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University Library, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

MPAL Exhibits 2017-2018: Rudolf Nureyev

Documents exhibits at the Music and Performing Arts Library during the 2017-2018 academic year.

About Rudolf Nureyev

From the Rudolf Nureyev entry at the International Encyclopedia of Dance (Oxford Reference Online):

Nureyev, Rudolf 

(Rudol'f Khametovich Nureev; born 17 March 1938 in Siberia, near Irkutsk, died 5 January 1993 in Paris), ballet dancer, choreographer, and company director.

It is possible that the dancing of Rudolf Nureyev was seen by more people than that of any other dancer in history. During much of his career, which spanned more than twenty-five years, he regularly danced more than 250 performances a year. He danced for television and in films and also acted in films. He choreographed original ballets, restaged ballets from the Russian nineteenth-century repertory for Western companies, and presented ballet on Broadway. His repertory included more than one hundred roles. After he died at age fifty-four from complications from AIDS, it was learned he had danced for ten years after being infected with the illness.

Nureyev's brilliant but often erratic dancing and his flamboyance made him a controversial figure. He presented not merely his dancing but also himself as a work of art, and his career belongs as much to the history of publicity as to the history of ballet. In his prime, from about 1963 to about 1973, he was an exotically beautiful man who emanated sensitivity and animality, intelligence and blind instinct. The furious abandon of his dancing and his presentation of himself onstage as a sex object are without parallel in the world of dance. He became a folk hero and a symbol of his era. The unevenness of his technique disqualified him as a true virtuoso, yet his dancing commanded virtuoso elements of unsurpassed grandeur—specifically, a variety of enormous, slow jumps and air turns that elicited gasps of surprise and spontaneous applause from audiences for nearly a decade. One of his teachers during the early 1960s reported that Nureyev could jump ten feet into the air from a simple plié. His bravura delivery was modulated by a highly poetic style and eloquent legato phrasing based on an acute musical awareness.

Nureyev was born in Siberia and raised in Ufa, then the capital city of the Bashkir A.S.S.R., a part of the Soviet Union. Both his parents were Bashkir Tatars. His first memories were of the excitement of hearing music on the radio, an excitement that escalated when he learned a few Bashkirian folk dances at school. The first time he saw a ballet, The Cranes' Song, at the Ufa Opera House when he was seven, he felt called to devote his life to dancing. His early training consisted of learning folk dances as a member of his Young Pioneers group. He studied with local teachers until the age of seventeen, when he won admission to the Vaganova Choreographic Institute in Leningrad and soon became a much-favored pupil of Aleksandr Pushkin. During the last of his three years at the conservatory, he was accorded the school's highest honor—appearances with the Kirov Ballet in the lead parts of nine different ballets. For his graduation he danced the Le Corsaire pas de deux with Alla Sizova. He gave his first appearance as a member of the Kirov, as a principal dancer, in November 1958, partnering Natalia Dudinskaya, then the Kirov's leading ballerina, in Laurencia, a performance said to have entered legend before it was over. Critics and the public quickly hailed Nureyev as successor to the heroically poetic style of Soviet male dancing as evinced by Aleksei Yermolayev and Vakhtang Chabukiani. He soon acquired a cult following among the public, although Soviet authorities considered his individuality and his curiosity about unorthodox interpretations and performing styles the expression of a pathological personality. Other notable performances in the Soviet Union included appearances with Ninel Kurgapkina and Alla Shelest.

In his years with the Kirov, Nureyev amassed a large repertory, dancing the leading male roles in nineteenth-century classics, experimental works such as Leonid Yakobson's Valse Volonté, and nationalist ballets such as Nina Anisimova's Gayané and Vasily Vainonen's The Flames of Paris. He altered costumes to maximize his appearance, revised the steps in his variations, and refused to wear any of the then-customary wigs. While this behavior was tolerated, his “above the law” status made him enemies, especially among rival male dancers, and alienated the Kirov's director, Konstantin Sergeyev. His friendships were outside the theater, arousing the suspicion of the authorities.

Efforts were made to keep Nureyev away from contact with foreigners, and when the Kirov scheduled a tour to Paris in 1961, Nureyev was included only at the insistence of presenters. Once in Paris, Nureyev cultivated new, Western friends. When the Kirov was about to depart for another stop in London, Nureyev was informed he was being sent back to Russia on the next flight. He could claim asylum only by approaching the French police, who could not intervene unsolicited; while he waited, guarded by two KGB agents, in the departure lounge, a pair of French policemen were alerted to the situation and placed themselves a few feet away. Nureyev found an opportunity to run to them and ask for the protection of the French government, which was instantly granted. It was the first political defection by a Soviet artist and a defining moment in the Cold War.

Within a week of Nureyev's defection he was dancing again in Paris with the Grand Ballet du Marquis de Cuevas, alternating as Prince Florimund and the Bluebird in The Sleeping Beauty.

