When Rudolf Nureyev defected from the Soviet Union in 1961, he became a legend overnight. He was a great dancer; but he was also a Russian, our Russian, and the instant he threw himself into the arms of the French authorities and declared, in English, “I would like to stay in your country,” the cultural cold war seemed for a brief moment to have been won. If Nureyev himself appeared stunned by the international media blitz that followed, gazing glassy-eyed into the flashing cameras, he adapted quickly to his new role. And this was not the last time he would touch a cultural nerve: he went on to become an avatar of 1960s style; and an exemplar of the celebrated vanity of the 1970s “Me Generation”; and an unabashed homosexual and, sadly, a victim of AIDS, which killed him in 1993 at the age of fifty-four. He did all of this while dancing—not sexy cutting-edge works, but nineteenth-century Russian classics such as Swan Lake and Giselle. Nureyev was the most unlikely of creatures: a serious classical ballet dancer who was also an international pop superstar.
Nureyev’s life story is well known; few artists have attracted such intense media scrutiny, and we have dozens of glossy picture books filled with effusive descriptions of his art. There are also several good documentary films and a number of biographies, most notably Diane Solway’s Nureyev: His Life, which appeared in 1998 and is an exhaustively researched and engaging account of his life and art. Now we have Julie Kavanagh’s much-anticipated and weighty tome. Ten years in the making, it comes stamped with officialness: this, we are told, is the “authorized” biography, the “definitive” story based on new sources and full-access interviews with Nureyev’s “inner circle.”
Kavanagh is herself something of an insider: a London-based journalist and author of a thoughtful biography of Frederick Ashton, she has spent a lifetime immersed in the society and the art of twentieth-century English ballet, where Nureyev spent the most productive years of his career. Her new book has genuine merits. Kavanagh writes fluidly and clearly, and her descriptions of Nureyev’s ballets and performances are vividly drawn. She also has a good feel (perhaps too good) for the star-studded milieu in which Nureyev moved, and in order to paint this world she has interviewed le tout London, New York, Paris, San Francisco, and St. Petersburg. To a limited extent, this copious research helps her to understand her subject. She describes very well, for example, the ambience of what the ballerina Lynn Seymour once called “Rudolf’s rich groupie set.”
But at more than seven hundred pages, Kavanagh’s book groans with unnecessary detail, much of it trivial and gossipy. Must we know every sordid detail of Nureyev’s multifarious homosexual encounters in the bars and clubs that he frequented across Europe and America? Do ad nauseam recitations of the opinions of his sycophantic fans and lavish descriptions of the lives of people such as the late Wallace Potts (lover and failed pornographic film-maker) or Jeannette Etheredge (friend and balletomane) really help us to comprehend Nureyev’s dancing? Kavanagh has done lots of research, although it should be said that much of it retraces Solway’s well-laid path. (Kavanagh even reproduces one of Solway’s chapter titles.) But she has done very little thinking. “Authorized” is no guarantee of insight, and Kavanagh’s lengthy and effusive acknowledgments are far from reassuring: she has extensive debts, many of them to Nureyev’s society-page devotees, and at times her book reads more like “Diana for dancers” than the considered biography of an art.
Although Kavanagh writes of larger historical and artistic currents (the Cold War, the 1960s), she treats them as mere background color. In her view, it is Nureyev’s tangled private life that best explains his dancing. This approach is illuminating when it comes to his troubled relationship with the Danish dancer Erik Bruhn, a man whom Nureyev truly loved and whose art was a major influence on his own dancing. But it is a strain to suggest, as Kavanagh does, that Nureyev’s ardor for Bruhn also explains his passionate stage partnership with Margot Fonteyn. Nureyev was not always performing his sex life. Sometimes he was just dancing, and Kavanagh badly underestimates the capacity of art to be its own cause.
Nor is it right to portray Nureyev, as Kavanagh finally does, as a poor Tatar peasant made good and “freed” from Soviet clutches by the West—a headstrong artist “crashing” down barriers and re-inventing his art. As her own evidence often suggests, Nureyev’s story was not at all the triumphant Cold War fable beloved of the media. On the contrary, it was testimony to the psychological and artistic scars inflicted by defection and exile—but also by freedom and fame. Defection set Nureyev free, but it destroyed his life and his dancing.
