Rudolph Nureyev was probably the most charismatic ballet performer of the twentieth century. At the height of his popularity, audiences shouted, cheered and swooned. He was an artistic genius who, in addition to dancing, choreographed and conducted music.
Rudolph Nureyev: A Nomad From the Beginning
Nuryev was born on March 17, 1938 on a long train trip across the great expanse of the then Soviet Union. His father was a soldier stationed in Vladivostok in the east and the family, Nureyev's mother and 2 sisters, were on their way to join him. Nureyev was forever a wanderer and some attribute this to the circumstances of his birth.
From Ufa to Leningrad
Although he began serious ballet studies relatively late, Rudolph Nureyev's talent and focused determination eventually pushed him to the great Vaganova ballet school attached to the legendary Kirov ballet company in then Leningrad now St. Petersburg. Already seventeen, but with imperfect technique, he was forced to take classes with much younger students.
Later he was taken under the wing of the great Alexander Pushkin who later taught Mikhail Baryshnikov. He was privately coached and later lived with Pushkin and his wife, with whom Nureyev had a love affair.
Upon graduation, Nureyev joined the Kirov and his star rose quickly. The energy he displayed on stage, his talent for leaping and his physical grace and beauty added up to an unrivaled dominance of the company. He danced with all of the great ballerinas at the Kirov, including the great Natalya Dudinskaya, who gave him his first big break when she asked for him to partner her in one of her signature roles, Laurencia.
One of the most dramatic events of Nureyev's life was his last minute decision to defect from the Soviet Union during a visit by the Kirov ballet to Paris in 1961.
KGB agents were always sent with touring companies to keep an eye on them. Nureyev, never one for following the rules, stayed out past curfews and interacted with his French acquaintances much to the consternation of his superiors. He had been informed that he would not be allowed to continue the tour with the company to England when, standing at Le Bourget airport, Nureyev literally ran into the arms of the airport guards just as his Soviet handlers were about to grab him.
The international dance world was no doubt the better for it.
Fonteyn and Nureyev in Swinging London
Nureyev's defection made headlines and many offers to dance followed. At the invitation of Ninette de Valois Nureyev agreed to dance as a guest with the Royal Ballet in London. Although he was 18 years younger, he was paired with Margot Fonteyn for a performance of Giselle which became one of the most talked about events in ballet history, and which extended her career.
Fonteyn and Nureyev's partnership, on and off stage, was based on genuine love and an uncanny ability to move in unison, even though they came from very different backgrounds. Nureyev remained close to Fonteyn, even helping her financially during the illness that lead to her death.
Paris Opera and Beyond
Rudolph Nureyev was a nomadic soul and had associations with many of the top ballet companies in the world including:
- Grand Ballet du Marquis de Cuevas
- Royal Ballet
- Paris Opera Ballet, Artistic Director 1983-1989
- Dutch National Ballet
- Australian Ballet
He also restaged many ballets such as:
- Don Quixote, for the Australian Ballet, a version of which was filmed
- Sleeping Beauty for La Scala in Milan
- Romeo and Juliet
- La Bayadère
It should be noted that although Nureyev was loyal to classical choreography, he would often insert additional solo opportunities for the male lead in ballets like Sleeping Beauty which tended to revolve around the ballerina.
Nureyev's Love Affairs
Rudolph Nureyev was also known for his passionate love affairs. He did not come out as a gay man until he was an adult and had many relationships with women prior to that time. One of his great loves was the Danish ballet star, Erik Bruhn, who he met when they danced with the Royal Ballet. He also fed rumors that he had a physical relationship with his great partner, Margot Fonteyn, although she denied this.
Rudolph Nuryev's Last Years
Unfortunately, Nureyev stopped dancing when he was already well past his prime. Some of his later performances are mere shadows of the once great artist. At the end of his life, Nureyev had decided to turn his musical talent to conducting and had several successful engagements. As with all things, he put his full attention and focus on rising to the top.
Nureyev died from complication of AIDS in 1992 at the age of 54. Earlier that year France had awarded him with title of Commander de L'Order des Arts et des Lettres. He was a legendary dancer and artist whose star will never fade.