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'Nureyev: the Life'

by Julie Kavanagh

reviewed by Leland Windreich

November 2007

In her bibliography appended to this new study of Rudolf Nureyev, author Julie Kavanagh lists 33 books already published about her subject.  The majority are biographical and in the English language, and their content ranges from the romantic, guarded statement made by the dancer himself in an “Autobiography” issued in1962 when his English was barely rudimentary (it was actually ghost-written by Nureyev’s English mentors, Nigel and Maude Gosling) to Otis Stuart’s flamboyant 1995 “Perpetual Motion”, which dwells largely on the dancer’s sexual shenanigans in New York’s gay establishments during his mature years.

Diane Solway came out with a bulky 625-page study in 1998 called “Nureyev: his Life”, inspired by the release of secret KGB files on Nureyev in Russia, which she investigated generously. So do we need still another assessment of Nureyev’s colorful time on earth?  Julie Kavanagh seems to think so.  Her work took ten years.

Not to be deterred, Kavanagh gained access to intimate papers and diaries: an ongoing chronicle of Nureyev’s personal activities as observed by Nigel Gosling, a diary of critic Richard Buckle, and a collection of love letters to the dancer from Erik Bruhn which was previously thought to have been destroyed.   She started research for the Nureyev book when her penetrating biography of Frederick Ashton (“Secret Muses”) was hot off the press, and employed many of her investigative techniques and all of her frankness in retrieving and presenting her data.  Literally hundreds of people were interviewed and thanked for the information they provided—often no more than a casual observation.

The style and content of the book is in keeping with her handling of the Ashton story. All the warts and wrinkles are displayed along with the facts, observations and gossip relating to the professional life. The superstar biography has undergone a dramatic change since the days when John Gruen wrote his vanilla study of Erik Bruhn in 1979, and Margot Fonteyn offered her witty but antiseptic account of her own life (1976). Both dancers are key figures in any story about Nureyev, and Kavanagh presents them as almost equal protagonists, never hesitating to reveal their weaknesses and foibles.

Nureyev comes across as pure id almost from the start. After presenting eye-witness confirmation from his sister Rosa that Rudolf was indeed born on an eastbound train on the shores of Lake Baikal, the author skims his early years lightly but long enough to establish his identity as a young man with a destiny.  His tendency to behave according to his own motivation began early, and by the time he had established a goal to become a great ballet dancer, he was no stranger to breaking rules in a repressive and punitive society.

At the Vaganova school in Leningrad, he drove himself mercilessly to overcome the handicaps of a late starting age and a body which lacked a traditional classical line.  His dedication resulted in an approach to dancing which might be compared to an explosion.  Audiences in the U.S.S.R. responded with passion.  Because of his arrogance and disobedience, he was monitored closely during the Kirov tours to Vienna and the Near East and was almost left in Russia prior to the company’s Paris season in 1961.  It was there that he openly defied authorities by touring the city alone and hobnobbing with local dancers and artists, and when he was detained at the airport and informed that he would not be accompanying the troupe to London, he made the historic decision to remain in the west.

Kavanagh portrays the many anxieties he felt at the time of defection and for some years to come, when he was constantly in fear of capture or reprisal from the Soviet authorities. (A rumor reached him that a plot had been hatched to track him down abroad and break his legs.)  Yet he was able to capitalize on his great success with Parisian audiences by almost immediately accepting an offer to dance in the Marquis de Cuevas’ production of “The Sleeping Beauty”. Making excellent connections in France with dancers such as Pierre Lacotte, Rosella Hightower (de Cuevas’ prima ballerina) and the visiting Maria Tallchief from America, he was able to project his future.  His primary goal was to meet and study with the Erik Bruhn, whom he had observed in a smuggled film in Leningrad. 

When he and Bruhn met in Demark, his studies with Vera Volkova began and an assimilation of the Bournonville styles.  Bruhn, in turn, incorporated into his own more restrained artistry elements of the Vaganova technique and a new sense of daring.

Ultimately the two dancers became lovers and participated in an anxiety-fraught relationship that went on for years.  Professionally, Nureyev eclipsed Bruhn through his ambitions and flamboyance.  Their careers took them to separate parts of the world, and when apart, their anguish flourished.   Attempts at a domestic union invariably failed, ravaged as it was by competition, jealousy and fear.

The artistic exchange that occurred in their relationship was reiterated when Nureyev began his association with Margot Fonteyn, then 20 years his senior. Kavanagh studied ballet herself and writes about its mechanics with an educated perspective. In time their glorious partnership was the acquiescence of each to the national style of the partner.

Throughout the study Kavanagh reveals that perhaps the most profound contribution that Nureyev made to ballet through the world in which he danced was his ability to convey the powers of his own academic training and the courage to emulate the passions he expressed in presentation. In the period he spent mounting “The Sleeping Beauty” on the young dancers of the National Ballet of Canada, he submerged his inclination to exploit and spent several happy months as an inspirational guide and mentor, determined to make the company an international power and to bestow star quality on its principal dancers.

As a performer in established choreography, Nureyev is portrayed as a renegade.  At London’s Royal Ballet he tampered with all of the classics, changing the phrasing and often the actual steps of his roles to suit his needs for displaying himself. He was uncooperative with new choreographers, such as Kenneth MacMillan, and was not a favorite for casting in a projected work.  Obsessed with a wish to work with George Balanchine in New York, Nureyev was given no encouragement and was ultimately told point-blank that there was no need for a superstar in the company.  In later years Nureyev acquired Balanchine’s “Apollo” by performing with a company that maintained an approved version in its repertoire.  Critics reviewed his reading of the role with horror.

He was able to dance “Theme and Variations” when he was guest star with American Ballet Theatre.  But his partner, Lupe Serrano, revealed to Kavanagh that his departure from Balanchine’s intentions was flagrant.

His restorations of the classics were primarily vehicles for himself; he added new materials to enlarge the scope of the male dancer in ballets composed a hundred years earlier for mere porters. The next generation of dancers greatly benefited by this approach, and their pursuit of careers in ballet was unburdened by his legitimizing the field on the basis of his universal popularity.  Most of his reworking of the traditional ballets was regarded as clumsy and irresponsible by critics, and his original choreography earned nothing but scorn.  Arlene Croce, critic for the New Yorker, referred to him as “a choreographer of staggering incompetence.”

In Kavanagh’s account, Nureyev-the-person comes across as a total megalomaniac in most of his transactions.  Selfish, stingy, outrageously ill-mannered, manipulative, greedy and disrespectful of peers and superiors.  His sexual promiscuity provided him with hundreds of young males, both famous and anonymous, for brief encounters, but the consensus of most was that he was inept in bed, usually assuming a passive and uninvolved role.  His deplorable behaviour did not affect, however, the gargantuan public that continued to pay big bucks and fill houses long after Nureyev was on the decline.  Even when, stricken with AIDS, he continued to perform what his critics called his “walking roles” (“The Moor’s Pavane” of Jose Limon and Maurice Bejart’s “Songs of a Wayfarer”, neither requiring any technical feats) and could fill a house by hobbling about on stage.  Such is the power of a superstar, and I expect that it was this issue that drove Julie Kavanagh to produce nearly 700 pages of text, rather than any personal affection for an adored artist who happened also to be a monster.

Pantheon Books, 2007.  782 pp.  illus.  ISBN: 978-0375-40513-6.   $37.50.

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