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Alexandra

Great Dancers: Rudolf Nureyev

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Alexandra

I had written half of this, got a phone call and dropped a book on the keyboard, deletiing the post. I won't be able to reconstruct until this evening, but until then, there is an excellent biography of Nureyev -- and lots of photos -- on his web site:

 

http://www.nureyev.org

 

And a very brief, very readable bio on Ballet.co:

 

http://www.ballet.co.uk/nureyev/

 

Because the facts of his life are available on line -- there are encyclopedia entries as well -- I'm going to do brief statement of the facts of his life, and then concentrate on why he was important. Later!

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BarreTalk
I had written half of this, got a phone call and dropped a book on the keyboard, deletiing the post. 

 

Is that the online equivalent of saying "my dog ate my homework"?

 

You are a hero to start this teaching mission, so we have no right to expect any specific schedule for your contributions. I for one, look forward to reading about Mr Nureyev whenever you get it written.

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Alexandra

For a more detailed biography, check http://www.nureyev.org (which also has an excellent videography -- a list of videos in which he appears -- and bibliography -- a list of books about him -- as well.) What follows is a brief, biography and a few reasons why Nureyev is important.

 

Two dancers in the 20th century will be remembered, in addition to their artistry, for bringing ballet into the lives of a great many people: Anna Palova, at the begiinning of the century, and Rudolf Nureyev, from 1961, when he came to the West, until his death in 1993. Nureyev renewed interest in ballet, raised the technical standards for male dancing in the West, introduced hundreds, possibly thousands, of boys to ballet, and, because he was treated as a superstar by the media, maintained interest in ballet in the mainstream press. When a sportscaster wanted to say an athlete was graceful, he'd say, "Look! He's Nureyev out there." When a newscaster needed one name in ballet that everyone would know, it would be "Nureyev."

 

Rudolf Nureyev was born on a train near Lake Baikal in what was then known as the Soviet Union on March 17, 1938. He grew up in the town of Ufa, desperately poor, his family sharing a house with two other families. His father was in the military and he expected his only son to grow up to be a soldier or an engineer. Nureyev discovered ballet when he was very young (one book says six, another five) when his mother got the whole family into a performance on one ticket. He later said he knew, from that moment, that this was what he wanted to do.

 

Nureyev studied ballet as well as folk dance in Ufa as a child and young teen, then had the opportunity to apply for a scholarship at the Bolshoi Ballet (then the U.S.S.R.'s premiere ballet company, located in Moscow). He went there, but decided, instead of coming home, to use his return ticket money to go on to St. Petersburg (then called Leningrad) and audition there for the Kirov Ballet as well. Although he was 17, he was accepted, and studied with the great teacher, Alexander Pushkin (who also taught Yuri Soloviev and Mikhail Baryshnikov, two very great Kirov dancers). Nureyev spent an extra year at the school after graduation for intense work with Pushkin (for "polishing," and to help make up for his late start) and was taken into the Kirov as a soloist, dancing leading roles in "Sleeping Beauty," "Swan Lake," "La Bayadere," "Giselle," "Laurencia," and many other roles.

 

He had always been a rebel, questioning the company's rules, and insisting on making contact with visiting dancers, especially from the West. He maintained an intense curiosity his whole life about art and artists, and when a student, had constantly been in trouble for sneaking out to attend concerts and go to museums. When the Kirov made its first tour to the West -- Paris, London and New York -- in 1961, Nureyev was one of its stars, but his 'bad behavior" continued, and despite the excitement his dancing had stirred in Paris, the company decided to send him home after that engagement. He sensed this, and decided to stay -- in characteristically dramatic fashion. He "bolted into the arms of the Paris police" at Le Borget airport, as news reports of the time had it. He was the first of the great Kirov defectors. (Note for those who don't know about the Cold War. During the 1950s, '60s and '70s, there was an Iron Curtain between Russia and other Soviet bloc countries and the West. Not a real curtain, but a political barrier. A citizen of Russia, or Poland, or even parts of Germany then known as East Germany, could not travel to the West and certainly couldn't decide to spend a year or two in New York or San Francisco. If you left your country, it was considered a political act -- a defection -- and you could not come home. Nureyev was actually tried for his crime, and sentenced to prison. He did not return to Russia until the Soviet Union's collapse in the late 1980s, and he had little contact with his mother and sisters. In his early months in the West, the Soviet secret police would constantly taunt him with letters from home, often delivered to his dressing room right before a performance.)

 

At first, Nureyev couldn't find a job in the West. Some companies were afraid to hire him for political reasons -- they didn't want to offend the Soviets and possibly lose the opportunity for their company to tour the U.S.S.R. -- and also companies were much more nationally based then. You had to be a citizen of the country to work in that country; getting working papers, especially in Europe, was very difficult. Nureyev danced for the de Cuevas Ballet, a private company owned by the Marquis de Cuevas. He danced in their elaborately designed production of "The Sleeping Beauty," alternating the role of the Prince and the Blue Bird.

