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Pointe Work

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Nureyev was also an instinctually innovative dancer. Having started late--he entered the Vaganova academy at 17, with mostly folk-dance experience and two years of intense but unfocused ballet studies under his belt--perhaps he was less burdened by tradition and felt free to seek his own style of movement. He also felt that he had something to prove. He was not the best student in his class, but he was perhaps the most talked about. Taking his inspiration from the soft, articulated arms and expressive upper bodies of the ballerinas, he molded his own port de bras and torso, trying to achieve a soft, decorative and expressive quality that was equal to that of his partners. This is common in male ballet dancers now, but it was considered quite shocking at the time.

This excerpt from the PBS documentary, Nureyev: The Russian Years, reveals the power and passion of his dancing.

About the Author

Marina Harss
Marina Harss is a freelance dance writer and translator in New York. Her dance writing has appeared in The New Yorker,...

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He also pushed his leg higher in attitudes and arabesques, far beyond what was typical for male dancers. This, combined with the pulled-up chest and soft arms, created a more feminine, more exotic curve in his body. This again was considered quite unusual. (In the early days he was often compared to Nijinsky, who, with Diaghilev's Ballets Russes several decades earlier, had also combined virtuosity with androgyny and a kind of "Oriental" exoticism to great effect.) Nureyev took his exoticism even further by dancing with his feet in a high demi-pointe--high on the ball of the foot--instead of low to the ground, mimicking the effect of the ballerina in her toeshoes. This increased the dynamism of his stage presence; a dancer standing on the tips of his toes is poised for motion, reaching up and out into space. Even stillness becomes an exciting preparation for movement.

There was a practical reason for this aesthetic choice as well: though he was slim, with a narrow waist and broad shoulders, at five foot eight, he was not very tall, and his legs were not particularly long. His pulled-up, high-toed stance made his legs look longer and more sculpted--fetishizing his lower body. After a tantrum about his baggy costume during a performance of Don Quixote at the Kirov in 1960 that kept the audience waiting for nearly an hour, he also began wearing tights without the covering of the company's typical baggy trunks and set off by a short jacket. Both techniques instantly appealed to other male dancers and are now mainstream. A contemporary of Nureyev's at the Bolshoi told Kavanagh, "I thought, God! This guy is really dancing on pointe. It was so beautiful.... It was a totally different aesthetic: more beautiful and cleaner." But beyond the purely aesthetic--longer legs look nicer onstage--Nureyev's innovations, combined with his natural beauty, made his dancing more exciting, more expressive and, in a word, sexy. Before him, male dancers had been noble, elegant and strong, but Nureyev's dancing was hot. As Baryshnikov would later tell dance critic Joan Acocella, "It was very masculine and at the same time [had] a touch of the feminine.... That gave him a sort of sexuality nobody around had at that time. It was so exotic."

Nureyev's awareness of his physical beauty and its power over people is a recurring theme in his dancing as well as his relationships; he enjoyed being looked at, photographed and filmed, with a voluptuousness that is both fascinating and slightly off-putting. Just look at the photograph on the cover of Kavanagh's book, one of a series taken by Richard Avedon at a steamy session in 1961: the dancer's self-awareness verges on the distasteful.

Nureyev was far from perfect as a dancer. Because of his late start, he benefited from only a few years of intensive study with the sagelike teacher Alexander Pushkin; he was still rough around the edges. His defection at 23 put a brutal end to this crucial bond with his teacher, which would never be replaced. His famous leaps had a tendency to come down in inflexible, thumpy landings. And for all his work to perfect his presentation, his dancing could be quite messy. Of his performance of the Black Swan pas de deux from Swan Lake at his London debut, Kavanagh writes, "Rudolf had fought his way through the virtuoso steps, landing badly and throwing both himself and [his partner] off balance." As the French ballerina Violette Verdy said, "Rudi didn't believe in covering up his difficulties."

Other observers have pointed out Nureyev's inability to bind his steps into musical phrases, to create a logical whole out of the individual parts of a solo. Instead, he tended to careen from one high point to another, ostentatiously preparing himself for the hard parts as if alerting the audience to what was coming. Effort and exhaustion were part of the show. In his view, "the art of dancing is not to make a difficult step look easy, but to make an easy step look interesting." And no one knew how to dramatize the easy steps better than he did: in his first performance of Giselle in London, with Margot Fonteyn, his slow, languorous traversal of the stage toward Giselle's grave, black cape billowing behind him, his face an exquisite mask of ecstatic sorrow, mesmerized the audience as much as his dancing did. But no one could accuse him of laziness. He was intensely aware of his own limitations and worked compulsively to correct them, absorbing what he could from fellow dancers (Fonteyn and Erik Bruhn, for example) and various teachers. And he did improve. Ninette de Valois, the founder of the Royal Ballet, his principal home for most of the '60s, said that "by the age of 25 his dancing was virtually perfect."

Throughout the '60s, audiences were electrified by Nureyev's performances; he became a superstar, a pop icon. But not every balletomane was convinced, especially in the United States, where the cool, technical brilliance of Balanchine was a universe away from Nureyev's "hot," attention-grabbing style. Jerome Robbins declared himself "not very impressed" after seeing Nureyev perform in Paris in 1961, and Lincoln Kirstein was a longtime skeptic, though he became obsessed with Nureyev later in life. Balanchine did not even come backstage to congratulate him after his first US performance, at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, in 1962. After Nureyev danced Giselle with Fonteyn in 1963 at the Metropolitan Opera House, the prominent critic John Martin accused him in the Saturday Review of trying to steal the show, "giving himself all the plums" in the classical repertory, always putting himself "front and center."

There was certainly some truth to Martin's accusations. Nureyev's egocentric tendencies became more explicit when, in 1963, he began restaging the classics, always with himself in the role of the prince. He began to add long, convoluted solos in order to show off aspects of his technique and augment his role in the story. Thus Swan Lake became the tale of a confused prince struggling to break away from the tentacles of his mother and tutor (reducing the unfortunate swan maiden to a kind of abstract metaphor for the soul), and Prince Florimund in The Sleeping Beauty became a charismatic, restless, Byronic seeker rather than simply the agent of Princess Aurora's awakening. Nureyev's choreography, in his adaptations and original works (most of which were unsuccessful) was florid, needlessly complicated, filled with what Acocella has described as "fiddly steps--petits battements, ronds de jambe--that go on forever without going anywhere."

The profusion of small, detailed steps was a testament to Nureyev's obsession with the Danish style of ballet, which he discovered while he was still at the Kirov, by way of a blurry 8-millimeter film captured by his friend Teja Kremke of the great Danish danseur noble Erik Bruhn. Kremke, an East German student at the Vaganova academy, had disappeared from the record until Kavanagh rediscovered him in the course of her research. He was apparently Nureyev's first male lover (the first of many) and seems to have had a profound effect on his emotional development. Kavanagh makes a good case for the idea that it was Kremke who planted the idea of leaving Russia. There has been much conjecture about when Nureyev began to think about leaving and whether the defection was an act of sudden desperation. Kavanagh does not settle the question, but the discovery of Kremke and his whisperings to Nureyev is an interesting clue. Kremke was also an amateur filmmaker who took endless footage of his friend in rehearsal and onstage, some of which was aired for the first time in a PBS/BBC documentary in August. (Hopefully, Nureyev: The Russian Years will soon be made available on commercial DVD--a short excerpt from it can be seen on YouTube.)

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