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Tancredi - Nureyev's choreography

Tancredi, first performance in Vienna in 1966

A special relationship linked Rudolf Nureyev to the Vienna Opera Ballet for many years. It was for this company that he created his first versions of “Swan Lake” (in 1964) and “Don Quixote” (in 1966). It was in Vienna that he revived his productions of “Paquita” in 1971 and “The Sleeping Beauty” in 1980. And above all, it was in Vienna that he created his first original choreography, “Tancredi” as of 1966, and put an end to his statelessness by obtaining Austrian nationality in 1982.

It was in October 1964 that Rudolf Nureyev made his first appearance in Vienna as a dancer and choreographer. He created his own production of “Swan Lake” after Petipa and performed with Margot Fonteyn, the soloists and the Staatsoper Ballet Company. This show was so successful that it was filmed in Vienna during a revival with the same performers in June 1966, making it the first of Nureyev’s major ballets to be brought to the screen. Earlier in April of that same year, Rudolf danced “Swan Lake” in Vienna with Lynn Seymour, and making the most of his presence the Staatsoper gave him the chance to create his first original choreography: “Tancredi”, the first performance of which took place on the 18th May 1966 with Austrian dancers.

This was the first time that Rudolf Nureyev was involved in a totally original creation. Up until then, he had only revived virtuoso pas de deux (including “Le Corsaire”) and three ballets from the repertoire that he had danced in Leningrad (“Shades” act from “La Bayadère” in London, “Raymonda” in 1966 in Spoleto, and “Swan Lake” in Vienna). It is true that he had added numerous personal touches to Petipa’s choreographies, revised time and time again during the twentieth century, and had, in particular, developed the male roles, thus creating two completely original solos for Prince Siegfried in London. But he had not as yet attempted a contemporary creation.

Rudolf Nureyev knew very little about modern dance at this time despite the fact that since his stay in Paris during May 1961 he had been to see everything he could wherever he was. But contemporary dance (especially in France and England) amounted to but a few neo-classical choreographers. It was in London when Ashton created the “Tragic poem” solo especially for him at the end of 1961, then “Hamlet” and “Marguerite and Armand” in 1963, that Nureyev began working on this repertoire, previously unknown to him. It was also in London that he revived the role of Eteocles in Cranko’s “Antigone” (music by Theodorakis), and that MacMillan entrusted him with the creations of “Divertimento”, “Bach’s Fantasia”, “Diversions”, “Images of love” in 1964 with Lynn Seymour and the following year, his masterpiece, “Romeo and Juliet” with Margot Fonteyn.

The neo-classical nature of Nureyev’s first choreography was, therefore, not surprising. However, “Tancredi” possessed a force and daring that, though a little uncoordinated, was very unusual at that time, and closer to the expressionism in Germanic countries than the highly sophisticated British style.

Rudolf Nureyev chose music by Hans Werner Henze, author of numerous operas as well as ballets, the most famous of which is still “Ondine”, choreographed in 1958 by Frederic Ashton for Margot Fonteyn. In 1952 Henze composed a “Tancredi and Cantilene” for which Victor Gsovsky created a ballet entitled “Pas d’action” for the Munich Opera in 1954. It was this score that Nureyev revived for his Viennese creation but he radically modified the argument, turning it into a Freudian analysis of the hero. Here, Tancredi appears torn between two women symbolizing good and evil: one, a pure and beautiful blonde (Lise Maar) wearing a tiara and a long flowing diaphanous dress giving the impression of angel wings, the other dark-haired, sensual and provocative (Ully Wührer), moulded into a black mesh leotard.

“One of the most savage and unusual ballets of our time” reported The New York Times. Unfortunately, all that is left of “Tancredi” is an amateur black and white video recording, without music, that only lasts for about ten minutes. It is, however, possible to interpret Nureyev’s intentions and to admire the incredible energy of the choreography and the dancer as well as the clearly defined contrast of the two characters who attempt to seduce Tancredi: the pure, classical dancer on her points and the contemporary, sensuous creature. Nureyev provided solos for Lise Maar and Ully Wührer and danced a duo with each of them though he seemed more inspired by fiendish sensuality than by angelic purity! He also performed a trio with both ladies, as if caught between his contradictions. We can but admire his leaps as he throws himself into the black magma of the forces of evil as well as his tremendous leaps accompanied by his doubles.