Rudolf Nureyev was born on a train bound for Vladivostok in 1938, at the height of Stalin’s Terror. But his parents were on the “right” side: his father, Hamet Fasliyevich Nureyev, was a member of the Communist Party and a senior politruk in the Red Army, responsible for the political education of soldiers—a man (as Kavanagh points out) who benefited from Stalin’s brutal purge of the army elite. As the upper echelons thinned, Hamet moved up. Indeed, Nureyev’s parents were a classic Soviet “success” story. His father came from a religious Muslim family (his own father was a mullah) and attended a clerical school, where he learned to read and write Arabic, Tatar, and Russian. After the revolution, when religion was suppressed, he went to cavalry school in Kazan, joined the party, and began a military career. Nureyev’s mother, Farida Agilivulyevna, was also a Tatar who read and wrote Arabic. (When she later wrote to Nureyev in the West, she did so in Arabic, and he needed a translator). By the time she married Hamet in the late 1920s, he had risen to the rank of junior officer. When Stalin launched his murderous campaign to collectivize agriculture, Hamet was on the front line.
Kavanagh is not very interested in what Hamet did during these years. (She credulously quotes an old Stalinist who assures her that Hamet was a nice guy.) Solway’s more skeptical and historically informed account is a better guide. As she suggests, Hamet had to have been politically astute (at the very least) to survive both the collectivization and the Terror. Promotions followed, and in 1939 the family moved to Moscow, where Hamet taught at a prestigious artillery school. Two years later he was sent to the Western front, and subsequently promoted to the rank of major and decorated. Yet this did not help his family, who fled Moscow as the Germans approached and settled in Ufa, the capital of Bashkiria, where they survived the war in penury. These were Nureyev’s hungry “potato years.”
After the war Hamet was retired from his duties, and he returned to his family. He continued to wear his Red Army uniform, though, and remained involved in local party politics. It was a sign of his good standing that he eventually became head of security at a local factory. Nureyev was thus raised in an ideologically committed Stalinist family with deep, if repressed, roots in Tatar and Muslim culture; and he grew up during the war—the “Great Patriotic War”—when hardship and sacrifice deepened patriotism and tied people like his parents ever more closely to the Russian homeland, and also to the Soviet regime. It is no accident that until the end of his life he felt an almost Dostoyevskian passion for his Russian and Tatar roots, and for his own bleak but emotionally laden childhood.
It is often said that Nureyev had poor dance training before he finally found his way to the Kirov Ballet’s renowned Vaganova School at the late (for a dancer) age of seventeen. But considering that he grew up in a provincial capital some eight hundred miles east of Moscow, it is striking just how good his training was. Nureyev began dancing during the war with the Pioneers, a communist youth group, where he was taught Bashkirian and Tatar folk dances. The Pioneers performed in hospitals and for wounded soldiers, and toured the provinces, setting up makeshift stages out of the back of a truck. Moreover, as part of the ideological program to promote “national” cultures and to bring art to the outlying provinces in the 1930s, Ufa had been given an opera house, and from 1941 the theater also boasted a permanent ballet company, stocked in part with dancers trained in Leningrad. This is where Nureyev saw his first ballet performance.
Ufa was also home to former imperial artists exiled from Leningrad, including Nureyev’s first ballet teachers: Anna Ivanovna Udeltsova, who had danced with Pavlova and with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes, and Elena Konstantinovna Voitovich, who had began her dancing career under the czar and left Leningrad for Ufa just before the war. She lived with her mother, formerly a lady-in-waiting at court, who loved to serve the boy Nureyev tea with pots of jam, imperial style. These women did not just teach Nureyev to dance, they also regaled him with stories of pre-revolutionary Russia and even, Kavanagh reports, with tales of the young Georgi Balanchivadze, later known as George Balanchine.
