Genius who refused to grow old gracefully: Judith Mackrell, Dance Critic, recalls some of Nureyev's performances, both annoying and heroic

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The Independent Online
THE GLORY of ballet lies in its celebration of the moment - in the chancey combination of brute physical effort and artistry that can create a brief heroic statement of perfection. We can read about such moments and look at them on film but once they are past, they are gone.

I was a child when Nureyev defected to the West, and I never saw the extraordinarily beautiful young man that he was, the charismatically sexy performer who galvanised the British public into a new enthusiasm for the art. What I did see, as a critic, was Nureyev the ageing performer, the stiff, half-broken dancer who wilfully refused to retire. Nureyev was not interested in becoming the stuff of archive and legend; he knew that as a dancer he was only alive on stage. So he continued to perform roles for which he was visibly unfit, most recently and notoriously Albrecht in Giselle, shocking and infuriating me and most of my colleagues.

There was, though, a heroism in this refusal to grow old gracefully that was typical of the avidity with which Nureyev pursued his whole career. Even as a ballet superstar in the 1960s and 1970s he was always willing to risk his body and his reputation on a huge range of modern and classical roles. And if the last few years saw some injudicious, even shaming performances, I will always value the memory of one of his last experiments, when he danced in the ballet version of Gogol's short story The Overcoat. Nureyev played the work's decrepit anti- hero with an involvement that showed no trace of the megastar arrogance he had occasionally seen fit to project. Out of the ruins of his once bravura technique he created a devastating portrayal of a shambling social misfit. Funny, tender, and sometimes unbearably bleak, it was a demonstration of genius as perfect in its way as one of Nureyev's early triumphs as a prince or corsair.