“A secret love affair with a handsome young German dance student inspired Rudolf Nureyev’s dramatic defection to the West in 1961, a new BBC film claims,” wrote arts reporter Ben Hoyle in the London Times on Saturday. The film “Nureyev: From Russia with Love” will be screened in three weeks.
Teja Kremke was a handsome 18-year-old East Berliner living in Leningrad when he met Nureyev, then age 21, who was a rising star of the city’s Kirov Ballet (now the Mariinsky Theatre). They became lovers soon after meeting in 1959. The BBC documentary will show for the first time what the newspaper described as “Kremke’s shaky handheld film footage of Nureyev dancing.”
Relatives and friends of the dancers who were interviewed for the film insist that it was Kremke who convinced Nureyev that the Soviet authorities “would prevent his talent from flourishing, where it belonged, on the world stage.”
The Times quoted John Bridcut, the film’s writer and producer, as saying: “Kremke fed Nureyev’s belief that he should be a world star but he also told him that his traveling would be restricted because he was too rebellious.”
Nureyev arrived in Paris in May 1961. This is how the newspaper described his defection: “He was a late addition to the Kirov’s touring party, on the insistence of the French organizers. Three weeks later, on June 16, he burst on to the world’s consciousness when he broke away from his KGB escorts at Le Bourget airport and flung himself into the arms of French police, screaming, `I want to be free.’”
Still reeling from Yuri Gagarin becoming the first man in space two months earlier, the West seized on Nureyev’s defection as a propaganda coup at the height of the Cold War.
For the Soviet Union it was a cultural and political disaster. For Nureyev’s friends and family it was also a personal tragedy. Careers were stalled, phones were tapped and his father, a loyal communist who had only recently accepted that his son was a ballet dancer, disavowed him. Only Teja Kremke was pleased. He told a friend: “He did well.”
“The defection was spontaneous and planned, if that’s not too much of a contradiction,” Bridcut said.
“Nureyev’s performances had captivated Parisian audiences but his off-stage carousing displeased the Soviet authorities, which had recalled him to Moscow instead of allowing him to carry on to London with the rest of the company.
“He was given conflicting explanations: that Nikita Khruschev wanted him to dance for him again, that his mother was ill. Nureyev told a French colleague: `I’m a dead man.’ Mr. Bridcut said: `When the crisis came he knew what he had to do because of his conversations with Kremke.’
“Soon after the defection Nureyev telephoned Kremke in East Berlin, asking him to join him in Paris. Kremke dithered and within days the Berlin Wall went up, trapping him behind the Iron Curtain. For the rest of his life he was hounded by the Stasi secret police. He married twice, turned to drink and died in suspicious circumstances at 37.”
Nureyev found fame and glory dancing with the great British ballet dancer Margot Fonteyn in London during the 1960s and 1970s and became one of the most celebrated artists in the world. He was a star of the London Royal Ballet and led the dancers of the Paris Grand Opera from 1983 to 1989. He died in 1993 from an AIDS-related illness and is buried at the Russian cemetery of Saint Genevieve de Bois in Paris.
The BBC film will be shown on Sept. 22. The book on which it is based “Nureyev: The Life” is due to appear in British bookstores on Sept. 27.