Nureyev made his way to Leningrad in 1955, two years after Stalin’s death, at the outset of Khrushchev’s “thaw,” when restrictions on cultural life were briefly relaxed. He was intellectually voracious. He read literature, collected musical scores, practiced the piano, and spent long evenings with scientist and literary friends. He visited Leningrad’s art galleries and palaces, studied Impressionist and Italian Renaissance paintings, and went to the theater almost nightly—not just ballet but anything, no matter (Solway tells us) how dull or agitprop: “I don’t care what they are saying, I’m only interested in their technique.” Kavanagh and Solway both paint a sympathetic picture of this period in Nureyev’s life, and in this young Nureyev we find few signs of the hard cynicism, the desperation for money and fame, that came later. He was too busy with ideas and art.
And, of course, with classical ballet. At the Vaganova School, Nureyev was trained by Alexander Pushkin (1907- 1970), who would later teach Mikhail Baryshnikov. Pushkin was like a father to both men, and under his wing Nureyev worked very hard: he was older and less advanced than the other students—most had been meticulously trained from the age of nine or ten—and driven to catch up. He was painfully aware that his unformed and folk-dance-tinged movements contrasted sharply with the Kirov’s refined Russian classicism, and he often returned to the studio late at night to perfect a step or a pose. His insecurity was deepened by his provincial origins: he saw himself as a perennial outsider, and indeed as a Tatar he was housed separately with other non-Russian students from East Germany, Romania, and Finland.
But his talent was impossible to ignore, and after just three years Nureyev was invited to join the Kirov Ballet as a soloist. Since Stalin’s death, the company had been in a state of creative flux, and a new generation of artists had come to the fore. Choreographers such as Igor Belsky and Yuri Grigorovich were making new work, and older artists who had been marginalized for ideological reasons re-emerged, most notably Leonid Jakobson. Whatever we think of their ballets now (and many of them were pretty awful), it is important to recognize that these were serious artists and not merely ideological puppets. Artistic life at the Kirov was constrained, but it was not dead, and in a variety of ways these ballet masters were attempting to challenge and to build on the legacy of the Socialist Realist drambalet. Their dances were melodramatic and often lavishly produced; and Nureyev especially admired Grigorovich, with whom he worked closely on Legend of Love (1961).
Nureyev made his name, however, in the show-stopping bravura pas de deux from Le Corsaire and in an old heroic drambalet called Laurencia (first performed in 1939) about a peasant uprising in Castile. Both were choreographed by the charismatic Soviet dancer Vakhtang Chaboukiani, whose physically intense and fervent dancing opened the way for Nureyev. Indeed, tapes of Nureyev’s early dancing—including one extraordinary clip of him performing as a young teenager, discovered by Kavanagh and excerpted in the Great Performances documentary Nureyev: The Russian Years—show that the qualities that would later galvanize audiences in the West were all there from the start: the long, fully extended legs greedily devouring space, the wide-open 180-degree turnout in the hips and legs, and the ornamented, slightly exotic hands flickering and trailing after the movement.
Kavanagh explains how Nureyev also copied poses from pictures of Western dancers, and how he insisted on dancing on a very high half-toe, giving his movements a lithe and almost androgynous look. Above all, these films reveal the large and free-spirited openness of Nureyev’s dancing. Kavanagh quotes Frederick Ashton as later saying that Nureyev had a “marvelous engine inside him, like a Rolls-Royce,” and we can see the point: at times Nureyev almost knocks himself over with his own physical power, as if the man barely knew the measure of his own machine.
Kavanagh argues, rather strangely, that Nureyev became a “messiah of pure classicism,” and she dotes on his “genuine Maryinsky schooling,” hailing him as the “rightful heir” to his teacher Pushkin. This is deeply misleading. It is fashionable these days to portray Pushkin as a paragon of classicism and a direct link to the pre-revolutionary imperial school of Marius Petipa, the creator of Swan Lake (with Lev Ivanov), La Bayadere, and The Sleeping Beauty—thus conveniently erasing any sign of tainted Soviet influences. But Pushkin came of age after the Russian Revolution, and worked closely with the teacher and pedagogue Agrippina Vaganova, who developed and articulated her own school of ballet in the years after the revolution, continuing until her death in 1951. This school was indeed classical—and the Soviets supported it for the same reasons they adored the nineteenth-century poet Pushkin (no relation)—but many of its male dancers also had a more Soviet-style physicality, rooted in an ideologically inspired exaltation of labor and masculine virility. Nureyev had that intensity and zeal, and he got it back in (and from) the USSR.
