Obituary: Rudolf Nureyev

Peter Brinson
Thursday 07 January 1993 01:02 GMT

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.

HE PUT male dancing on the international map: he was a name known to people who never saw him; and he was so sexually, so sensually attractive to men and to women that a collective sigh arose at his each first appearance on stage. The craving, the longing, were stirred by feats of masculine athleticism, spectacular excitements in Le Corsaire or Don Quixote, ardent love in Giselle, Swan Lake, Marguerite and Armand, Romeo and Juliet, The Sleeping Beauty. Such scenes changed the public view of ballet in the West. Off-stage their creator, Rudolf Nureyev, was private, lonely, different.

Each week for many years I drove past a huge photograph of Nureyev nude from the waist up. It looked out on swirling traffic from a window of the Royal Vauxhall Tavern, one of south London's gay pubs. Gone now, the photograph recalled the swinging Sixties and Nureyev's impact upon them. At the same time opera-houses across the world showed other photographs of the megastar in many costumes. 'He is,' wrote Margot Fonteyn, 'not only an exceptional dancer but also a unique personality fortified by one of the sharpest brains imaginable.' He has a 'haunted, untameable pride', wrote Alexander Bland, the man, who, had he lived, could have written Nureyev's biography.

Nureyev's two lives, both dedicated to dance, were fashioned by poverty, sacrifice and a realisation he was different from others, an outsider. Difference was nourished by an unshakeable conviction from about the age of seven that he was moving towards the fixed destiny of a dedicated dancer. It was upheld by an exceptional physique and temperament for dance, underpinned, as he wrote in his autobiography, by a sense that 'Death is at the end of the road, one knows it, yet one continues along it.' Superstitious he was to a degree.

This sense of destiny placed Nureyev apart from the world beyond dance. Lionised, idolised in the West, reversing the Kirov's repressive treatment of his talent, he accepted the press, photographers and critics as unfortunate intruders. The world which mattered lay in rehearsal rooms, classrooms, dressing-rooms and theatres. Here could flourish his temperament, always out of step with convention. Exceptionally honest, no matter to whom or about what, he never flattered nor expected to be flattered.

The mystery behind this temperament, the questions it raises, fascinate writers, everyone. The best answers lie in his early autobiography in 1962, introduced by Alexander Bland, and Nureyev (1975), by John Percival. The later career is analysed in Bland's marvellous The Nureyev Image (1976), his The Royal Ballet (1981) and Men Dancing (1984), by Bland and Percival. Bland, if anyone, is Nureyev's prolocutor.

Loneliness began early. Nureyev's family of mother and four children were Tartars evacuated to Bashkir and Ufa beyond the Ural mountains during the war. Their 'home' was a single room of nine square metres shared by three families. Rudolf wrote of hunger, 'constant, gnawing hunger', a few pounds of potatoes to last a week, selling their father's civilian clothes to buy food, fainting from hunger at kindergarten, teased by other children for lack of shoes and proper clothes. At home, the only boy, he played alone: 'no common games, no shared toys . . . I don't remember seeing my father until I was nearly eight.'

Hamet Nureyev was a soldier, stern, remote, who wanted his son to be an engineer or soldier like himself. Rudolf was closest to his elder sister and his mother, taking pride, too, in his Tartar background. The Tartar is 'a cunning animal', he wrote, 'and that's what I am.'

Dancing came later: out of music heard on the family's tiny radio; out of Tartar folk songs and dancing, 'which filled me with delight'; out of glimpses of ballet in the Ufa Opera into which he sneaked; out of clandestine dance studies and performance against his father's wishes, making life a lie; and out of help from local music teachers and others who recognised his talent.

Finally reaching Leningrad and the Kirov School, aged 17, much older than other new students, Nureyev became an object of jealousy or contempt, saved by the insight of a brilliant teacher, Alexander Pushkin. In only three years of formal study he mastered a syllabus and tradition which normally takes double that time or longer, became a prizewinner at the all- Russian student competition in Moscow and moved directly into the Kirov company in soloist and principal roles. Different again for refusing to join the Komsomol or participate in politics, he remained a rebel and nonconformist. Two factors dictated this way of life: his early experiences and also, I believe, his sexual orientation which, if expressed, placed him beyond the law in the Soviet Union.

Artistically and personally he had no choice but to seek another life. The choice was made in Paris on 17 June 1961. I saw him soon after. Peggy van Praagh, a close friend of mine, later founder of today's Australian Ballet, was teaching the company of the Marquis de Cuevas, in Paris, where I was working in film studios. Peggy called me to watch class. Among all the dancers of a large company in a crowded studio the eye went to one man, tousle-headed, very young, slender but electrifying in movement. Meeting afterwards, he was direct and witty in stumbling English. It was no surprise that he danced soon in London and became Fonteyn's partner.