Nureyev made his American debut in Chicago in October 1961 as a guest artist with the Chicago Opera Ballet. His New York debut at the Brooklyn Academy of Music—partnering Sonia Arova in the Don Quixote pas de deux—followed a few weeks later. His London debut occurred later that fall when he danced in Margot Fonteyn's annual gala benefit performance at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane. His Covent Garden debut with the Royal Ballet on 21 February 1962 marked his first performance with Fonteyn and the beginning of an alliance that became one of the most celebrated in ballet. Soon afterward Ninette de Valois invited him to work regularly with the Royal Ballet as a guest artist.

For the next ten years Nureyev appeared in virtually every Covent Garden season of the Royal Ballet. He also danced with the Royal Ballet in New York in nine seasons from 1963 to 1976, seasons often followed by extensive tours of the United States. During his early tenure with the Royal Ballet he danced a wide range of parts, including Frederick Ashton's Symphonic Variations and works by Kenneth MacMillan, but the English ballet masters were dubious about Nureyev's idiosyncratic readings of English ballets. After his enormous successes in New York with Fonteyn, the company began to exploit, with his consent, his star appeal by showing him almost exclusively in classical Romantic ballets. Most often he was opposite Fonteyn, but he also danced with Nadia Nerina, Svetlana Beriosova, Merle Park, Antoinette Sibley, and Monica Mason.

Two of the biggest hits were Kenneth MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet (1965), which the company expropriated for Nureyev and Fonteyn, the piece having been choreographed for Lynn Seymour and Christopher Gable, and Frederick Ashton's Marguerite and Armand (1963). The latter piece capitalized on the popular sentiment surrounding the two lead dancers. Fonteyn, nearing the end of her career, relived the life of the dying courtesan, while Nureyev, whose defection the press had called a “leap to freedom,” executed his famous leaps around the stage. In effect, Ashton presented Nureyev in this ballet as the live version of a movie star: his entrance was announced by the projection of a series of close-up photographs of his face on a scrim that covered the entire stage opening.

Nureyev achieved his most distinguished dancing during the years he worked regularly with the Royal Ballet. His partnership with Fonteyn was one of the artistic highlights of the era: his rejuvenating effect on her helped her to extend her career for another decade. Fonteyn had a taming effect on Nureyev without squelching his spontaneous excitement; her quiet nobility was juxtaposed against his incendiary intensity. Nureyev's dancing with the prestigious Royal Ballet and his dutiful, impassioned attendance on Fonteyn in such ballets as Swan Lake and The Sleeping Beauty also lent him a kind of legitimacy, a validation of his seriousness of purpose that, because of his notoriety in the press, he might not have otherwise achieved.

Acting as an unofficial ballet master, Nureyev also staged several important works and individual dances for the company: Raymonda, act 3; the Kingdom of the Shades scene from La Bayadère; the pas de six from Laurencia; the pas de deux from Gayané, Le Corsaire, and Diana and Actaeon; an act 1 polonaise and an act 3 mazurka from Swan Lake; and a male solo from act 1 of Swan Lake that subsequently became a virtually obligatory feature of Swan Lake productions worldwide. His staging of the Shades scene from La Bayadère (1963), after his recollection of the Kirov Ballet's production, was, as Western audiences later discovered, superior to the Soviet productions. La Bayadère, more than a vehicle for Nureyev and Fonteyn, was an exercise in eloquence for the entire company. It became the hallmark of the Royal Ballet's lyric, legato style and remained so for as long as they performed it.

Nureyev persuaded the Royal Ballet to rethink its ideas about how ballerinas were cast for roles. Until his intervention, the company favored a casting policy based almost entirely on considerations of physique and temperament, the equivalent of typecasting in the movies. He encouraged the company to give dancers opportunities, most often in ballets that he had staged, out of concern for their ability to execute the technique required for an effective demonstration of the role. This expansion of plastic possibilities greatly enhanced the company's texture and profile. If this period was a high-water mark for Nureyev, it was no less than that for the Royal Ballet, whose style was never more sharply focused than when he was an integral part of the company.

It is ironic that Nureyev made his greatest impact as a dancer in La Bayadère, Swan Lake, Giselle, The Sleeping Beauty, Les Sylphides, La Fille Mal Gardée, and pas de deux showpieces from Le Corsaire and Diana and Actaeon—ballets in which the man is required to do little more than partner the ballerina and dance a variation. Although he worked sporadically with all the most important choreographers in the West (including an opera ballet with George Balanchine), he never had an important role created for him, nor did he ever have a substantial collaboration with any choreographer. His triumphs in ballets not designed to give him central importance are all the more dramatic, because he engendered those triumphs himself.

Nureyev's readings of these Romantic ballets were without rival in his time and have become the models with which present and future interpreters must contend. Besides his solo dancing, he was a sensitive partner who brought a Byronic élan to his readings of the prince roles. His wide-eyed, transfixed air of amazement on first seeing the Swan Queen; the rash, impulsive gestures he made as he tried to embrace her; his gentleness and courtliness with her: these actions did more than vivify what was at best a secondary role; they sharpened our attention on the ballerina, and we saw her through his eyes. In so doing, Nureyev restated for our time, in a novel and daring way, the controlling metaphor of classical Romantic ballet: man is the poet, the seeker; the ballerina is music, poetry, enchantment itself, the prize sought.