Why did Nureyev defect? His confrontations with the Soviet authorities were certainly a factor. He went out of his way to meet Western artists, pored over foreign books and pirated ballet tapes, took English lessons, and refused to join Komsomol, the party youth organization. He was duly punished—dispatched on demoralizing bus tours and grounded from trips abroad. He took his revenge on stage. In 1960, he was kept back from a trip to Egypt and exasperated the prudish Soviet authorities (who held the curtain for over an hour) by refusing to wear the customary modest, loosefitting pants for the last act of Don Quixote. “In the West they’ve been dancing in tights for years, and so will I. What do I need these lampshades for?”
Kavanagh acknowledges all of this, but she also believes that Nureyev was primed to defect by an East German boyfriend who (she says) planted the idea in his head. She also suggests that Nureyev was driven out by the smothering relationship that had developed with Pushkin’s wife Xenia. (Nureyev lived for a time with the Pushkins in their one-room apartment, and Xenia seduced him.) Even more importantly, she claims, Nureyev was pushed by “the realization that he would never be free to follow his true sexual instincts.”
This rings false. Nureyev had no way to know that his sex life would be any freer in the West. Indeed, homosexual intercourse was illegal in many Western European countries at the time, and carried a heavy prison sentence. Nor is there evidence that he was as yet sexually predatory in the ways he would later become. “Sexual liberation” smells more like a reading imposed by post-Stonewall boyfriends in New York and London. The East German boyfriend is Kavanagh’s biggest “discovery,” and I think she rather exaggerates his importance (he gets a whole chapter). She tells us, for example, that in 1960 he made a film which was an “extraordinary prophetic enactment of Rudolf’s defection.” In the film, Nureyev walks up the steps of the Neva embankment and turns to look back; he sits on a train alone and thinks of images of Leningrad friends and past performances; and then, in what Kavanagh calls a “potent image of solitary flight,” he skates off alone into the sunset. That’s it. Nothing more. Kavanagh’s romanticized gay-liberation and lone-cowboy speculations are harmless enough, but they do rather distract from the real pressures that Nureyev faced in 1961 at Le Bourget Airport in Paris.
Nureyev defected because he was forced to defect. He did not plan it, and he was as shocked as anyone when it happened. The Kirov was on tour to Western Europe—for the first time ever—and the trip represented an important cultural and political rapprochement. In 1956, Moscow’s Bolshoi Ballet had won over audiences in London, but a reciprocal Royal Ballet tour to the Soviet Union had been abruptly canceled in the wake of the Hungarian revolution. The Bolshoi had performed in the United States in 1959, and American Ballet Theater had gone to the USSR the following year. The Kirov tour in 1961 was thus symbolically charged, and Nureyev was its undisputed star. As usual, however, he misbehaved: evading his KGB “escorts,” he broke from the official group, made friends with French dancers and artists, and routinely stayed out all night. Impatient to take in every possible new experience, he banked on his tremendous public acclaim: to sideline him would have unleashed a damaging international outcry. They wouldn’t dare.
But they did dare. When the Kirov company arrived at the airport en route to London, Nureyev was held back. Under personal orders from Khrushchev, he was told, he would be returning to Moscow for a special performance. Besides, his mother was sick. At this point, Nureyev knew he had lost. Upon return to the Soviet Union, he could expect (at best) banishment to some remote province, no future travel, and a life of artistic and financial penury, hounded by the KGB. There was a precedent: the dancer Valery Panov, his contemporary, had been sent home from a foreign tour under a similar pretext and severely punished. Nureyev was disconsolate; he banged his head against the wall, cried, and refused to be separated from his French friends. As luck would have it, one of the friends he had made in Paris was Clara Saint, fiancee to the son of Andre Malraux, the minister of culture in de Gaulle’s government. She rushed to the airport and secured the help of the French authorities (one of whom, Solway later discovered, was a White Russian emigre himself). Overwhelmed and desperate, Nureyev asked for asylum, and the French police took him into protective custody.
