Nureyev dancing at the Kirov Theatre

 Nureyev dancing at the Mariinsky theatre

At fifteen he began serving as an extra in productions at the opera house; this brought him some income and allowed him to take class with the ballet company. He progressed to dancing in the corps de ballet, and when a ten-day tour was made to Moscow he got on it by taking over a folk-dance solo from an injured dancer. He had never learned it, and had no time for rehearsal, so this was the first occasion when he benefited from his astonishing memory for dances he had merely watched. Later this was to make possible many of his productions. In Moscow he injured his toes so could not appear, but recovered enough to audition for the Bolshoi ballet school, and was accepted.Rudolf Nureyev decided however to persevere trying for the Leningrad school : not only was it said to be better but it was residential, solving the problem of living costs. So instead of returning to Ufa with the company (which offered him a full contract) he spent his earnings on a ticket continuing to Leningrad.There he was auditioned and accepted with the comment "you'll become either a abrilliant dancer or a total failure - and most likely a failure".

He knew that at 17 he was raw and lacked the skill already acquired by contemporaries who had entered the academy seven years earlier, but he interpreted this as a challenge to gain knowledge, control and understanding, without losing the spontaneity and individuality of his natural talent. For three years he drove himself tremendously hard, practising between classes the steps he found most difficult, determined to catch up and pass the others. But this did not prevent him from defying rules he thought silly; for instance he went and watched attentively every performance he could at the Kirov Theatre, although being absent from the dormitory incurred punishment. He also, having been put in the sixth grade, begged for transfer to the eighth (out of nine), being afraid he would be called up for military service before he could complete the course. This was granted but increased his reputation for being difficult; it did however bring him under an outstanding teacher, Alexander Pushkin. Pushkin at first largely ignored his new pupil but, once convinced of his determination and capacity for intense work, gave him great help, even taking him into his own home.

With Pushkin's coaching Nureyev progressed to the top grade, spent two years there, and on graduation danced with such fervour and brilliance (it can still be seen in a film made of him then in the Corsair pas de deux) that he was offered a soloist contract by both the Kirov and Bolshoi ballets. Unsurprisingly he chose the former, and made his debut partnering their senior ballerina Natalia Dudinskaya in one of her most famous roles, Laurentia. The ballet demanded both virtuosity and strong drama, and the newcomer had great success in it. Soon afterwards, he injured an ankle but soon got back on stage in spite of a doctor's opinion that he would never dance again.

Thereafter, however, throughout his career he had pain and a susceptibility to ankle problems that would have deterred anyone less determined. During three years with the Kirov he danced another fifteen roles (including the leads in Don Quixote, Giselle, La Bayadère, The Sleeping Beauty and Swan Lake), in addition to others he had already taken as a student, and he partnered all the company's ballerinas. Very quickly he had a fan club eager to see his every performance. They admired the passion of his dancing and the fact that he would not follow set interpretations but brought his own reading to every ballet. He redesigned some of the costumes (but asked approval first) and argued with teachers or rehearsal directors, sometimes walking out of the studio to practise on his own. A reputation for misbehaviour and a growing achievement developed simultaneously.