RUDOLF NUREYEV AT THE ROYAL OPERA HOUSE – a personal memoir,
by Sir John Tooley - General Director, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden 1970-1988
An air of excitement and expectancy was felt by all of us who were waiting at Heathrow Airport on that morning in June 1961 to welcome the Kirov Ballet to a season in London at the Royal Opera House. They had just completed a hugely successful few weeks of performances in Paris. The international standing of the company was well known, but there was another dimension to this visit which was not. For some time there had been periodic and patchy news of an exceptionally talented young dancer in Leningrad by the name of Rudolf Nureyev. Once the company was in Paris reliable reports of Nureyev’s talents were readily to be seen and read, rapidly confirming earlier reports of his prowess and consequently making our wish to see him dance more compelling than ever..
However, our eagerness to greet the company was soon to be overturned by unconfirmed news from Paris that Nureyev would not be dancing in London after all and was to return to Moscow. The company eventually arrived in London without Nureyev and in a state of deep bewilderment and sorrow. The dancers were under instructions not to talk to the press, though even if they did there was little reliable news they could tell. Nobody knew any of the facts. Konstantin Sergeyev, the Ballet Master.and his wife and Prima Ballerina Natalia Dudinskaya urged me to talk to them and nobody else. They knew all there was to know, but when engaged in conversation they had nothing to tell.
The company managed collectively to overcome the shock of what had happened and began a magnificent season, though sometimes with heavy hearts. Meanwhile, Rudolf Nureyev’s bid for asylum in France had been accepted by the French authorities, but not by the Soviet Government. The latter was soon to name him a traitor.
First contact with the Royal Ballet was indirectly through Margot Fonteyn. She was organising her annual charity gala and thought Nureyev’s presence would be something of a coup. Having sounded out Vera Volkova and others about him she decided to go ahead. Rudolf’s response was typical of much that was to follow as he strove to achieve his aims. He was happy to accept the invitation but he insisted he dance with her. He was deeply upset by her response that this was impossible because of her commitment to another dancer. Not to be outdone, he insisted that a solo ballet should be created for him instead. Sir Frederick Ashton, unhappy at working with a dancer he did not know, reluctantly agreed to create a 10-minute piece. Difficulties were further compounded by Nureyev’s choice of music, Scriabin’s Poeme tragique, not music Ashton would have otherwise considered.
The matinee was a success beyond Fonteyn’s dreams, riotous applause at the end and recognition that a supremely gifted dancer had arrived in London. Dame Ninette de Valois was ecstatic. The company needs a virtuoso dancer, she declared, and here we have one who also has taste. The Royal Ballet could not delay in engaging him and offered a contract for Giselle in the following February, with Margot Fonteyn. Here was this unlikely combination of a prima ballerina assoluta, aged 42, and a Russian dancer aged 23, stepping into what was then the unknown and creating one of the greatest ballet partnerships of all time.
From the beginning of rehearsals Nureyev set out his markers. He was totally committed to reform of the 19th century ballet, where, amongst other things, the danseur noble was relegated to a cardboard figure, essentially there to support and show off his ballerina. He was also critical of the amount of mime still being taught and used by the Royal Ballet. Too often he thought it hindered the action, none more so than in Giselle.
So rehearsals for Giselle became a fertile ground for debate, with Foneyn and Nureyev as the principal protagonists and Ashton as mediator, other members of the staff looking on in fury at their long established production being torn apart by a young upstart Russian. In a way it was a discussion, at times a dispute, between Kirov and Royal Ballet Practice. One extreme issue was Nureyev’s opinion that Albrecht is the principal character, with Giselle in second place.
Nureyev was critical of much of the dancing and disappointed by Fonteyn’s view of the role. Here there was a difference of approach to rehearsal and performance where he was convinced that every performer had to give more than they thought themselves capable of. It was a mental and physical exercise of stretching one’s whole being to a hitherto unimaginable point. Then the performance became real and interesting. It was a matter of hard work, for which he believed there was no substitute. As a late starter, he knew this from direct experience and was clear there were no short cuts to success. Exactitude in the preparation for each step was essential, only then would their true meaning be apparent.
February 21st 1962 saw the first performance of Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev in Giselle. It was a triumph and was the beginning of a unique and amazing partnership, one known very quickly the world over and the duo everybody clamoured to see. On the fall of the curtain on this performance so overwhelmed was the audience by the emotional force of what they had been witnessing there was silence before applause erupted, to be followed by 23 curtain calls. What had been.demonstrated was Rudolf’s ability to draw the audience into the world he was portraying and to share what he was experiencing.