 

His teacher, Pushkin, had told him that if he ever found himself in the West, he should find Vera Volkova, a colleague of Pushkin's who had left Russia years before and had taught in London. Volkova was one of the greatest teachers in the history of ballet. Nureyev did find her; she was then teaching at the Royal Danish Ballet in Copenhagen. He went there to study with her and, while there, also worked with one of the greatest European dancers, Erik Bruhn, a man who was the complete opposite of Nureyev. While Nureyev was a rather wild and spontaneous dancer, Bruhn was a cool perfectionist. Nureyev wanted that perfection, and Bruhn coveted the younger dancer's dramatic fire.

 

While Nureyev was in Copenhagen, Volkova received a call from Margot Fonteyn, the prima ballerina of Britain's Royal Ballet and then considered the Western world's greatest ballerina. Fonteyn was looking for Nureyev because she wanted him to dance at a gala performance in London. He did, and was invited to dance a guest performance of "Giselle" with Fonteyn. Although Nureyev was 19 years younger than Fonteyn, and their stage temperaments were very different, they had enormous chemistry on stage and their bodies -- height, proportions, and lines -- were an absolute match. From the beginning, were obviously a great partnership. The Royal Ballet became Nureyev's home base for a decade, and he traveled all over the world with Fonteyn.

 

By the 1970s, Fonteyn was beginning to ease towards retirement and Nureyev began a period of guest appearances around the world. He danced with companies as small as the American Frontier Ballet and as large as American Ballet Theatre, the Vienna State Opera Ballet (where he and Fonteyn hold the world's record for curtain calls -- 89! -- after a performance of his production of "Swan Lake," available on video), the National Ballet of Canada. n the late 1970s and early 1980s, he would move into New York's Metropolitan Opera House, which seats more than 4,000 people, every summer, the star of several companies who would appear, one by one, for a few weeks with Nureyev dancing every performance and selling out the house. Even a long cherished dream, to have a role created on him by George Balanchine, came true. (Nureyev had wanted to join the New York City Ballet but Balanchine had rejected him, saying, "Come back when you are tired of being the Prince.") He also staged productions of the Russian classical repertory, always enlarging the Prince's role, giving himself more to dance.

 

Nureyev wanted to dance everything, and did. He was very interested in modern dance, and worked with Paul Taylor, Martha Graham and Murray Louis. His performances with Taylor and Graham exposed those choreographers to the ballet audience, and also gave the companies a much needed financial boost.

 

In 1983, Nureyev became director of the Paris Opera Ballet, a great company then in disrepair. He revitaliized the company within a season, and chose a group of dancers who led the company for the next 20 years -- his ballerinas have all retired now, but two of the men (Laurent Hilaire and Manuel Legris) are still company stars. He was very ill the last few years oof his life, and continued to dance, long after he should have stopped. He died, of AIDS, in Paris in 1993.

 

He was one of those characters always described as "larger than life" and "a legennd," and so was controversial. When they were new, Nureyev's productions were considered very radical, because he added so much dancing for the Prince. He was known for being temperamental. He could throw a temper tantrum if he didn't get his way. He was described by some as arrogant, but those who knew him well seem to agree that he was very humble -- he knew he was a great artist, but he also thought of himself as a servant of ballet and he approached the stage as though it were a church. He was extremely generous to young dancers, both men and women, giving them chances, working with them, as well as with other defectors, giving them money and helping them get jobs. But he could also deliberately push his partner off pointe during a performance, or step on a young dancer's applause.

 

As a dancer, Nureyev had a stage presence that I've never seen matched. A friend who saw his first performance in New York said -- and this image has been used by others -- "He was like a panther pacing the stage. You didn't know what he would do next." He had a beautiful run, turned like a demon, and his jetes en tournant were fast and powerful. He's still in my eye when I watch "Le Corsaire" pas de deux, or "Sleeping Beauty" -- two very different roles, but probably his two best in the classical repertory.

 

Nureyev's dancing had a tremendous influence on other male dancers. He updated the technique. The West had been cut off from Russian technical advances for about 40 years before Nureyev appeared. When he first staged the Kingdom of the Shades scene from "La Bayadere" in London, no one else could dance the role of Solor; within a few seasons, several of the British dancers had met that challenge. He also expanded what was considered acceptable for men, emphasizing clean positions, pure line, an obviously arched and pointed foot, and a sensuous way of moving. He thought that men could be as expressive as women; he didn't want to be there only to jump and lift.

 

He danced 100 roles, many of them created on him. He worked during a time of great choreographers, and nearly every major choreographer of his time created a work for him.

 

If you don't know Nureyev and want to meet him, the video I'd recommend is "I am a Dancer," which includes the pas de deux from "Sleeping Beauty," a nearly complete version of "Marguerite and Armand," the ballet Sir Frederick Ashton made for him and Margot Fonteyn which captures their personalities and their partnership beautifully; an excerpt from "La Sylphide" with Carla Fracci; and a section from Glen Tetley's "Field Figures" (Tetley was one of the early experiments in blending modern and classical dance).

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Guest Giannina

What ballet did Balanchine create on Nureyev?

