Pointe Work

Pointe Work

Nureyev: The Life brings new focus to an iconic figure of modern ballet.


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.

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.)

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.

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.)

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.

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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