Was Nureyev’s life in the West a success? Kavanagh has no doubt: the bird was out of the cage and spread his wings. Indeed, just months after his defection, Ashton created a solo for the dancer to music by Scriabin (Nureyev chose the score) titled Poeme tragique. Performed in London, it was a sensation. Bare-chested, with a red and white scarf slung over his body, Nureyev tore across the stage (in the words of Cecil Beaton) like “a savage young creature, half naked, rushing with wild eyes on an ecstatic, gaunt face, and a long mop of flying, silk hair.” His debut at the Royal Ballet in Giselle with Margot Fonteyn the following year was oversubscribed by 70,000 people. (It is worth recalling, though, that Nureyev did not single-handedly launch this ballet fever: when the Bolshoi Ballet was in New York that same year, fans queued for fifty-three hours to get into the theater.) At first Nureyev was circumspect about the media hype. He found the reporters intrusive—“In Russia,” he sardonically observed, “only the secret police does this.” When Richard Avedon got him drunk and photographed him dancing in the nude, Nureyev appeared at his door the next day and demanded the negatives: “I’ve left Russia—that in itself is a scandal. Now I’m doing exactly what they expect of me.”
But by 1965 he had forgotten all that, and Kavanagh cheerfully reports that “life for Nureyev had never been so much fun.” He drove a Karmann Ghia sports car and appeared on the cover of Men in Vogue (in bathing trunks). He danced on television and wore crocodile leather and platform boots; he boogied with Elizabeth Taylor at the Dorchester; and his performances were so wildly popular that the police had to be summoned to control the crowds. Jackie Kennedy flew Fonteyn and Nureyev in a private plane to Washington to perform and take tea at the White House. Mick Jagger was also a fan, and Nureyev mixed with a jet-set crowd of partying fashion and media types. He was taken up by the rich and famous. (Marie-Helene de Rothschild was sure he was “quasi ivine.”) Sex, mostly homosexual, was a big theme: he “cruised” almost nightly, and in the 1970s he was a regular at London and New York bathhouses such as the Everard (“Ever Hard”). None of this is especially endearing. Nureyev was often extravagantly crass and narcissistic, and he had appalling taste. He thought nothing of disappearing from an intimate dinner party with friends for a quick thump upstairs. (Margot Fonteyn: “Was it nice?”) By the early 1990s he owned seven homes and was worth more than $20 million.
Nureyev’s high-flying lifestyle masked a web of destructive impulses and debilitating fears. He was haunted by the idea that the KGB would get him (and there were plans to break his legs and destroy his career), and he knew very well that family and friends back in the Soviet Union were being punished for his defiance. For the rest of his life he harbored a consuming desire to throw his success in the face of the Soviet authorities—to do, and with a vengeance, “exactly what they expect of me.” When a friend traveled to Russia in 1971, Nureyev asked her to deliver expensive fur coats and evening gowns to his mother and family in Ufa—not for them, but (as the friend recalled) to “show the Soviets his worth.” At unguarded moments Nureyev admitted that he was desperately lonely. He never fully mastered English, but neither did he spend much time with other Russian artists or emigres (he even shied from speaking his native tongue to Russian restaurant waiters, embarrassed by his provincial accent), preferring instead to forge ahead with a trail of adoring fans in tow. It was a linguistically and emotionally constricted life that contrasts painfully with the more open and personal relationships that he seems to have had in his Leningrad years. And if the Western press held Nureyev up as an exemplar of sexual and sartorial “liberation,” they were in part missing the point: his profligacy was also tied to vengeance, fear, and what Ninette de Valois (a sturdy Irishwoman and founder of the Royal Ballet) called “the hysterical effect of freedom.”