 

Giannina

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Alexandra

"Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme." 1979. Patricia McBride and Jean-Pierre Bonnefous (as his name was written then) were also principals.

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studioj

This is great! I really appreciate you specifying favorite videos to watch. It is overwhelming to look at a long list of ballet video possibilities and wonder which one you should start with! I will try to find "I am a dancer" at the library.

 

Why did Nureyev dance longer than he should have? Ego? The financial boost to companies where he danced? Did he change what he danced to accomodate his age or continue to try to do what he'd done as a young man?

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Alexandra

Thanks!

 

Why did Nureyev dance longer than he should have? Ego? The financial boost to companies where he danced? Did he change what he danced to accomodate his age or continue to try to do what he'd done as a young man?

 

Good question. I think only he could answer that, but I think most people had the sense that he simply couldn't give up the stage. The last few years of his life he started conducting -- he had a sound musical training in Russia, although, like everything else, his conducting was controversial! -- and several critics wrote that this was the way he could keep performing -- and taking curtain calls -- while inspiring, and keeping an eye on, the dancers in his production.

 

At the end, there were times when he was the worst dancer I've ever seen. It wasn't just because he was 50, it was that his knees were gone, and he was sick -- he had difficulty breathing, he would sweat pounds of water, look very pale. And then three days later, he could turn in a beautiful performance. At the end he tried to dance some roles that suited his age -- like Von Rothbart -- but they didn't suit him. He was always a Prince -- an old Prince, but a Prince. (In the sense that he was a young man, not an aristocrat, if that makes any sense, to have an old young man :sweating: )

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Alexandra

Re videos, there are other videos of the young Nureyev:

 

"Don Quixote," with the Australian Ballet

 

"Swan Lake" (with Fonteyn) with Vienna (warning: he wears bright pink lipstick; it was the fashion of the times)

 

A tape of his and Erik Bruhn's performances on the Bell Telephone Hour -- back when TV actually presented classical ballet!

 

He's also shown as a coach on the DVD: "A Dancer's Dream: Raymonda, the ballets of Rudolf Nureyev." This is a tribute tape, done shortly after he died, and the dancers are interviewed about working with him.

 

And there are two videos devoted to him, one, "Nureyev" and one "Fonteyn and Nureyev, the Perfect Partnership."

 

Of the biographies, the Diane Solway one is the most thorough, but John Percival, who wrote Nureyev's official biography when Nureyev was still alive, also put together a gorgeous book called "The Dancing Image," with hundreds of photos and analysis of 25 of Nureyev's greatest roles; it's one of my Save In Case of Fire Top 5.

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mohnurka

I don't know if this video is commercially available, but you could look for it: Giselle with Lynn Seymour and Nureyev.

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Hans

That video is commercially available--I own it! :) Anyone who's interested should be able to order it from Amazon via the link at the top of the page.

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lampwick

My teacher said that he would warm up by running around the room with giant turned-out strides. "panther-like" is probably right.

 

She always demonstrates how he ran to get us to open our hips and dance from our turnout muscles under the butt.

 

It's funny too.

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Alexandra

I liked the "Giselle" with Seymour as well. I didn't post it because my students did NOT like it (I think because of Seymour, who was never a technician and here is past her prime).

 

lampwick, I loved Nureyev's run. In "Marguerite and Armand" he has a run like Ulanova's in "Romeo and Juliet" (a deliberate quote by Ashton) and he was glorious in it. He'd run across the back of the stage and disappear into the wings, and then SHOOT OUT, ripping his cape off as he dashed across the stage to the dying Marguerite. It was great theater!

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Hans

Alexandra, I wonder if the dislike of Seymour is perhaps a stylistic difference...? I have a friend who was trained in the Bolshoi style, and she found Seymour "ugly." She certainly seems more hearty and peasant-like than many Giselles, and I imagine that she'd seem even rougher to young eyes trained on images of Alessandra Ferri, Julie Kent, &c.

 

My apologies if this is too :)

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Alexandra

I think it was her soubresauts :) There were issues over stylistic differences sometimes, but I think this dislike was because Seymour, on this video, is at the end of her career, in looks, physique and technique. (I hasten to say that I adored Seymour at any phase of her career!) That wasn't too off topic, but let's get back to Nureyev now and save Seymour for later :)

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danceintheblood

My mother had always had an interest in ballet, in part, due to the fact that her sister was a dancer. By age four I was taking classes and I was regularly taken to the theatre.

 

In 1964 she took me to see the Australian Ballet company, with Nureyev and Fonteyn as guest artists in Swan Lake. I was only young, but I had been told that these were the greatest dancers in the entire world and that I was very lucky to be seeing them. I was too young to evaluate from any critical perspective, but an image that did stay in my mind was of Fonteyn and Nureyev looking deep into one another's eyes during a pas de deux. As a child with a child's perspective, I KNEW that this was a couple who were very deeply in love.

 

In retrospect, having seen videos of Nureyev since, I believe his acting ability and the ability to truly become the character he was dancing was one of his strengths, not only his technique as a dancer.

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