Alexander Bland (alias Maud Lloyd and her husband Nigel Gosling) left an invaluable account of “Tancredi” in an article which was published on the 29th May 1966 in “The Observer”, and included in the compilation “Observer of the Dance” published by Maud Gosling in 1985.
Here, Alexander Bland recalls that in the nineteenth century Vienna was perhaps a town renowned for good wine, women and the waltz, but that in the twentieth century it was an important centre as regards art and thought, not only with Klimt and Art Nouveau, but also with Freud and the widespread propagation of psychoanalysis.

“It is surely not by chance that Rudolf Nureyev concentrated on the unfathomable depths of human psychology in his first original ballet. “Tancredi” is a choreographic exploration of the libido, a ballet for those who believe in Jung”.

The curtain rises, explains the British critic, on a kingdom of shadows that is completely different to that in “La Bayadère”. The set designer has devised a kind of uterine shell. On one side of the stage stands a spiral, umbilical, translucent tower, perforated with openings through which characters come and go. It is a world of diaphanous membranes full of veins, of folds “as dark as Rorschach tests”.
In this ambiance of continual movement, Nureyev has placed a confusion of racked, tense characters in scenes that he himself describes as “a succession of images linked by a logic that is more poetic than narrative”.
“Numerous disjointed activities taking place on stage all at the same time make “Tancredi” a ballet that is almost impossible to grasp all at once” acknowledges Alexander Bland.
Divided between sacred and profane love, after a succession of trials and hallucinations, the multi-faceted and complex creature, Tancredi (the only character to have a name), is finally slain in a last fight and sinks into the initial chaos from which he came.
“The style is lively and natural confirms Alexander Bland, the vocabulary a mix rather than a fusion of classical technique and modern dance. Images, both ephemeral and imaginary such as a superb group in which Tancredi struggles in the centre of a cross formed by his alter egos, flash before our eyes: a carnival procession of ghosts: a violent pas de quatre where partners are exchanged, and the final dramatic slaying of the hero. A series of visions as lifelike but difficult to remember as the sequences in one of Fellini’s films”
“Strong feelings radiate from an experience which seems to be deliberately designed to leave members of the audience somewhat perplexed, concludes Alexander Bland: we have here a true choreographer”.

Nureyev came flying out of a dark group, representing the void, and defended himself against the dark forces, monsters with beaks as mouths, when he was not joining in and following the dynamic games of his merry comrades who portrayed his own mirror image. The hero, dressed in breeches and classical slippers, his torso encircled with black laces, was tormented by frightening visions and gave himself up to a violent, agonizing dance; a genuine psychological struggle. Nureyev himself could be glimpsed, still completely dazed by his phenomenal popularity in the West but cut off from his roots and facing an, as yet, uncertain future as well as being torn between his love for all that was classical and his desire for something new, asking himself numerous questions about his true identity and his innermost feelings. We can sense in this original creation that he was able, for the first time, to express the confused feelings that were disturbing his subconscious, and give free rein to his imagination and fantasies through the dance.

Although the solos in Tancredi focused attention on the turns, leaps and grand dégagés, Nureyev showed a definite inventiveness in the arranging of his groups, notably in an extremely fine alignment of the six Tancredi clones. He looked for modern, daring constructions in the duos, especially with the sensuous Ully Wührer, and his choreography demonstrated constant fervour. Nureyev proved his willingness to leave classical language behind and produce a fiery, personal creation. A few years on, a little of this tormented character was also to be found in his “Manfred”.



Music : Hans Werner Henze

Choregraphy : Rudolf Nureyev

Learn more “Tancredi” was put on at the Vienna Staatsoper four times with scenery by Barry Kay, but Rudolf Nureyev was only to perform on two of these occasions, the 18th May and the 4th June. Michael Birkmeyer and Karl Musil alternately played the part of Tancredi on the other evenings. Without really being a success as the overly “schizophrenic” choreography disturbed audiences as well as the Austrian press, the experience was extremely enriching for Nureyev, making him aware of his creative strengths.