Things were no easier when it came to dancing. Soon after his defection, Nureyev sought out the Danish dancer Erik Bruhn, one of the great ballet classicists of the twentieth century. Bruhn’s dancing was elegant and refined, and his great achievement was to fuse “high” classical ballet with a contemporary European taste for expressionism in dance. Bruhn was capable of reaching dramatic heights without resorting to melodrama: even if he was dancing the role of a butler (as he did in the ballet Miss Julie, based on Strindberg’s play), he drew the role up, elevating it with a finely honed dance-prose. Nureyev had idolized Bruhn (who was ten years older) for years, and the two men fell in love. Indeed, Bruhn seems to have been the only man that Nureyev truly loved. Kavanagh skillfully shows how their difficult emotional relationship was anchored in Nureyev’s jealous admiration of Bruhn’s dancing—and in Bruhn’s painful decline as he fell into the shadow of Nureyev’s celebrity. Nureyev desperately wanted to learn from Bruhn, but something in him resisted. He found Danish ballet “quite dull, very dry, very small, rather empty”; and although he knew that Bruhn had a more sophisticated technique, he couldn’t help but cling to his Soviet training. It was deeply ironic: in Leningrad, Nureyev had set his compass by Bruhn and Western “innovation,” but after he defected he reverted increasingly to what he thought of as an authoritative Kirov style.
Here we come to the crux of the matter. It is often taken for granted that Nureyev mattered because he was simply the best male dancer in the world. This was not so. Bruhn and others were more skilled and interesting artists. Nureyev was important because his life and art intersected at a sharp angle with history: when he defected he had greatness thrust upon him, and from that point forth his dancing seemed to hold within it the paradoxes and the tensions of his age. Consider his legendary partnership with Margot Fonteyn in the 1960s. At first glance, they seemed an unlikely match: he was twenty-four and had a sweeping Soviet style, she was forty-three and a paragon of prim English restraint. Their “chemistry” has often been explained by sex—that they had it, wanted it, or suppressed it—and Kavanagh ecstatically describes the sexual “frisson” between them in an early film of Giselle: “she watches him lie panting on his back, his hand stroking down his chest and hovering for a fraction of a second above the swell in his ‘so-white, so-tight’ tights.”
But this kind of florid orgasmic explanation is redundant. Fonteyn and Nureyev stood for something much larger. In their dancing, East met West: his campy sexuality and exoticism (heavy make-up with teased and lacquered hair) highlighted and offset her impeccable bourgeois taste. Nureyev played his role to almost humiliating perfection. Even in the most classical of dances, he flirted with the image of a virile Asian potentate (with a harem of fans), and his unrestrained sensuality and “tiger-like” movements recalled a cliched Russian orientalism (first exploited by Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes) that was itself linked to the escapist fantasies of the 1960s middleclass youth: Eastern mysticism, revolution, sex, and drugs.
But Nureyev was at the same time held up as an anti-Soviet defector and a symbol of capitalist superiority over the communist East—because he had left the Soviet Union, but also because of the way he moved. His natural charisma and “hungry” free-spirited movements—accentuated by his “liberated” lifestyle—were easy to read as a ringing affirmation of freedom and unbridled individualism: here, in the West, the once-repressed Nureyev could finally let go and really dance. Incredibly, Nureyev’s unbound physicality seemed to transform the formal nineteenthcentury look of classical ballet into a stylistic affirmation of “let it all hang out.”
The East was one thing, but age was another. Nureyev had a gorgeous, youthful physique, but Fonteyn was old enough to be his mother—and although her technique was still impressive, she looked her age. Yet this was not a strike against her: as Fonteyn’s “proper” 1950s woman fell into the arms of Nureyev’s “New Man,” the generation gap seemed to melt away. Class also played a role, with the regal Fonteyn slumming in Le Corsaire with (as one critic put it) Nureyev’s “great Moslem whore.” Not everyone was happy with the result. A prominent American critic lamented that Fonteyn had gone “to the grand ball with a gigolo.” Not that Nureyev was disrespectful. Indeed, when he partnered Fonteyn, he did so with perfect nineteenth-century manners. To the British in particular, this mattered a great deal. Fonteyn was “like the Queen,” and during the curtain call of their first performance of Giselle, Nureyev accepted a rose from Fonteyn and then fell to his knee at her feet. The audience went wild.
