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.”