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Pointe Work

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The sad story of Nureyev's young friend, who was left behind when Nureyev defected and who eventually became an alcoholic and drowned under "mysterious circumstances," may be only a small piece in the puzzle of Nureyev's life, but it is another example of Kavanagh's resourcefulness and ability to bring details to life. Kremke's film of Bruhn dancing Balanchine's Theme and Variations blew Nureyev's mind. It led him to his two obsessions, which could be realized only if he left Russia: to study with Bruhn and to dance for Balanchine. Balanchine all but eluded him (in the late '70s, when he was old and tired, he made an insignificant piece for Nureyev), but Nureyev did track down Bruhn in Denmark shortly after leaving Russia, studied with him, became his lover--Bruhn is generally described as "the love of his life"--replaced him in most of his roles on the international dance circuit and generally made him miserable (they broke up many times over the years, and definitively in 1968). Kavanagh tracks the implosion of their relationship closely, quoting at length from Bruhn's tortured letters. (Kavanagh is the first researcher to see these letters, which are in the hands of the Rudolf Nureyev Dance Foundation.) It is a depressing microcosm of the destructive effects of competition and stardom on intimacy and even friendship. But Nureyev's dancing, if not his choreography, was the better for having known Bruhn.

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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There is much, much more to this story: Nureyev's legendary partnership with Margot Fonteyn, which brought her back from the brink of retirement for some of her most memorable, expansive performances and imbued his own dancing with a new, much-needed refinement. His forays into modern dance, never very successful because he could not stop touring long enough to get the style completely into his body. (Baryshnikov described his filmed version of Roland Petit's Le Jeune homme et la mort as "high camp beauty parlor"; you can see an excerpt on YouTube and judge for yourself.) His frightening, almost feral behavior in and out of the theater, complete with vile insults and physical brutality: he punched, kicked, spat, broke glasses at parties and even dragged a dancer by her necklace.

Worse yet, he was cruel to Fonteyn, who was by then a hallowed figure--but she didn't seem to mind. Then there was his fraught tenure as director of the Paris Opera Ballet, where he made few friends but transformed the company by bringing in new ballet masters, rapidly promoting promising young dancers (like Sylvie Guillem) and inviting challenging choreographers (such as William Forsythe and Karole Armitage). Kavanagh depicts him as an inspiring teacher: "the messiah of pure classicism, and a molder and maker of stars." As a mentor to young dancers, she argues, he far surpassed Baryshnikov. Then, after Nureyev was pushed out of the Paris Opera and could no longer dance, there was his short career as a conductor (mediocre, it seems). He died young but stayed on the stage for far too long.

His abilities waned in the latter half of the '70s and dropped to further lows in the '80s, as his body was ravaged by the infirmities connected to HIV; he became infected in the early '80s, when little or nothing was known about the disease. But he kept on dancing, in increasingly remote locations where news of his decline had not yet arrived. By the time of his farewell tour in 1991, friends had been desperate for him to retire for years, and the reviews had become brutal. When the choreographer Flemming Flindt shared an elevator with him in Copenhagen in the late '80s, he blurted out, "I saw you in Swan Lake last night. It was awful.... You can't do it anymore. You're way too old"--and then, perversely, went on to make a ballet for him. Kavanagh describes his "hunched shoulders" and "stiff, flapping arms" during his long-awaited homecoming performance at the Kirov, in 1989. The somewhat romanticized documentary Nureyev: Dancing Through Darkness includes footage from the Kirov, and it is hard to watch. Mostly, he looks terribly tired, as if each arabesque was bringing him one step closer to the grave. Nureyev was under no illusions, joking about his stiff, flattened-out back in his "arabesque canapé," but he simply could not stop dancing, fearing that the minute the lights went off he would simply cease to exist. When asked by a colleague why he still pushed himself so, he answered simply, "If I stopped dancing for a minute, I'd die."

The last phase of Nureyev's life--the death-in-life of not dancing, of advanced AIDS--could be titled "The Long Farewell," and it is one of the most moving passages in Kavanagh's book. It begins in October 1992 with the performance of his final ballet for the Paris Opera, a "brilliantly paced," lavish and triumphant production of La Bayadère (it is available on DVD). And it ends three months later, on January 6 of the following year, once again in Paris, surrounded by his devoted, self-anointed, mostly female caretakers, as friends visit his bedside one by one, taking their leave of the grand pasha. His Quai Voltaire apartment--filled with antiques, kilim rugs and his collection of academic male nudes--had become an opulent hovel, piled with dead flowers, dirty glasses, puddles of dog pee. The windows--with their magnificent view of the Seine--were caked in grime, which he refused to have cleaned, arguing, "Who needs clean windows to die?" His despair at being laid so low, and his refusal to complain about his condition, lent him a tragic grandeur that the many years of poor performances in second-rate houses had gradually scraped away. The book ends with the image of ballerinas throwing toeshoes into his grave in the Russian cemetery of Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois, outside Paris. One can't help but think that Nureyev, like his Albrecht in Giselle, would have relished the scene.

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