But there was more. Fonteyn may have been a foil to Nureyev’s wild child, but she was no shrinking violet herself. She was a gutsy dancer and a steely competitor. Even Nureyev was amazed by her newfound abandon: “Margot throw herself—God knows where—and I have to wrestle.” And for all his daring and “animal” magnetism, Nureyev was quite conservative. He was more at ease in the nineteenth-century classics than in modern works—and Fonteyn had grown up with them, too. Thus it was not just that Nureyev made Fonteyn young again; they also stayed old together. As ballet in New York and London turned in more experimental directions, Fonteyn and Nureyev danced “the classics” over and again. Together they helped to make ballet a newly popular mass art, and they did it, paradoxically, by living in the past.
Even in their decline, Fonteyn and Nureyev seemed to catch the spirit of their times. In 1969, Fonteyn turned fifty. Her technique was deteriorating, and her once-lithe femininity was losing its substance. Nureyev was still strong, but his dancing was also on the wane. The touch of youth and authenticity was gone: his makeup grew heavier, and his performances took on an air of forced vitality that seemed to mirror the more staid and derivative fashions of the 1970s. Celebrity substituted increasingly for art—as Nureyev’s disastrous portrayal of the lead in Valentino, Ken Russell’s campy film, attests. Fonteyn retired gently from the stage, gradually removing herself with dignity. For Nureyev, things were different. The 1970s were troubled and difficult years, a sign of the tremendous psychological and emotional deficit he had been running all along.
Fonteyn once observed that at times Nureyev looked like a “little boy lost,” and she was not wrong. He could be impossibly rude and bombastic, and it is hard to sympathize with his egregious and often abusive behavior—but we should not forget how ill-equipped he was for the role that history assigned to him. After all, he was a poorly educated dancer from a provincial Tatar outpost, and a child of Stalin. And he was alone, the only Soviet dancer of his generation to defect to the West. Cut off from everything he knew, he tried desperately, instinctively, to become what the West—and the burgeoning media—wanted him to be. But the price was high: he ricocheted from media to stage, dissipating his talent until it was finally exhausted. The horrendous and pathetic stories that fill the latter chapters of Kavanagh’s book make the point poignantly. We see the man wasting and damaged, and utterly incapable of reflecting on his own life or dancing.
The artistic consequences were devastating. Nureyev thought of himself as a serious and forward-looking artist, eager to strike out in new directions. He often said he had defected in order to perform new works, especially the ballets of Balanchine. But others knew better. In 1962, Nureyev approached Balanchine, making it known that he hoped to spend two months a year working with the iconoclastic choreographer’s New York City Ballet (“just for myself to learn the choreography”) and the rest of the year with Fonteyn in London. Balanchine told him to come back when he was “tired of playing at being a prince”—by which he meant Swan Lake, but also Nureyev’s monolithic ego and his blind adherence to an old-fashioned Romantic style of dance.
Kavanagh believes that there was a “conspiracy” behind Balanchine’s rejection of Nureyev, and she offers a confused and implausible story of backroom pressure placed on Balanchine by Lincoln Kirstein and the “pro-Soviet” Times critic John Martin, although she finally and reluctantly concedes that Balanchine had his own reasons for turning Nureyev away. Indeed he did. Nureyev and Balanchine were located at opposite poles of twentieth-century art, and Nureyev was everything Balanchine was against in ballet: ego, melodrama, bravura. As Balanchine himself later reflected, Nureyev was “a one-man show, I, me, a beautiful man, alone.... Frankly we don’t need this.” The astonishing thing about their encounters—Nureyev approached Balanchine several times and the two men worked together only once, briefly—is not that Balanchine “rejected” Nureyev, but that Nureyev could not appreciate the chasm separating his own lavishly dramatic and narcissistic performing style from the rigorous modernism and complicated romanticism of Balanchine’s ballets, from Apollo and Agon to Liebeslieder Walzer.
