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Remembering Nureyev: The Trail of a Comet

By Rudi van Dantzig. Translation by Katie de Haan

Reviewed by Leland Windreich

June 2008

Yes, Virginia, another book about Nureyev.  This will be number eight in my home library, and I don’t have all that have been published.  But this study does not start with the dancer’s birth on a Siberian train.  It opens in his 30th year and deals with a fascinating professional relationship and ambivalent friendship that developed with the author, former director of the Dutch National Ballet, which ended with Nureyev’s demise in 1993.

Nureyev had defected from the Soviet ballet in 1961 and had been dancing as a permanent guest star with Great Britain’s Royal Ballet for several years.  During his tenure in London, he formed a miraculous partnership with the aging Margot Fonteyn, and much of their repertoire together consisted of productions of 19th century traditional ballets.  Opportunities for the ambitious Russian to spread his wings with  new contemporary assignments were few and far between.  He was not a favored choice for new British choreographers, and he had alienated many of the Royal’s dancers of both genders with his frequently outrageous conduct, both as performer and colleague. Having heard of a controversial (and not particularly successful) work that van Dantzig had created for the Harkness Ballet in New York called  “Monument for a Dead Boy”, Nureyev approached the Dutch choreographer, then recently appointed as artistic director of the DNB, and requested that he restore it—sight unseen—as a vehicle for himself.

As he was not in the position to commission the work for the Royal Ballet, Nureyev agreed to have it set on himself and the dancers of the DNB.  For him it offered the challenge he had been seeking to work in a new medium and in a discipline of contemporary dance.  The piece was choreographed to an electronic score, one that a dancer could not learn through traditional counts.  Its subject, the agonized coming-of-age of a sensitive youth, dealt darkly with troubled relationships, sexual ambiguity and alienation.  All of this was new territory for an artist who had experienced no real innovation at the Royal. It was the beginning of a new phase in Nureyev’s career and a welcome expansion of his expressive territory.

Van Dantzig saw, of course, the enormous advantage of having Nureyev’s name on his roster.  Indeed, it provided the modest and internationally unknown Dutch troupe entrée into the major league.  Further collaborations provided Nureyev with a bouquet of tortured heroes to portray, thanks to van Dantzig’s turgid philosophical concepts and psychological themes, and his preference for dark, amorphous music.   From their association, the company caught the interest of European critics and balletomanes and the patronage of the impresario Sol Hurok, who booked the Nureyev/DNB package for a tour of the United States.

From the moment of Nureyev’s arrival in Holland, the relationship seemed doomed to become a collision course.  A generally mild-mannered choreographer, van Dantzig was subject to the dancer’s arrogance, bad manners, and occasional scorn.  So were the dancers at the DNB, who tolerated his gross conduct, aware of the value that his presence with the company was inspiring.  The author’s memories of details in their work together, of Nureyev’s maddening ambivalence, of his occasional lapse into camaraderie are told with skill and vitality.  Over the years their relationship developed in both artistic interests and personal association.  At one point the celebrated and extravagant dancer, used to five-star hotels and lavish service on his appearances abroad, requested that van Dantzig put him up in a small, modest room in his own home.  This arrangement solved temporarily Nureyev’s constant feeling of loneliness when away from one or another of his lush domestic properties and the entourage of friends and admirers he entertained in them. Indeed, loneliness was the price that the dancer paid as he achieved the desired independence and the options of performing constantly.  An assignment in Italy one day might be followed by one in Manila the next.  So compulsively did he require being on stage that he tolerated a chronic terror of flying and endured both injury and ill-health to fulfill his round-the-world engagements.

Acknowledging Nureyev’s genius as a performer and the sheer power of his attractiveness, van Dantzig also points out his faults.  He comments on the imperfections in the dancer’s body and the absence of a classical line.  He reports of the dancer’s fear of the threat that Mikhail Baryshnikov inspired when the younger dancer defected and began to display the purity of his magnificent technique in the west.  Nureyev was on the decline at that point, and the author conveys his fury over a comment by a critic that it was time to retire.  But on he went until van Dantzig finally had to dismiss him from further association with DNB when his performance became inept.

This new offering presents an in-depth study of the behaviour of a great artist as a superstar and a human being, told by a particularly articulate associate who lived through both the glories and tragedy experienced in a quarter century of activity together.

University Press of Florida, 2008.  251 pp.  illus.  ISBN: 978-0-8130-3209-2. $34.95

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