We did not meet again until the summer of 1964 at the Spoleto Festival in Italy. I had joined the Royal Ballet Touring Company to plan my Ballet for All group as a branch of the company. 'Come along tomorrow,' said David Rees, the stage manager. 'We are doing the dress run of Raymonda.' This was Nureyev's first full-length production in the West, a highlight of the festival, based like all his work on the 19th- century Russian classical tradition. He and Fonteyn were to dance the leads.

Overnight, Fonteyn left to attend a paralysed husband she thought was dying in London. Nureyev, deeply disappointed, beset already by a designer whose work for the production was wholly inappropriate, gave Fonteyn's understudy, Doreen Wells, and the whole company a rough time in rehearsal. His temper always was sudden and violent. Afterwards I watched him in his dressing-room, tense and nervous like a racehorse before the race. The performance went well; Nureyev's incandescent personality made a huge impact on the Italian audience.

The foundation of this temperament lay mostly in his mind, the super-intelligence which Fonteyn noted: quick, sharp, ahead of others, always seeking perfection. The mind was matched physically by a natural gift for emotional expression through the body. Combined with outstanding strength, speed and control, this made Nureyev's remarkable acrobatic feats seem easy but always theatrical. A luminous imagination gave them dramatic point. These attributes were moulded by Pushkin, his teacher, within the constraints and discipline of professional training. The natural gifts were shaped and emphasised, because it is a dancer's personality which colours dancing and moves an audience, not the brilliant tricks. Nureyev's personality was introvert, yet explosive, Dionysiac rather than Apollonian, 'a virtuoso romantic', Bland said, masculine and virile, combining something of Byron and Valentino, whom he portrayed on film in Valentino (1977), and Bland described in The Nureyev Valentino (also 1977).

In build he was slight, almost too short for a danseur noble, more like a demi-character dancer, except his training, the inner control of a muscular though slender body, the remarkable turn-out of his legs, his evident confidence and joy in movement and the pride of his carriage, made him noble. The body, with its high-cheekboned dramatic face, held the eye even when still. In movement he used his body as a single expressive instrument from head to foot, emphasised by deep musicality, like Fonteyn. 'A dancer', Nureyev wrote, 'must give quite different and quite personal readings of ballets, as if they were poems . . .' This 'means studying for hours the exact way of placing a shoulder, a chin or certain stomach muscles.' Not the least of his loss to us is his knowledge of the body and its possibilities, as valuable to gymnasts as to dancers.

Within this body wilfulness and self-reliance, conflicting with loneliness and a need for affection, led often to moods and fits of depression. He was an assembly of contradictions held together by ego and dedication to dance. Yet from these contradictions sprang his controversial interpretations. To the Nutcracker for the Royal Ballet he gave a psychological interpretation which made it a unique production the company was foolish to discard. His own choreography, dramatic but rarely striking in ballets like Manfred (1979) and Washington Square (1982), was guided by the same personal view of life. So were his roles, more than a hundred, ranging from the Prince in Swan Lake for which he created a solo of personal loneliness in Act One, to James in Bournonville's La Sylphide, the boy in Jerome Robbins's Afternoon of a Faun, as Lucifer for Martha Graham, with Fonteyn, and the Spectre in Le Spectre de la rose, capturing the sinuous, unearthly quality of Fokine's conception. For all these reasons Nureyev could never be an easy company member nor adapt instantly to other ways of doing, as Fonteyn discovered.

His passion for dance and for adventure in movement carried him into every style, every country, to every choreographer, and more performances in more companies, great and small, than any dancer before. He danced with the Royal Ballet and the tiny Western Theatre Ballet at the Bath Festival, the Norwegian Ballet and the Paris Opera Ballet, the Wisconsin Ballet and the Teatro Colon, Buenos Aires, Paul Taylor in the US and the Vienna State Opera in Europe, the Canadian National Ballet and the Australian Ballet, American Ballet Theatre and La Scala, Milan, the Stuttgart Ballet and London Festival Ballet. He would have danced at the North Pole if he could. Always in the background was his own Kirov company.

To each company, including the Kirov, Nureyev brought new qualities and conceptions. His presence demanded a room for expression they were constrained to give, especially in interpretation, whatever their national temperament. Here lies, I think, his greatest value and impact on Western dance culture. The range of his interpretations embellished many periods, classical or modern, and helped many companies. His presence raised the Canadian National Ballet to international stature. His seasons of short works - first in Paris, then as Nureyev and Friends in New York, and annually for 10 years at the London Coliseum - brought together stars like Fonteyn, Natalia Makarova, Lynn Seymour, and Merle Park in a range of choreography which extended the audience for ballet, and demonstrated the importance of the male dancer.