Balanchine was not the only one. Nureyev was repeatedly turned down by the best and most serious choreographers in Western Europe and America, including Frederick Ashton and Kenneth MacMillan at the Royal Ballet. Ashton made only three ballets for the dancer (“you don’t put yourself in my hands”), and MacMillan, who was after a gritty realism, had no use for Nureyev’s diva personality and old-fashioned brio. Jerome Robbins worked with Nureyev only once, in a restaging of Dances at a Gathering. And the list of the choreographers who were interested in working with Nureyev is equally revealing. There was Maurice Bejart, who created large and pretentious extravaganzas about (as one critic put it) “the sincerity of insincerity.” (His fans wore buttons that proclaimed “Bejart is sexier.”) Or Roland Petit, who created Paradise Lost for Fonteyn and Nureyev in 1967: a pop-art puff piece with flashing lights, white vinyl miniskirts and a backdrop of huge red lips through which Nureyev, scantily clad, plunged—”the kind of thing,” Fonteyn dryly remarked, “that really only happens in French ballets.”
Kavanagh insists that even if Nureyev was sidelined by the best ballet choreographers, he “crashed” down the barriers between classical dance and modern dance and pushed both forms in bold new directions. Well, it is true that Nureyev worked with Paul Taylor, Rudi van Dantzig, Martha Graham, and others, but most of those artists (as Kavanagh concedes) commented on his stubborn unwillingness to absorb their styles. He was, as Baryshnikov later put it, “a great faker.” The truth is that Nureyev never really moved on from the Russian classics that he learned in Leningrad. Even when he “updated” and modernized them—which he often did—he usually took the Kirov versions as gospel. When he staged the “shades” scene from La Bayadere for the Royal Ballet, he worked from memory and from step-by-step notes transcribed for him by the Pushkins in Leningrad; and in 1966 the couple filmed the Kirov’s colorful Don Quixote and smuggled the tape to Nureyev, who used it when mounting his own version. He also created original dances and ballets, but his taste veered toward grandiose and pseudo-psychological themes. In fact, his productions closely echoed those Yuri Grigorovich was making for the Bolshoi in Moscow.
In 1983, however, Nureyev finally found an artistic home: he was appointed director of the Paris Opera Ballet. François Mitterrand and his Socialist Party had come to power two years earlier, and the new culture minister, Jack Lang, had a taste for celebrity, and also hoped to “democratize” the arts. To this end, he expanded the traditional definition of art to include fashion, popular music, and other creative endeavors. (He was dubbed the “Minister of Desire.”) Nureyev’s blockbuster classics and pop-star fame seemed a natural fit. The Paris Opera Ballet had an entrenched hierarchy, and had not been a major center of classical dance for well over a hundred years—and Nureyev came in swinging. Although his reign was fraught with scandal and controversy—he hogged most of the male leads for himself and absented himself for months at a time to perform elsewhere—he nonetheless successfully expanded the company’s repertory and promoted a new generation of stars, most notably Sylvie Guillem, whose diva performing style and physical distortions recall those of her mentor.
By this time Nureyev was HIV positive, and the last decade of his life makes sad reading. As his body weakened from sickness and age, his dancing declined to an embarrassingly low level, but he resolutely refused to retire from performing. When the Soviet Union fell, Nureyev returned to the Kirov to dance, even though he was practically crippled with injury and exhaustion: “I’ve got to dance on this stage.” In the West he continued to perform, knowing full well that he had become a parody of himself: unable any longer to play the prince, he settled for the clown. When he could no longer haul himself on stage to dance, he took up conducting. Trading on his celebrity, he managed to perform with several leading orchestras—re-enacting, in another key, the epic physical drama that had sustained his career. By the end he was an empty shell of a man, a disembodied ego prematurely aged and physically defeated.
Today, fourteen years after his death and several decades after his best performances, Nureyev’s dancing has faded from memory. All that remains are a few videotapes and a mountain of carefully posed photographs. Yet his career is not likely to be forgotten—not because of the sex and fame, but because he was the first dancer to pitch his talent against the Soviet state and live out the consequences. Unfortunately, by focusing so hard on Nureyev’s private life, Julie Kavanagh has not taken us any closer to the truth about why he mattered. Instead she reduces his art to the tedious and sordid details of his life. The people who “authorized” her book got what they asked for. The rest of us will wonder why we should care.