Memories and interviews

  Helen Ciolkovitch

The great stages of his life

Everything that can be said has been said about Nureyev. Everyone, audiences and dancers alike, went into raptures about this exceptional dancer, his amazing elevation, his ability to remain suspended in midair at the highest point of his jumps, his sense of drama, his magnetic presence.

He had the gift of geographic and artistic omnipresence. He had an unquenchable thirst, wanting to know everything, dance everything, learn everything concerning his profession and concerning all the arts. Giving more than 250 performances per year, alternating partners, companies, and theatres throughout the world, trying his hand at all styles and all forms of dance, he was truly a missionary for his art. He danced all over the world reviving the great ballets of the repertoire. He was never satisfied with the results, and was convinced that classical ballet would only survive if it changed with the times.

He also directed several ballet films, thus opening ballet up to new audiences. He was the model for whole generations of dancers; the leading light that they followed for the length of a performance, a tour, a season or of an entire lifetime, along the hectic, glorious and chaotic path of perpetual movement.

Wherever he went, he shook up the established order of things and customs, obliging everyone to push back the limits of possibility.

He always pushed himself to his own limits, stopping only when he had reached the goal he had set himself. He once told a journalist, who was saying how much he admired the elegance of his cabrioles battues derrière (in fact, he always seemed to freeze for an instant in midair like a bird soaring), that one day in Kirov, he has decided as he could not manage to perform this technique correctly, that he would overcome this difficulty on his own in the studio. It is, obviously, difficult to see ourselves from behind; it, therefore, took him several attempts before he discovered that by throwing himself backwards almost on to the mirror, there was an angle from which he could see himself for a fraction of a second. He practised the exercise until he was satisfied with the image reflected in the mirror. It took all night. This anecdote holds the key to the dancer and to the man that was Nureyev: he demanded the impossible from others as for himself. He proved, by setting himself strict disciplines and expectations that, despite all obstacles, anyone could achieve whatever they had made up their minds to achieve.
Driven by his infinite passion for ballet, he broke down all barriers.

RUDOLF NUREYEV always liked to mention his birth which took place by the banks of the Baikal Lake on a train in 1938, because he saw it as an omen of his life: the perpetual movement, the nomadic life, the continual searching. The Nureyev family were Tartars living in Ufa, the capital of the Soviet Republic of Bashkir. They shared several square metres with two other families.

His childhood was dismal, marked by misery and hunger. He discovered ballet, when his mother took the whole Nureyev family to the theatre to see The Song of the Cranes. The small boy, aged six, discovered the world of light, beauty, magic, and dream. He made up his mind then to live in the enchanted world of music and ballet. He knew at that instant that he would be a dancer, and from that moment on used all his willpower, all his energy to fulfil his dream: to dance; to go to Leningrad and train at the Vaganova School, a school which produced such legendary ballet dancers as Pavlova, and Nijinsky.
The road was very long. Hamet Nureyev was fiercely opposed to his son's passion and Rudolf understood that he would have to find the means to make dancing his life on his own. Child, then teenager, he was, first of all, part of a folk group, and then the Pioneers before he joined the corps de ballet in the Ufa theatre. When he, at last, got together the sum needed for the journey, and arrived in Leningrad for his audition to join the Vaganova School, he was seventeen years old, which is very old for starting professional training. His passion for work was, therefore, to be nearly fanatical and he worked continually, getting his muscles used to the ruthless discipline of classical ballet, mastering every fibre in his body and making it an instrument of his soul. Nureyev joined the class of Alexander Pushkin who recognized his exceptional talent and personality. Pushkin patiently instilled in him the tools essential to his career. He acquired a training in three years that normally takes eight. Driven by an unquenchable thirst for knowledge, he took in everything he saw and instantaneously impressed it on his body. His fiercely individualistic character, his taste for freedom and independence, his willpower driven by an absolute passion led to difficult relationships with the School administration and his comrades, who were in awe of his uncontrollable, unpredictable quick-tempered character.

Nureyev suffered from this lack of understanding but this was not a priority; his priority was to become a dancer. He notched up his first significant success, winning the 1958 contest in Moscow with Alla Sizova, dancing the Corsair pas de deux which was to become synonymous with Nureyev.
Moreover, it is in this variation that he first appeared in front of Parisian audiences during the Kirov Ballet tour of Paris in 1961, Konstantin Sergueev having asked him to choose a variation to be included in the Shades Act of the Bayadère. The Kirov Ballet employed him as a soloist straightaway. He danced the entire classical repertoire in three years. He modified the choreographies for the male dancer variations highlighting his exceptional qualities of elevation and his dazzling technical expertise; he refused to wear certain costumes which he considered ridiculous and old-fashioned; he bestowed a psychological profundity and a theatrical feeling, hallmarks of each of his appearances, on all his roles. His relationship with the Kirov Ballet was strained when he arrived in Paris for a month of performances in May 1961.

Nureyev's independent behaviour during his stay in Paris finished by exasperating the Soviet authorities who, despite the success he had achieved, decided to send him back to Moscow instead of letting him continue on the Kirov tour to London. Nureyev understood that if he returned to the USSR, he would never leave again, this to him amounted to imprisonment. So, he took the most dangerous decision of his life: he chose freedom and stayed in Paris, his training as a dancer being his only luggage. This is no imagery, as his suitcases were flown with the airplane to London.
Nureyev found himself alone in a country where he could not speak the language, confronting a more than uncertain fate. The future would prove that this decision was the best one he could have made as regards becoming the performer he wanted to be: a universal dancer eliminating the barriers that existed between classical and contemporary ballet; a choreographer who could set Marius Petipa's precious legacy to rights, and arrange his own choreographies.

In 1962, he became the permanent guest of the London Royal Ballet where he danced with Margot Fonteyn. His meeting with the English ballerina, who was almost twenty years his senior, marked the start of a unique collaboration in the history of ballet. Their differences in ages, schools and styles produced a mysterious alchemy, and made them the legendary couple of the twentieth century.
For thirty years, Nureyev was to ask all the contemporary choreographers to let him dance their ballets, and to create new works for him. He began trying his hand at choreography as soon as he arrived in the West, staging such pas de deux as the Corsair, and Diane and Acteon, and one act ballets (Paquita, Laurentia), prior to tackling the great ballets of Petipa. This was Nureyev's chance to express his vision of ballet; he revised the scores and the choreography, modernizing them and restoring the balance of male roles in relation to those of the ballerinas.
The ultimate establishment of his reputation came in 1983, when Paris offered him the position of
Director of the Opera Ballet. Without abandoning his career as an international dancer, he provided the fruit of his knowledge and his experience. He revised six of Petipa's great ballets adding as well Romeo and Juliet and Cinderella; he enriched the contemporary repertoire by inviting numerous choreographers to create ballets. He gave a whole generation of dancers their chance to succeed, appointed five new principal dancers, and organized numerous overseas tours. He bestowed international status on the Opera.
He was to continue dancing all the principal roles in the repertory until the age of 50, not letting age or illness undermine his passion. When the Opera did not renew his contract in 1989 but created a position of Principal Choreographer for him, Nureyev turned towards other activities. Following the advice of Herbert von Karajan, he studied conducting. And so it was, behind the conductor's baton, he proved once again his capacity to master all aspects of a ballet performance. He staged his final gift to the world of ballet in October 1992 at the Opera; an unabridged version of the Bayadère. He died in Paris on the 6th January 1993.

Today, we are only just beginning to grasp the extent of his legacy.