For Nureyev, dancing was collaboration to achieve perfection. Choreographers did not create for him, they created with him. It was the same with all his 30 recreated or original productions over three decades, from one act of La Bayadere for the Royal Ballet in 1963 to the full-length La Bayadere at the Paris Opera on 8 October 1992, one of his greatest triumphs. Without notes, with no adviser, he staged every detail of even the smallest role in a ballet of over 100 characters. If the Paris Opera Ballet, the world's oldest classical company, is now again the world's leading company, it owes much to Nureyev's artistic direction from 1983 to 1989. By the same token it shows what the Royal Ballet lost when it separated from him after the end of his partnership with Fonteyn in the early 1980s.

Three decades of mounting success transformed the way of life of the man but not his personality, nor the contradictions within him. Socially, he frequented clubs and restaurants, preferring to be host rather than guest, keeping late nights, like most theatre people. While enjoying the life of wealthy society he lived simply himself. A listener more than a talker, he demanded neither praise nor the awards which he sometimes failed to collect. There have been many, including the Legion d'Honneur from President Mitterrand in 1988.

Off-stage Nureyev mixed easily on equal terms with other dancers, or Fonteyn and her circle, or Jackie Kennedy and hers, or friends from the international art world like Gore Vidal and Franco Zeffirelli. His orchestral conducting in the last years of his life developed through conductor friends like Bernstein and Von Karajan. Musically informed already, he had wanted always to conduct, took lessons seriously and developed his musicianship to become another career. Across the United States, in Europe and the former Soviet Union orchestras applauded as well as audiences and dancers. Only in Britain did we not hear him.

Really close friends, though, were few. Maude and Nigel Gosling were his 'family' in England. Writing jointly as Alexander Bland they not only chronicled Nureyev's dancing life from the beginning but provided a permanent refuge and London base. Nigel died in 1982 so that it was Maude who continued the support through 10 years when kidney-stones began to trouble him, pneumonia, then a serious, ultimately fatal heart condition made worse by HIV.

Time was, wrote Nigel Gosling, when Nureyev's idea of extreme wealth meant never to be hungry. At the end of his life he owned seven properties in the United States and in Europe, a wealthy man thanks to the careful management of SA Gorlinsky, until Gorlinsky's death in 1990. The wealth, though, was incidental to dance, not a reason to dance. For a choreographer or cause in which he believed he danced without fee. He filled his various homes with paintings and furniture, chosen and bought by himself.

In private life his consumption of the arts was insatiable. He read and saw many of Shakespeare's plays, could sing many operatic roles and spent hours watching films and television. He built a library of books, always for the knowledge and insight they contained. A favourite author was Dostoevsky. He collected music on records, discs and tapes, bought sheet music to play on his pianos and spinet, and an organ for Bach, his favourite composer.

All this without secretary or diary, relying on his own memory and recall to keep appointments. Few letters were written, so that there are sacks of unanswered fan mail and cuttings waiting to be captured by an enterprising museum for a Nureyev archive.

He was no man for archives. 'Never look back,' he would say, 'That way you fall downstairs.' Instead he belonged to trains and planes, a nomad travelling always to the future. His faults were his temper, his moods, unpredictability and supreme ego, if ego can be a fault in a great artist. There were no tangents and few deviations except at the end when he continued to dance beyond his power, seeking to prolong the mastery which age and illness were destroying.

What, then, is the legacy of Fonteyn's unique artist? He gave to her another 10 years of creative life, 'a second career', she said, thereby creating a partnership which extended enormously public interest in dance and dancers. Their fame became a factor of political and international importance for dance. He changed the image of the male dancer in Britain, silenced the fathers who condemned dancing as a career for their boys, and outshone athletes in male achievement. In a sense, he completed the foundation of Britain's national ballet by demonstrating to its young male dancers a dimension of dance not achieved until then.

A reason for Nureyev's influence with dancers was his generosity in sharing the knowledge he possessed, not as some special favour, but as part of the job, an extension of his commitment to perfection. Already a great teacher in the style of his beloved Pushkin, Nureyev showed himself in Paris to be a great producer and director.

He was of his time, a man whose arrival in the West in the 1960s as rebel and outsider matched others who challenged through the arts the conventions of a society too fixed in its past. In that way his two lives came together. He provoked everyone to think again what they wanted from dance. By winning extraordinary acclaim, his achievements forced classical ballet out of its introvert world into the public arena.

In 30 years Nureyev pushed back the boundaries of the impossible. Because he was a unique dance artist, the stature of dance was enhanced. For him and his legacy the lights do not dim. The curtain does not fall.

(Photograph omitted)

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