Memories and interviews

  Interview with René Sirvin (Ballet critic for Le Figaro)

> René Sirvin, you’ve just come back from Ufa, the capital of Bashkortostan, can you describe to us the city in which Rudolf Nureyev lived until he was 17?

I was most surprised by this Bashkir city. I was there from the 28th May until the 1st June for the gala organized to commemorate Rudolf Nureyev’s debut at the Ufa Opera House fifty years ago.
Nureyev didn’t like the city of Ufa; he found it cold and gloomy. But this spring 2003, I found a capital city that was verdant, warm and sunny. The Republic of Bashkortostan has 4 million inhabitants of which more than a quarter live in Ufa which is 1,500 kilometres east of Moscow, and 5,000 kilometres from Paris as the crow flies.
This republic is as big as Greece; as a country it is terribly rich in oil and refineries. The architecture there is altogether fascinating there being a mix of several styles: period houses from the 18th century, old wooden houses from the 19th century as well as the Art Nouveau façades with their western or oriental influence.

> Has the city changed very much since the time Rudolf Nureyev lived there?

The city has grown considerably as certain avenues are more than ten kilometres long with new highways stretching along what used to be the old airport runways! Shops are open 24 hours a day; there are night clubs and strip joints. It’s an extremely dynamic city, not at all what you would usually imagine.

>What year did the Nureyev family move to Ufa??

2003 is an important date for Ufa as, in addition to the 10th anniversary of Nureyev’s death, it was in 1943 that his family first settled in the city.
The house they initially lived in was part of a district which was demolished so that blocks of flats could be built; they were then rehoused and Rudolf’s mother remained in this house until she died.
Another important date was observed this year: Rudolf’s first walk-on appearance on stage at the Ufa Opera in 1953; he was 15 years old.

Rudolf was amazed when, at Christmas in 1945, his mother first introduced him to the Ufa Opera House. The performance this particular evening was “The song of the cranes”, and the small boy that he was then, was fascinated by the ballet and its star, principal dancer Zaitouna Nazretdinova, who was, he claimed, the origin of his vocation to be a dancer.
This same principal dancer, Zaitouna Nazretdinova, was also present at the Ufa Festival; the Opera celebrated her 80th birthday with great splendour in the month of August 2003.

>What traces of Nureyev were you able to find in the city?

First of all, I wanted to see the site of the house he had predominantly lived in. This was razed to the ground several months after his mother’s death in 1987. A totally incomprehensible act as the gap remains empty to this day. The other wooden houses are still there, standing around this waste ground of muddy earth. The government decided to destroy this house so that there were no traces of Nureyev left, just a few years before the Perestroika; no doubt for political reasons.

Nureyev became a national hero in Ufa as of 1993. The local primary school he attended has now become “The Rudolf Nureyev Ballet School”. It comprises 350 pupils taught by 50 teachers; all of whom qualified at the Vaganova School in Saint Petersburg. The corps de ballet contains 85 dancers. A sign of how important ballet is to Ufa.

The classrooms have not changed since Rudolf’s day. This is where Nureyev started learning grammar, and took lessons in piano and folk dancing. New dance studios have been created as well as a huge stage, identical to that of the Opera, and the school is in the process of being extended to incorporate a theatre auditorium.
The Rudolf Nureyev Ballet School is run by Alick Bicktchurin, one of Nureyev’s colleagues from the Ufa Opera in 1954, and one of the actors from the excellent film “The song of the cranes” filmed at the end of the 1950’s.
The frescoes painted on the walls at the entrance to the school pay homage to Pavlova, Nijinsky, Oulanova, Nazretdinova and Nureyev. There is a room on the first floor dedicated to Nureyev with photographs of Rudolf covering the wainscoting.

Ufa Opera House stands a little way away in the heart of the city; it is a wonderfully lively district with wide tree lined avenues. Ufa comprises 16 music schools, an impressive number for a city with one million two hundred thousand inhabitants.
The 700 seat Opera House dates from 1909. Performances are shared between the ballet and the opera. “The song of the cranes” ballet by Nina Anissimova (the famous choreographer of Khatchaturian’s “Gayaneh”, created in 1942 by Doudinskaia, Sergueiev and the Kirov ballet taking refuge in Perm) was created in 1943, and has become the national ballet of the Republic of Bashkortostan.

The market where Rudolf used to sell water has been entirely renovated.

>What does Rudolf Nureyev symbolize for the young generations of dancers in Ufa today?

Youri Grigorovitch, the director of the Bolshoi Opera in Moscow, had the idea of creating a Rudolf Nureyev Ballet Festival in Ufa following Nureyev’s death in ’93.

The commemorative bronze plaque depicting a full-length Rudolf Nureyev, affixed to the outside wall of the Opera, is permanently decorated with flowers. In this theatre, directed by the iron hand of Mr Andrei Shiskine, and comprising a ballet troupe of 85 with a very high standard of dancing, there are two museum rooms, one of which, apart from also being used as an auditorium, is named after Rudolf Nureyev. Unfortunately, the Ufa theatre does not possess a single object that ever belonged to Nureyev, and is only able to exhibit a few known reproductions in the way of photographs and posters.

Several video cassettes are also screened there during the festival but the quality is very mixed due to a lack of resources. Both city and Opera are extremely captivating with their sincere devotion to this child of their country, and they merit attention from all those who honour the memory of Rudolf Nureyev throughout the world. But there are already several projects in the pipeline…

Photos (copyrights René Sirvin) :

1 - Nureyev kid's school

2 - Nameplate on the wall of the "Rudolf Nureyev Ballet School"
3 - Great stairs at the Ufa Opera

4 - The Rudolf Nureyev Auditorium room

5 - Fresco of Rudolf Nureyev at the Ufa Opera

6 - The site of the Nureyev house

7 - Nameplate on the wall "Ecole de Danse
Rudolf Noureev"

8 - Principal dancer Zaitouna Nazretdinova