As good as Julie Kavanagh’s new biography of Rudolf Nureyev is, nothing in it seems to explain the legendary dancer quite as well as a brief film clip at the beginning of the new PBS documentary Nureyev: The Russian Years. In street clothes, he faces a battery of cameras and coolly acknowledges them without saying a word. Amusement tugs, just a bit, at his closed lips; his eyes leisurely survey the melee around him. The moment is a tiny master class in creating a mystique.
Kavanagh’s Nureyev: The Life, though meticulously researched and often gracefully written, never quite finds the man behind that mystique. Perhaps it’s an impossible task: Nureyev, who left behind few papers after his death, seems a fascinating but frustratingly elusive target for a biographer. He inspired strong emotions in those he met; his behavior could be that of a tempestuous diva, or a loving friend. He was, it seems, always performing, always aware of those cameras; ballet’s first rock star, for good or ill.
Coming 14 years after Nureyev’s 1993 death from AIDS (he survived nearly a decade after his initial HIV-positive diagnosis), The Life is endorsed as the authorized biography by the Rudolf Nureyev Foundation. A casual reader, though, may not see too many differences between it and the only other full-scale biography, Diane Solway’s 1998 Nureyev: His Life. (Note the similarities—and the key difference—between the titles; a moment of biographer’s one-upmanship, perhaps?) Many of the same sources, inevitably, are interviewed; many stories unfold with a similar slant.
Kavanagh’s book, the larger of the two, is more detailed and employs an agreeable balance of dance history, cultural history, and, well, gossip. And she does especially well with Nureyev’s early years, painting a picture of life in a Tatar peasant family in the industrial Russian town of Ufa. He was on the move from the first: Born on a train in 1938, he would as a child sit for hours watching the trains come and go. “The sound of their wheels—the first lessons in rhythm, instilled in him from birth—gave him a subliminal thrill he later learned to exploit,” writes Kavanagh.
Never known as a consummate technician, Nureyev’s fame came from the passion he brought to his dancing, flinging himself into the air as if never planning to come down again. A small man with short legs, he saw few male role models in his early ballet training, and so modeled his technique on the ballerinas, borrowing their expressive arms and high releves (dancing up on the ball of the foot, to make his legs look longer). He would never have the elegant precision of his younger rival, Mikhail Baryshnikov (they attended the same Leningrad ballet academy, a decade apart). But he understood theater, on and off the stage.
After his dramatic defection in 1961—he was, notes Kavanagh, the first Russian dance artist to defect—he quickly entered an iconic partnership with British ballerina Margot Fonteyn. At 43, she was nearing the end of her career. But the two of them together created lightning in a bottle, forgotten by no one who ever saw them. (Watch footage of their Romeo and Juliet, and you won’t forget it either.) “No one could quite believe what they had just seen, the icon of English ballet paired with a boy half her age, not the usual courtly danseur noble but an independent force who, with his huge personality and loping runs, seemed thrillingly alien and yet in perfect accord with Fonteyn” writes Kavanagh.
The two became a sensation, with fans standing in line for days. “Rudolf’s sixties superstardom was a phenomenon that no longer exists in ballet,” notes Kavanagh of the crowds, the half-hour curtain calls, the pop-culture obsession with his style and love life. (Nureyev had many lovers, but the one closest to his heart was the Danish-born dancer Erik Bruhn.) Such furor would be impossible to sustain, and indeed it was. Though Nureyev continued to perform in the `70s and `80s, his career ended not with a dignified retirement but a slow fading away. I saw him dance in the mid-`80s, in a touring performance, and there was something gallant but terribly sad in his weary-looking face, and in the jumps that no longer soared.
Though Nureyev the man remains elusive, Kavanagh’s book is a treasure trove for those intrigued by Nureyev the dancer, filled with thoughtful reflections on his technique, details of his roles, and of his encounters with ballet greats. She notes Nureyev’s fascination with Balanchine, and movingly describes his affinity with the role of Apollo. “The image of Balanchine’s young god, a suspicious, awkward pupil imprisoned in winding sheets, is the Soviet Rudolf, who becomes free only when he starts to dance.”