cavafy's great phrase, 'The lips and the skin remember like the soul.'

Philip Core died 12 November 1989.

(Photograph omitted)