Obituary: Rudolf Nureyev

THE LAST year was one long battle for Rudolf Nureyev, one which he fought with great bravery, writes Barry Joule.

At the beginning of the year, we saw him off from London to conduct in Vienna, and several other European stops, before a substantial tour in Russia. In mid-March he fell extremely ill in St Petersburg. Against the Russian doctors' advice, and by sheer Tartar will-power, he forced himself out of hospital, on to a plane to Paris and home.

Dr Michel Canesi was for 10 years Rudolf's doctor and friend. Canesi is one of France's leading experts on Aids and affiliated with the private Hopital du Perpetual Secours in north Paris. It was here, from Spring 1992 until his death, between bursts of creativity and travel, that Rudolf was a regular patient under an assumed name, being treated for complications of HIV infection.

By mid-April he had rallied and, taking a nurse he liked, he left hospital to go to New York. Here he was to conduct Romeo and Juliette for the American Ballet Theatre. Saddled with two hours of medical treatment every morning, he still found time to learn the score and direct the company.

On 6 May, from the galleries of the Metropolitan Opera House confetti snowed down. The maestro had scored brilliantly; the New Yorkers always loved their favourite dancer from the time he and Margot Fonteyn stormed in in the Sixties. Rudolf never stayed to read his critique, but left for his farm in Virginia. Then it was back to Washington for a celebration and a plane south to his seaside bungalow on the French island of St Barthelemy. June saw him in San Francisco, New York, then back to Paris.

Only a handful of his closest friends knew of his debilitating affliction. Each day was more difficult, more of a drain on his enormous reservoirs of strength. In mid-July he went to the islands of Galli he owned south of Capri. Here, in the heat he adored, he was happiest.

By the beginning of August he had weakened a good deal, yet denied anything was really wrong. We went from Galli to Naples to pick up a brand new yacht which he had just bought, which was christened Tartara after the Prince of Dance.

At the beginning of September a helicopter was called to take him off the island. Back in Paris he received urgent medical treatment, and gamefully plunged into rehearsals for La Bayadere, which was set to open the Paris season in October. He was to choreograph and conduct one of his favourite ballets, which he had danced as a teenager at the Kirov. His old dancing partner from the Kirov Ninel Kourgapkina, 62, came over to assist him, and his Parisian friends rallied round to help.

In mid-September I moved into his apartment, opposite the Louvre, and stayed with him until after the Gala. The long days were arduous for this once superb athlete. There were medical treatments at home, trips to the hospital, pills to be swallowed around the clock, drips etc. But every night at 6pm sharp he somehow found the energy to go to the Opera.

He fell over on his first night, in front of the entire company. They were aghast, riveted to the spot, until he barked, 'What are you looking at? Get on with it.' A sofa was provided at the side of the stage and every night from this vantage point he watched, his searching eye never missing a detail. Everyone danced their hearts out; it was awe-inspiring to watch this great drama unfold. Rudolf was furious when Dr Canesi told me what we all knew: that he was too weak to conduct.

Exhausted, each night we returned home, where Rudolf would collapse into his bed. He was a complete professional to the tips of his powerful toes. I learnt this yet again when on 3 October his dearest friend, Maude Gosling, arrived from London. It was after midnight and we had just returned to his apartment after an especially long, difficult, rehearsal. After settling him in bed I told him, both Maude and Ninel were waiting to see him, 'Who shall I send in first?' 'Ballet business first,' he said, 'send in Ninel.'

The opening gala was a sensation. From beside the stage he watched the ballet from his sofa. Afterwards, the tears flowed freely everywhere and he shakily took his 15 minutes of applause, supported by the ballerinas.

Previously we had discussed if he wanted to take his award on stage and attend the gala supper. The risks were that the spotlights would make his still-secret illness apparent. He said simply, 'Show goes on.' After the awards a sumptuous meal in the west wing of the Opera was under way when Rudolf took his place at the head table. After the first course Pierre Berge, Chairman of the Opera, found me to say Rudolf must leave immediately. Together, arm in arm, while the 600 guests rose, most weeping and clapping for their ailing star, we led him out.

After three days he had recovered a bit and was determined to fly to the sunshine for a last time. Against doctors' order he returned to 'St Barts'. He was back in Paris at the beginning of November; the illness had taken a frightful toll. But, although he was a shell of his former self, the ideas and plans still tumbled out of his prodigious mind. I finally saw him just after Christmas propped up on pillows in his hospital bed. He did not recognise me, but his favourite Bach was playing and one of his painfully thin arms was slowly moving in the air, as if he was rehearsing for some future concert.

(Photograph omitted)

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