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Pointe Work | The Nation

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Pointe Work

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One of the pitfalls of biographical writing, it seems, is the tendency to seize the ugly side of one's subject (and what person does not have one?) and turn it into a pathology. In Greg Lawrence's 2003 biography of Jerome Robbins, Dance With Demons, the choreographer came through as a nasty, insecure paranoid; Diane Solway's otherwise highly informative 1998 biography of Rudolf Nureyev is framed by a prologue and epilogue describing the large fortune the dancer had amassed during his lifetime and his resistance to sharing it with others (including the tax man)--all true, of course. It is clearly a challenge to plunge into someone else's life; to relive it through letters, journals, police files and the reminiscences of friends; to do this over the course of years and years; and to come out on the other side with not only an encyclopedic grasp of that person's life but with the same--or greater--respect for the person, a respect that is born of knowledge, not the slavish enthusiasm of an admirer. Julie Kavanagh has done just that, and with great flair, in her massive new biography of Nureyev. She has resisted the tendency to belittle without relinquishing her clear, critical eye.

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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One could be put off by the book's length, but the truth is it doesn't really feel that long. It has its saggy bits, but most lives do too, including Nureyev's. During his years of superstardom in the mid-1960s and '70s, his relationships with people--famous friends, lovers, colleagues--became more superficial and less sincere; in some cases, the narrative drags. (I'm not sure I needed to know that Madonna wanted to hang out with him.) He also danced the same roles over and over again, on different stages. And his character hardened as well; his hunger for life, rebelliousness and drive--the qualities that made him such an irresistible force on the stage and off--were tempered with arrogance, impatience and, at times, downright nastiness.

But of course Nureyev's life was anything but dull. He had an exceptionally vivid personality--hyperactive, excessive--apparent from the very beginning. And then there is the intrinsic drama of the defining chapter of his life--his defection to the West in 1961, with all its ramifications for him, the ballet world and the people left behind. Kavanagh, who previously wrote a biography of the British choreographer Frederick Ashton, keeps her account of Nureyev's life moving with vivid prose and a talent for the informative digression. Her curiosity is wide-ranging; this is as much a cultural history and a history of ballet in the mid-twentieth century as a biography. Want to know what life was like in the remote Republic of Bashkiria, where Nureyev grew up, in the '40s? Or about the Vaganova method of ballet training, the backbone of the Kirov style? Or about Swinging London? It's all here. Kavanagh spirals into myriad variations, highly informative for the most part, but she also knows when enough is enough and it is time to return to the main theme.

Kavanagh opens the book with the breathless retelling--based on the memories of an eyewitness she discovered--of Nureyev's birth on March 17, 1938, on a train headed for Vladivostok. "Something was going on. In the corridor people were rushing back and forth talking excitedly, but no one would say what was happening. Later she noticed that next door there were sheets curtaining off the Nureyev compartment and doctors in white coats were going in and out." When Nureyev's mother, Farida, had boarded the train two weeks earlier in the Bashkiri capital of Ufa with her three daughters, she was more than eight months pregnant. She was making the long journey to join her husband, who was serving in the Red Army's Far Eastern Division. In Kavanagh's hands, the birth of Farida's fourth child--and importantly, her first and only son--reads like something out of a Russian short story, with whispers and mysterious goings-on behind quickly drawn curtains: "[Later] one or two of the women came up to the children with a large box and told them to look inside. There they saw a tiny baby swaddled tightly: 'We bought him in Ulan-Ude,' they said, laughing."

As she does elsewhere, Kavanagh allows the words of an eyewitness, or friend, or interested party, to speak for her. It is an intriguing, if somewhat tricky, technique. She weaves together the impressions of others, often--though not in this case--without identifying the person who is being quoted (their names do appear in her copious notes at the end). As a reader, one is often presented with a difficult choice: to flip back to the notes and find out who is speaking and in what context or simply to relinquish control and read on. Even so, Kavanagh manages to smooth the edges of all these interpolations, producing a harmonious whole with an internal rhythm and a clear authorial voice. But sometimes one wonders what Kavanagh herself thinks, where her opinion lies. Unlike many biographers, she is not out to prove a thesis about her subject (ah, you see, Nureyev had such a terrible temper!) but rather to give as rich an accounting as she can, integrating the voices of the people who knew him and followed his career closely. She is a generous, deeply knowledgeable and, one suspects, fair-minded narrator.

What was so special about Nureyev? Americans, especially younger Americans (like myself), are more acquainted with Baryshnikov and his altogether different gifts. Baryshnikov was a technical marvel, a model of his Leningrad ballet school training (in 1964, at the age of 16, he entered the Kirov-affiliated Vaganova academy after four years at the rigorous Riga opera ballet school) and an embodiment of the classical ideal (despite his stature). His entire body was involved in every movement, whether small or large; more important, as Kavanagh writes, in his dancing "the virtuoso steps were only transitions in an overarching dance picture." His feather-light jumps, pristine footwork and multiple turns made one gasp, and yet did not call attention to themselves; they simply seemed so easy, so obvious, the logical continuation or culmination of a phrase or an idea. There was an intrinsic purity to his movement that was the opposite of showiness. Understatement was in fact a crucial part of his brilliance. What he brought to the stage was not his personality--though star power did play an undeniable part in the thrill--but an articulated expression of the classical steps, of the music, of the dance as a whole and maybe even of the laws of physics. Seeing him, ballet made sense, even to people who thought ballet was silly.

Nureyev was an altogether different kind of dancer. Not that he was not a virtuoso. His jumps were breathtaking, even on video, reaching both enormous elevation and breadth in space but also achieving a heart-stopping slowness. He appeared to hover in midair; he collapsed space. Watching his performances in Giselle and Le Corsaire on video makes me sad not to have been there to see him perform in his prime, when his exceptionally pliant and deep plié allowed him, as Kavanagh puts it, to "rebound in space and sit there, for several seconds." (Kavanagh's descriptions of dance reveal a deep affinity for the form--she trained in ballet and has been a dance critic for the Spectator as well as the London editor of both Vanity Fair and The New Yorker. She has the knack for making you "see" what a step looked like.)

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