Nureyev was never a permanent member of any ballet company, nor was he ever invited to become one. He did not want to confine himself to a single repertory or style, and no important company wanted to present itself merely as a showcase for Nureyev at the expense of its other dancers' development. By allowing himself to be exploited by impresarios and managements, he found that the demands of the public escalated. People wanted to see more of him in the kinds of ballets for which he was famous or in other types of performances in which he was always present on stage. Because of this public demand and because he had no choreographer to create roles for him that would enhance his development, Nureyev began to make ballets for himself. These were usually revisions of the nineteenth-century ballets in which he inflated the male role with his own choreography and truncated the ballerina's significance. He revised, among others, The Sleeping Beauty, Swan Lake, Raymonda in several versions other than the act 3 dances produced by the Royal Ballet, and Don Quixote. His original ballets include The Nutcracker, Tancredi, Romeo and Juliet, The Tempest, and Washington Square.

Nureyev always danced with many different ballet companies, even when he worked regularly with the Royal Ballet. But by the mid-1970s when his bravura abilities had begun to fade, he received even fewer invitations to work with the Royal Ballet. Increasingly from that point on, he began making numerous tours with mediocre companies that featured him prominently. He even danced with modern dance companies—including those of Martha Graham (who created The Scarlet Letter for him), Paul Taylor, and Murray Louis—and with Maurice Béjart's Ballet du XXe Siècle. He danced with American Ballet Theatre, La Scala Ballet, New York City Opera Ballet, London Festival Ballet, the Royal Swedish Ballet, the Vienna State Opera Ballet, the Australian Ballet, the National Ballet of Canada, the Dutch National Ballet, the Joffrey Ballet, the Berlin Opera Ballet, and the Paris Opera Ballet. Under the headline “Nureyev and Friends,” he appeared several times on Broadway in New York and in various other cities in America and Europe. His movie credits include A Leap of the Soul, Swan Lake, Romeo and Juliet, I Am a Dancer, Don Quixote, Valentino, and Exposed. (In the latter two films he had straight acting parts.)

In 1983 Nureyev became the artistic director of the Paris Opera Ballet. He produced new and experimental work by choreographers from many countries, brought in guest teachers from important schools and companies, and provided challenging opportunities for the artists who were his responsibility. The central core of his curriculum, however, remained an emphasis on the classical style.

Nureyev had a pronounced, nearly immediate impact on the Paris Opera's roster, finding a way to promote young talent quickly despite the institution's entrenched “trial by jury” examination system. Among the dancers he brought to prominence were Sylvie Guillem, Elisabeth Platel, Isabelle Guerin, Charles Jude, Laurent Hilaire, and Manuel Legris. In 1984, when Guillem was nineteen, Nureyev made her the youngest étoile in the company's history. His policies also had a major impact on repertory; in addition to choreographing or staging many works himself, he acquired works by Merce Cunningham, Paul Taylor, and Jerome Robbins and commissioned pieces by young groundbreakers such as Maguy Marin, William Forsythe, Karole Armitage, and David Parsons.

During the entire period of his tenure at the Paris Opera, Nureyev was ill with AIDS. He was diagnosed in 1984 after a period of recurrent illnesses. He sought the newest treatments available and continued a punishing performing schedule, keeping the knowledge of his diagnosis private while rumors circulated.

In 1987, when his mother was dying in Ufa, Nureyev, who had not seen her in twenty-seven years, was permitted a brief visit by the government of Mikhail Gorbachev. Two years later, he returned to Leningrad to dance with the Kirov. He was very ill but danced all five scheduled performances.

Despite a directorship viewed throughout the ballet world as a remarkable success, relations between Nureyev and the management of the Paris Opera frayed beyond repair by the end of the 1988/89 season. For one thing, although he had agreed to a certain (minimal) number of days annual residence at the Opera, peripatetic Nureyev was not quite able to fulfill this part of his contract. The flashpoint was his wish to promote a green corps dancer, the handsome twenty-one-year-old Dane Kenneth Greve, almost overnight to the status of étoile. The company threatened a strike, and Nureyev departed to undertake a nine-month tour of the musical The King and I. After the tour, he returned to Nureyev and Friends, but his weak condition was unmistakable. He performed for the last time in February 1992.

His last artistic project consisted of staging a three-act version of La Bayadère for the Paris Opera Ballet. The rehearsal process was interrupted for his frequent hospital stays, but the production had its premiere on 8 October 1992. Nureyev, who attended in a wheelchair, was awarded the medal of the Legion of Honor at the end of the evening.

Nureyev's career, outstanding in many respects, was further notable for the extraordinary financial fortune he amassed: he was renowned as the wealthiest man in ballet, with an estate, its amount closely guarded, estimated to be between $25 million and $80 million. He was a thrifty millionaire with a profound distaste for paying taxes and a talent for picking financial advisers. At the time of his death, his estate included a Mediterranean island, museum-quality furnishing for his several homes, and numerous classical and European art treasures worth upward of $250,000 each.

Pictures from the Rudolf Nureyev Exhibit

Items in collection