This was the beginning of a period of intense activity for the Royal Ballet as it endeavoured to balance the demands of Nureyev for performance and the wellbeing and development of the remaining dancers in need of performing experience, by no means a difficulty confronting the Royal Ballet alone. This persuaded Nureyev to look elsewhere for more openings, not an unrewarding quest in the light of the insatiable demand of companies around the world for his time.
One thing I became rapidly aware of in talking to Rudolf was his constant fear of being abducted by the KGB. Anybody in uniform was suspect in his view and to be given a wide berth. He was given a Carnet by the French Government on being granted asylum and was faced with its renewal in 1966, This meant going to Paris and applying personally at the appropriate ministry. Rudolf refused even to think about going and would not accept there was no other way of obtaining renewal, Jn the end he agreed to go if I went with him and never left his side. This we did.
Nureyev continued his plan to reform the 19th century ballets normally in a company’s repertoire and was next in a position to tackle Swan Lake. Here he was troubled by the amount of mime. He also thought Siegfried’s role would be enhanced by a contemplative solo for him in Act1. This was effective but later illustrated the risk of holding up the action unnecessarily if not danced by a dancer of strong personality and dramatic sense.
He also turned to the revival of other ballets of that period. His first proposal to Sir Frederick Ashton was Bayadere. This was rejected on the grounds that this was unlikely to be a work with strong public appeal. However, they did settle on Act 4, ‘The Kingdom of the Shades’, giving the corps de ballet a showcase as well as a group of soloists in demanding roles. Nureyev had questioned Fonteyn’s suitability for the leading role, but she defied him and rose to every challenge. The first night was a triumph for the company, Fonteyn and Nureyev. He was in his element and found himself the most closely integrated with the company he was ever to be, coaching the girls with flair and imagination to their advantage. It was the boys who were most disturbed by Nureyev’s arrival on the scene in 1962. Some rose to the challenge he presented, others, unable to deal with the problem, were the losers.
Another Russian ballet suggested for revival was Raymonda, an idea which found no favour with Frederick Ashton beyond producing Act 3 with its spectacular role for the ballerina. Nureyev, unwilling to accept Ashton’s verdict, persuaded Gian Carlo Menotti to produce it at the Spoleto Festival, with the Royal Ballet Touring Company and Margot Fonteyn. It was not a success for many reasons, not least with Margot Fonteyn having to fly urgently to Panama to be with her husband on whom there had been an assassination attempt. Then Beni Montresor had been engaged by the Festival to design the ballet, apparently without reference to anybody else. Nureyev was dismayed by what he saw on arrival in Italy. Doreen Wells took Fonteyn’s place and danced well, but neither she nor a company hardly up to the task could save the day.
In working on full-length ballets a much more fruitful experience was Nutcracker, a version of which Rudolf had been engaged to produce for the Royal Swedish Ballet. This would be repeated in London shortly afterwards, with new sets and costumes by Nicholas Georgiadis in the place of those used in Sweden by Mongiardino. Frederick Ashton was unimpressed by the latter and insisted on change.if it was to come to London. Nutcracker is a flawed work and Rudolf was successful in creating a more cohesive and appealing whole by change and insertion of additional material. Antoinette Sibley and Anthony Dowell led the cast and were deemed ideal by the critics. At the same time Dame Ninette de Valois declared this to be the best Nutcracker London had ever seen.
Nureyev was constantly on the look out for new works, fresh challenges, and one-act ballets were being inspired by him. Choreographers included Roland Petit, Rudi van Dantzig, Frederick Ashton.
By the 1970s Nureyev had in place many openings for performances. The Royal Ballet had indicated that there was no more space without prejudicing other dancers’ development. A firm stand had to be taken. By then some of the downside of his presence was becoming too damaging. There were forces at work in him which were divisive as often as they were beneficial. The demand for performances failed to recognise anybody else’s needs and was there largely to satisfy his cry that the stage was his home. It was, but there had to be space for others.
Nureyev was an asset to the Royal Ballet and unquestionably his contribution to its growth was of supreme importance, not least in relation to work ethic and the quest for perfection. Second best had no place in his vocabulary.
Because of what he could bring to a company, and without underestimating the difficulties, I thought it right we should try to persuade him to become the next Director of the Royal Ballet in succession to Norman Morrice., who had expressed a wish to stand down. We talked at length, but my stipulation that the contract would restrict his performances with the company was more than he could tolerate. I had seen what was happening elsewhere and realised that all the good he would bring to us could be undone by his insatiable demands for performance.
Rudolf’s death in 1993 came far too soon, and we lost in him one of the truly great dancers of all time. He was a performer, giving of his utmost, emotionally charged, expressive and committed.
Sir John Tooley
General Director, Royal Opera House, Covent Garden 1970-1988