Why superstar ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev was as big as Mick Jagger

Two upcoming films celebrate the Soviet sensation who became an icon in the West at the very height of the Cold War

Zo Anderson
Tuesday 18 February 2020 13:04 GMT
Rudolf Nureyev starring in Giselle with Sylvie Guillem in Covent Garden 1988
Rudolf Nureyev starring in Giselle with Sylvie Guillem in Covent Garden 1988

This autumn, two films celebrate Rudolf Nureyev, one of the 20th century’s best-known dancers. Directed by Ralph Fiennes, the drama The White Crow focuses on his defection, his “leap to freedom” when on tour with the Kirov Ballet in 1961. Nureyev, a documentary by Jacqui and David Morris, covers the full sweep of his life, from wartime survival to international stardom, his sensational partnership with Margot Fonteyn and his death, in 1993, from Aids.

“Rudolf Nureyev’s life reads like an epic novel,” explain filmmakers Jacqui and David Morris. “He exploded into the consciousness of the West at the very height of the Cold War. His defection occurred just two months after Yuri Gagarin orbited the Earth, and two months before the Berlin Wall went up. His fame was guaranteed by his defection, but he soon proved himself in his own right.”

Nureyev’s image still burns bright. There are stars who are celebrated far beyond their own field – the way you don’t need to be interested in tennis to know about Serena Williams. People who achieve this kind of fame tend to be highly gifted, but it takes more than that: there’s also personality, something that catches the mood of their era. Rudolf Nureyev managed all three.

Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn (Courtesy of Nureyev Foundation) (Courtesy of Nureyev Foundation)

“He was as big as Mick Jagger,” the Morrises continue. “We wanted to show that to an audience who may only have a vague recollection of the name. We can hear why Elvis or The Beatles had the impact they did. Dance is different. Our responsibility was to save Nureyev for future generations, by tracking down the best of his work that survives on film, and then present it, and him, in the context of his time.”

Nureyev was, he would say, “shaken from the womb”, born on a train on the Trans-Siberian railway in 1938. His family were poor; on his first day at school, Nureyev was mocked as a beggar for wearing his older sister’s overcoat. At the age of six, he saw his first ballet, and knew he had found his destiny – but he had to fight for it. Though Russia had strong traditions of male dancing, some, including young Rudolf’s father, still regarded it with suspicion. “Each time I ran to class, my father beat me up,” he remembered. His early teachers spotted his talent, and urged him to try for the great ballet school in Leningrad. He was finally accepted at the age of 17.

By ballet standards, 17 is a very late start; most of his contemporaries had been at the school for seven years. Having fought to reach the academy, Nureyev had to keep fighting to catch up, to polish his raw gifts. Helped by the outstanding teacher Alexander Pushkin (played by Fiennes in The White Crow), he drove himself hard. He was also ready to break rules, repeatedly punished for staying out late to see more performances. His friends were forward-thinking students, interested in the art and music of the West – seen as suspicious by the Soviet authorities.

From the first, Nureyev had a reputation for talent, charisma and rebelliousness. The battle he had put himself through was there in his dancing. Nureyev was an explosive dancer, in contrast to the airy brilliance of later defector Mikhail Baryshnikov, or the angelic grace of his contemporary Yuri Soloviev (who also appears in The White Crow, played by ballet star Sergei Polunin). Though he worked to smooth out his rough edges, Nureyev kept his fierceness, his sense of conflict, along with a huge jump and hyperfast turns. His stage presence had a sense of danger: he was often compared to a panther. Sometimes he urged other dancers to “make it look difficult”. He didn’t want to be effortless, instead wowing audiences with the technical demands he faced and overcame.

On tour in Paris with the Kirov Ballet, Nureyev was both a huge draw and a problem for the Soviet authorities. At the height of the Cold War, the tour was priceless propaganda, displaying the glories of Russian ballet to the capitalist West. Nureyev discarded official restrictions, seeking out French dancers and artists. When the rest of the company moved on to London, Nureyev was ordered home. Sure that he would never be allowed out of Russia again, that his career would suffer at home, he sought asylum in France. His defection made headlines around the world.

Cold War politics had brought him fame overnight. His talent and personality kept him in the spotlight. In the West as in Russia, Nureyev was hungry for knowledge, to meet and work with the most talented artists – from the Danish star Erik Bruhn, with whom he had a long affair, and the Royal Ballet ballerina Margot Fonteyn.

Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn (Courtesy of Nureyev Foundation)

At the age of 42, Fonteyn was already the most famous ballerina of the Western world, but assumed to be near the end of her career. The 23-year-old Nureyev wasn’t an obvious co-star; at first, Fonteyn was reluctant to dance with him. Their partnership turned out to be a blazing meeting of opposites, his fierce bravura against her tender lyricism. They challenged each other, meeting on the shared ground of the 19th century classics, and going on to seek new roles together. Decades on, people still wonder if they slept together; the point is less “did they, didn’t they” than the thrilling onstage dynamic that made everyone want to know.

He demanded the spotlight. In the West, ballet was still dominated by the ballerina, with the male dancer often relegated to being her devoted partner. Nureyev insisted on equal billing, at the very least. Audiences were smitten. Like The Beatles, he stirred up passionate excitement, nicknamed “Rudi-mania”. He was an icon of pop culture as well as dance: photographed by Richard Avedon, hanging out with beautiful people from Elizabeth Taylor to Jackie Kennedy to Miss Piggy of The Muppets. He caught the countercultural mood of the 1960s, hitting the headlines again when he and Fonteyn were briefly arrested in a drugs raid on a party in San Francisco. News footage shows a queenly Fonteyn, wrapped in furs, while Nureyev looks coolly around him, all high cheekbones and lordly disdain.

There was a joke that, like the Great War, Nureyev wiped out a generation of young men, other male dancers whose technique he cast in the shade. Yet he was a huge inspiration to dancers of his own age and younger, proof of what could be achieved. Wherever he went, he was a challenge, demanding change and shaking things up – as a dancer and choreographer and later as director of the Paris Opera Ballet, where he discovered the young Sylvie Guillem.

Even now, he can still cause scandal: last year, a Bolshoi Ballet production about his life was abruptly postponed, amid accusations of censorship and speculation that the focus on Nureyev’s homosexuality was still too much for the authorities. From Cold War politics to the ballet stages of the world, Nureyev was a dancer who made sure that nothing would stay the same.

‘Nureyev’ is in cinemas from 25 September; nureyevthefilm.com

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