In every walk of life, we gaze in wonder at the demigod, the incandescent flame, the figure toward whom all others contort themselves.
Rudolf Nureyev (1938-1993), the most spectacular classical dancer of his time, dominated his art, and the public’s perception of it, for nearly three decades. His made-for-a-miniseries life began generating biographies before he turned 30.
But this is the biography Nureyev deserves. Julie Kavanagh’s triumph of bravura tale-telling is a masterpiece, an overflowing written life that perfectly reflects Nureyev’s own: ferociously concrete, ambitious, profligate, shocking and soaring, from its eyewitness account of his birth on a Siberian train to Nureyev’s final words (Moby Dick, the title of the film playing on his hospital-room TV).
Like one of Nureyev’s calculated, astonishing leaps, her book builds on art that preceded it—biographies such as those by Diane Solway and Peter Watson, and Colum McCann’s novel Dancer—then brings its own assets, including fine aesthetic analysis and a propulsive energy that resembles its subject’s.
Kavanagh, who trained as a ballerina before becoming a journalist and author, should take many bows. Nureyev is easily the best biography of the year. Few biographers combine research, writing flair and a persuasive overview well enough to trigger a feeling that, “Yes, that’s exactly who this person was!”
As an authorized (by Nureyev’s foundations) biographer, Kavanagh might have stinted on further research. Instead, over 10 years, she tracked down scores of new sources, scoured mountains of news clippings, explored known and unknown relationships in Nureyev’s personal life. The upshot is a definitive portrait no one is likely to equal.
Nureyev’s birth took place March 17, 1938, on the Trans-Siberian Railroad, along Siberia’s Lake Baikal, as his mother, Farida, and his three sisters traveled to meet his father, Hamet, an officer with the Red Army in Russia’s far east. Both parents, former Muslims, were committed Communists.
Although he liked to cite his mobile birth as the genesis of his “vagabond soul,” Nureyev grew up poor and stationary in Ufa, a provincial town in the Asian Russian republic of Bashkiria, so kopeckless that his mother carried him to school because he lacked shoes. “Six people and a dog,” the dancer later recalled, “all in one room.” The Nureyevs shared a communal kitchen and an outhouse with eight other families.
The key day of his childhood came at age 7. His mother bought one ticket to a local production of the Soviet ballet, The Song of Cranes, and sneaked in all four of her children. Young Rudolf, mesmerized, Kavanagh writes, by the “theater’s crystal chandeliers, stuccoed interior, classical murals, and velvet curtains patterned with colored dancing lights,” experienced a revelation. “I knew,” he said. “That’s it, that’s my life. ... I wanted to be everything onstage.”
Against his father’s wishes, he studied dance, then took off for Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), in the hope of entering the Vaganova Ballet School, traditional stepping stone to the Kirov Ballet. He made it in at 16, and reached the Kirov at 20.
Soon, though, less-admirable aspects of his personality revealed themselves. Mentored and taken into his one-room flat by the dance teacher Alexander Pushkin, Nureyev commenced an affair with Pushkin’s 42-year-old wife, Xenia. He refused to attend an awards ceremony because others besides himself would be honored. He misbehaved regularly at rehearsals.
At that time, he also experienced the first of his many homosexual love affairs—with a bisexual East German ballet student named Teja Kremke, who urged Nureyev to get out of Russia if he seriously wanted to become the world’s greatest dancer.
Nureyev did just that on June 16, 1961. Following an appearance with the Kirov in Paris, where he angered his KGB minders by fraternizing too freely with the French, Soviet officials informed him, as he waited at Le Bourget airport with the rest of the troupe, that he’d have to fly to Moscow to perform at the Kremlin.
Sensing punishment, Nureyev thought fast (with the advice of a French friend), took six famous steps toward two French undercover policemen, and asked for asylum. When the KGB agents tried to grab him, a French official wonderfully declared, “Do not touch him—you are in France.” The first great defection of a Soviet artist from Russia had taken place.
From that launching pad, Nureyev pirouetted through two different lifelong dances, choreographed by fate and personality.
Nureyev the artist revolutionized classical ballet. His combination of erotic male muscle and shocking feminine grace and allure—rejecting the macho tradition of male Russian dance in everything from wearing tights (not trunks) at the Kirov, to the elongated line and high releve in which he specialized—changed ballet style and expanded the prominence of the male dancer. Nureyev also defied the barrier that separated classical dance from modern and popular forms of the art, building bridges that are now familiar pathways.
Nureyev’s other lifelong dance became the whirl of the temperamental egotist, the pop star of the `60s, who always needed more. His only deeply felt love affair, according to Kavanagh, was with his idol, the classical Danish dancer Erik Bruhn. The narcissism permanently estranged George Balanchine, whose imprimatur Nureyev sought but never truly gained. (“When you are tired of playing at being a prince,” Balanchine famously told him, “come to me.”)
Kavanagh documents how Nureyev exploited friends, threw tantrums, cadged money, hurled furniture and plates, pouted in dressing rooms, broke the jaw of a Paris Opera teacher, cruised endlessly for anonymous gay sex, and, in perhaps his career topper in this genre, defecated on the stone steps of Franco Zeffirelli’s Positano villa when the Italian director blocked him from seducing a French boy.
In the end, Nureyev amassed great wealth, even owning three small islands off Italy’s Amalfi coast. He financially supported his great partner, British prima ballerina Margot Fonteyn, in her later years. When he succumbed to AIDS on Jan. 6, 1993, he left an estate of $21 million, an unheard-of financial feat for a dancer.
“When the lights are extinguished,” Nureyev once explained, “I die.”
The highest compliment that can be paid to Kavanagh? She has partnered him across the chasm of death, choreographing a colossal narrative that keeps Rudolf Nureyev uninterruptedly on stage, from beginning to end.
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