March 17, 1938– Рудо́льф Хаме́тович Нуре́ев
I remember my mother sitting me down on an early summer day in 1961 and explaining who he was and why he was famous when he defected from the USSR. If Rudolf Nureyev’s story had already been made in to a film, it probably would have been a preposterously pedantic piece directed by Ken Russell. It would be dismissed as unbelievable as fiction. It’s still difficult to fathom that it actually happened.
Nureyev grew up in the USSR, in extreme poverty during WW II, and yet, somehow he had this sterling single-mindedness of spirit and strength to get himself out of his small town and flee to the West. Nureyev played a role in so many of the major historical and cultural events of the 20th century; his life was absolutely Forrest Gump-ian.
I knew and understood who he was when I was just a kid, and his image was seared into my teenage consciousness by a photo on the cover of After Dark Magazine (You kids probably don’t remember After Dark. It was the best friend a boy in the closet could ever have).
Nureyev was the friend (and possibly lover) to Jackie Kennedy Onassis, Mick Jagger, Marianne Faithful, Andy Warhol, Freddie Mercury, Bobby Kennedy, and Madonna. Soviet Prime Minister Leonid Brezhnev personally tried to thwart his career. He was the very pretty face of the Cold War, an icon of the 1960’s sexual revolution, and a representative of the new popularization of celebrity personality as high culture. He was lordly, lusty, obsessive and opinionated. Nureyev was one of the 20th century’s true geniuses and the life he lived is a record of that era.
Nureyev consorted with both royalty and with gay hustlers. He was a dancing contradiction: defiant of authority, but an unmatched disciplinarian in the studio, needy and nonchalant, pious and promiscuous, cruel and charitable.
Nureyev had an intimate, intriguing, tumultuous affair with Erik Bruhn, the very beautiful blond Danish ballet star a decade older than Nureyev. He remained the great love of Nureyev’s life even after their relationship ended.
Back in the aughts, I supervised fifteen 20-30-year-olds, several who were gay, and when I tried to explain what he meant to our culture, not one of them had even heard of Nureyev. Crazy, because it was just a few decades ago that he was everywhere, but now he seems nearly forgotten, probably because dance is that most ephemeral of art forms.
Thousands of screaming fans used to wait for him at the stage door after his performances. Nureyev was on the cover of Newsweek and Time Magazine and in the same week! Like Russian Vaslav Nijinsky (1889-1950), he was both a dance star and a pop star.
A film of his life must feature a spectacular suspense sequence: While dancing with the Kirov Ballet, Russia’s Communist Party and the KGB didn’t trust Nureyev’s political loyalty, plus he angered them by associating too freely with Westerners while the Kirov Ballet was on tours. He was at Paris’ Le Bourget airport with the Kirov Ballet, ready to fly with them to London, when he learned that he was suddenly being summoned back to the USSR. Flanked by KGB agents, Nureyev made an urgent appeal for help to a Paris friend, Pierre Lacotte. Lacotte brought in another friend, Clara Saint (these names aren’t fiction), who rushed to the airport. Posing as an adoring girlfriend, she convinced the KGB agents to let her say goodbye to Nureyev.
While kissing his cheeks, she whispered the plan into his ear. Then she rushed away and got the French airport police, telling them that a famous Russian dancer wanted to stay in France. The police agreed to protect Nureyev if he could get away from the KGB and into their custody. They accompanied Saint into the airport bar where the KGB was guarding Nureyev. She approached him one last time, whispering that he needed to get to the police across the room. Nureyev bolted from his chair and did a Grand Jeté to the bar, a distance of a few yards. He yelled: “I want to stay in France!!!”. The KGB agents lunged after him. The Paris police, as promised, protected him.
At just 23-years-old, his literal leap to freedom made Nureyev world famous, but his true stardom came from his impassioned, impetuous, impulsive, inspiring, intense dancing. Male ballet dancers in that era were virile and vigorous, but they were deferential to their female partners.
His most famous partner was English ballerina Margot Fonteyn, who was 20 years older. Their partnerships at the Royal Ballet were breathtaking. They first appeared together in Marguerite And Armand, with music from Franz Liszt’s Piano Sonata In B Minor. It took the dance world by storm and became their signature piece. They were such a hit that artistic director Kenneth MacMillan chose to bump favorite dancers Lynn Seymour and Christopher Gable from the premiere of his new Romeo And Juliet, so the new partners could star with their box-office clout. Their performances were filmed and televised around the globe, and brought Nureyev a wider popular audience than any dancer before or since.
Nureyev, who, as a poverty-stricken boy, had danced barefoot to folk music, transformed the role of the male ballet dancer through sheer dramatic energy and passion. He gave his audiences animal attraction, allure, and astonishing sexuality onstage. Lithe and strong, sometimes the embodiment of grace and romance, and other times panther-like, he demonstrated that classical ballet could be experienced as dangerous and daring. As a young gay guy, I was cold-cocked and riveted by Nureyev’s hip, flamboyant charms.
“Give your insides! Blood! Perhaps something is dull? Do something about it. Gamble. Make the performance pulsate! Isn’t everything that?”
“The main thing is dancing, and before it withers away from my body, I will keep dancing till the last moment, the last drop.”
After Fonteyn retired, Nureyev left the Royal Ballet and became a guest dancer and choreographer for ballet companies around the world. He became director of the Paris Opera Ballet in the prime of his professional life. Nureyev was still a phenomenon.
But, in 1989, he toured North America for six months in a revival of the musical The King And I. Of the role of the King, Nureyev said:
“He is a disagreeable character who has unlimited power. I love absolute power. The King is inquisitive by nature, he wants to learn, and he’s got a lot of good points.”
Nureyev received less than enthusiastic reviews, but still much love from the audiences. He had already begun a physical decline that couldn’t be explained for a man noted for his strength and stamina. All the willpower, all the emotional energy, went into his performance, but it left him exhausted. No one knew that he had tested positive for HIV in 1984. For years he simply denied that anything was wrong with his health. But, by the time of The King And I his diminished capabilities disappointed his fans who had fond memories of his outstanding prowess and skill.
He had always enjoyed a robust sex life, with plenty of bathhouse visits and anonymous pickups. He expressed his feelings when he was dancing, masked his real emotions with a coarse indifference when he wasn’t on stage. Maybe, being promiscuous made it easier for him. Despite the many lovers, Nureyev’s most impassioned relationship was with Fonteyn. She reached a buried reserve of love and sympathy in Nureyev that no one else could. In February 1991, Fonteyn was taken by cancer at 71-years-old. Nureyev mused:
”Perhaps I should have married Margot…”
In 1990, he decided on a new career as an orchestra conductor, having been advised by Leonard Bernstein that conductors were long-lived. In autumn 1991, Nureyev was profoundly ill. He suffered a viral infection and nearly died, but his doctors put him on his feet to conduct Prokofiev’s Romeo And Juliet at New York’s Metropolitan Opera in May 1992. Invigorated by its success, he returned to Paris in October to conduct La Bayadere for the Paris Opera Ballet. He could no longer stand, so he directed from a divan at the side of the stage. At the end of the evening, he summoned up all of his strength to stand on stage to receive a tumultuous ovation. It was his last public appearance. Three months later he was gone. He was just 54-years-old. Newsweek Magazine ran its second Nureyev cover with the headline: “AIDS And The Arts: A Lost Generation.”