Books

Nureyev: The Life by Julie Kavanagh

Moira Macdonald
The Seattle Times (MCT)

Kavanagh's Nureyev: The Life, though meticulously researched and often gracefully written, never quite finds the man behind that mystique.


Nureyev: The Life

Publisher: Pantheon
ISBN: 9780375405136
Author: Julie Kavanagh
Price: $37.50
Length: 864
Formats: Hardcover
US publication date: 2007-10
Amazon

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."

7

Music

Books

Film

Recent
Books

'We're Not Here to Entertain' Is Not Here to Break the Cycle of Punk's Failures

Even as it irritates me, Kevin Mattson's We're Not Here to Entertain is worth reading because it has so much direct relevance to American punks operating today.

Film

Uncensored 'Native Son' (1951) Is True to Richard Wright's Work

Compared to the two film versions of Native Son in more recent times, the 1951 version more acutely captures the race-driven existential dread at the heart of Richard Wright's masterwork.

Music

3 Pairs of Boots Celebrate Wandering on "Everywhere I Go" (premiere)

3 Pairs of Boots are releasing Long Rider in January 2021. The record demonstrates the pair's unmistakable chemistry and honing of their Americana-driven sound, as evidenced by the single, "Everywhere I Go".

Books

'World War 3 Illustrated #51: The World We Are Fighting For'

World War 3 Illustrated #51 displays an eclectic range of artists united in their call to save democracy from rising fascism.

Music

Tiphanie Doucet's "You and I" Is an Exercise in Pastoral Poignancy (premiere)

French singer-songwriter Tiphanie Doucet gives a glimpse of her upcoming EP, Painted Blue, via the sublimely sentimental ode, "You and I".

Music

PM Picks Playlist 3: WEIRDO, Psychobuildings, Lili Pistorius

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of WEIRDO, Brooklyn chillwavers Psychobuildings, the clever alt-pop of Lili Pistorius, visceral post-punk from Sapphire Blues, Team Solo's ska-pop confection, and dubby beats from Ink Project.

By the Book

The Story of Life in 10 1/2 Species (excerpt)

If an alien visitor were to collect ten souvenir life forms to represent life on earth, which would they be? This excerpt of Marianne Taylor's The Story of Life in 10 and a Half Species explores in text and photos the tiny but powerful earthling, the virus.

Marianne Taylor
Film

Exploitation Shenanigans 'Test Tube Babies' and 'Guilty Parents' Contend with the Aftermath

As with so many of these movies about daughters who go astray, Test Tube Babies blames the uptight mothers who never told them about S-E-X. Meanwhile, Guilty Parents exploits poor impulse control and chorus girls showing their underwear.

Music

Deftones Pull a Late-Career Rabbit Out of a Hat with 'Ohms'

Twenty years removed from Deftones' debut album, the iconic alt-metal outfit gel more than ever and discover their poise on Ohms.

Music

Arcade Fire's Will Butler Personalizes History on 'Generations'

Arcade Fire's Will Butler creates bouncy, infectious rhythms and covers them with socially responsible, cerebral lyrics about American life past and present on Generations.

Film

What 'O Brother, Where Art Thou?' Gets Right (and Wrong) About America

Telling the tale of the cyclops through the lens of high and low culture, in O'Brother, Where Art Thou? the Coens hammer home a fatalistic criticism about the ways that commerce, violence, and cosmetic Christianity prevail in American society .

Music

Thelonious Monk's Recently Unearthed 'Palo Alto' Is a Stellar Posthumous Live Set

With a backstory as exhilarating as the music itself, a Thelonious Monk concert recorded at a California high school in 1968 is a rare treat for jazz fans.

Music

Jonnine's 'Blue Hills' Is an Intimate Collection of Half-Awake Pop Songs

What sets experimental pop's Jonnine apart on Blue Hills is her attention to detail, her poetic lyricism, and the indelibly personal touch her sound bears.

Music

Renegade Connection's Gary Asquith Indulges in Creative Tension

From Renegade Soundwave to Renegade Connection, electronic legend Gary Asquith talks about how he continues to produce infectiously innovative music.

Music

A Certain Ratio Return with a Message of Hope on 'ACR Loco'

Inspired by 2019's career-spanning box set, legendary Manchester post-punkers A Certain Ratio return with their first new album in 12 years, ACR Loco.

Books

Oscar Hijuelos' 'Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love' Dances On

Oscar Hijuelos' dizzyingly ambitious foot-tapping family epic, Mambo Kings Play the Songs of Love, opened the door for Latinx writers to tell their stories in all their richness.

Music

PM Picks Playlist 2: Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES, SOUNDQ

PopMatters Picks Playlist features the electropop of Bamboo Smoke, LIA ICES' stunning dream folk, Polish producer SOUNDQ, the indie pop of Pylon Heights, a timely message from Exit Kid, and Natalie McCool's latest alt-pop banger.

Film

'Lost Girls and Love Hotels' and Finding Comfort in Sadness

William Olsson's Lost Girls and Love Hotels finds optimism in its message that life tears us apart and puts us back together again differently.


Reviews
Collapse Expand Reviews



Features
Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.