No Beast More Refined

James Davidson

  • Rudolf Nureyev: The Life by Julie Kavanagh
    Fig Tree, 787 pp, £25.00, September 2007, ISBN 978 1 905490 15 8

The trial of Rudolf Nureyev, traitor number 50,888, took place in absentia and behind closed doors, in Leningrad on 2 April 1962. If convicted under article N64 Nureyev faced the death penalty. Five witnesses were interviewed in a small room overlooking the Fontanka Canal. The witnesses included Vitaly Strizhevsky, the KGB’s man in the Kirov, Georgi Korkin, the Kirov’s director, and Alla Osipenko, who gave a less than favourable review of her dancing partner’s character – ‘not respected … resented … rude and too self-regarding’. Nureyev’s sister, Rosa, and best friend, Tamara Zakrzhevskaya, tried to see what was going on through a slightly open door, until someone saw them and ‘kicked’ the door closed. Rosa had already provided a statement about Rudolf’s character (‘a kind, honest and loving son’), as had his ballet master, Alexander Pushkin, and Pushkin’s wife, Xenia: Rudik’s act of treachery had not been premeditated; he never talked politics and was not a dissident of any kind. A character report noted, moreover, that there had been no signs of immoral behaviour before his defection.

Nevertheless, Nureyev was convicted: his betrayal had been used by the bourgeois media for anti-Soviet slanders, causing considerable damage to the interests of the state. The judge decided, however, in the light of Nureyev’s youth and unbalanced character, that he could be punished under article N43: seven years’ imprisonment. His family were relieved. Now there was a real chance he would come home.

The ‘dirty little Tatar boy’ had arrived at the Kirov’s ballet school, named after the legendary teacher Agrippina Vaganova, in 1955 at the age of 17, sponsored by the government of the Bashkirian Republic. He had a lot of catching up to do but worked hard. His performance as the slave Ali in the famous bare-chested solo from Le Corsaire (remotely based on Byron’s poem) was a sensation at the Moscow Student Dance Competition of 1958 and was incorporated into a film that toured the Soviet Union, When the Spirit Soars. On graduation he was immediately offered a place with the company as a soloist, an unheard-of event. The Bashkirian Republic was not happy about that: it had hoped and expected that Nureyev would return to grace the stage of Ufa, its capital.

Very quickly he became a star. Flower-throwing was strictly forbidden, but at the end of his variations the stage of the Kirov was often covered in smuggled-in peonies. With his partner Alla Sizova he wowed the judges at the Seventh Communist World Youth festival in Vienna in 1959, beating even Natalia Makarova, the queen of swans. It was his first visit to the West, and Russian émigrés were lying in wait for the Soviet dancers, throwing copies of Doctor Zhivago through the bus windows when they arrived.

Already, Nureyev had a reputation as a difficult character, often absconding from the group and refusing to sing patriotic songs. He declined to collect his gold medal in Vienna when he learned that Makarova was also to be given one. On a tour to Egypt, it was noted that he had indulged in belly dancing. Most scandalous of all was his debut back in Leningrad in Don Quixote on 27 May 1960. As the audience waited for the curtain to go up on the last act, Nureyev was in his dressing-room refusing to go on. The problem was the ‘lampshade’ pants he was obliged to wear. He wanted to appear in tights alone, as Western dancers did. His friends were summoned to see if they could persuade him but Rudolf was implacable. The audience were kept waiting for an hour. Eventually, he got his own way. The audience loved it.

Such behaviour meant that Nureyev was not selected to join the Kirov’s Western tour in the summer of 1961. He was spotted, however, by Janine Ringuet, who had been sent to Leningrad by the organisers to finalise arrangements. She telegrammed her boss to say that she had just seen ‘the best male dancer in the world’; he insisted that Nureyev be added to the list. The press attended the dress-rehearsal at the Opéra Garnier in which Nureyev danced the role of Prince Désiré in Sleeping Beauty. The critic René Sirvin, alluding to the recent orbit of Yuri Gagarin, wrote a piece about the Kirov’s own ‘spaceman’, an ‘aerial phenomenon of a stupefying virtuosity and lightness’. So there was enormous anticipation when Nureyev made his debut in front of the French public, incongruously inserting his party piece, the solo from Le Corsaire, into the middle of the opium-fuelled visions of the last act of La Bayadère. The audience, who knew nothing of La Bayadère, screamed with delight. One former Diaghilev dancer, Serge Lifar, spoke of an ‘époque Noureev’ and awarded him the Nijinsky Prize. But Lubov Egorova, the octogenarian Princess Trubetskoy, who had actually danced with Nijinsky, insisted that Nureyev had something more.

Nureyev’s massive success put the Russian authorities in a quandary. He was bringing glory to the Kirov and to the Soviet Union, but he was also spending all his time with Westerners, the dancers of the Paris Opéra and in particular with Clara Saint, the fiancée of the son of André Malraux, then the minister of culture. As the dancers gathered at the airport to fly to London for the next leg of the tour, Nureyev was taken to one side and told that he would be flying back to Moscow instead. One by one the dancers came to say goodbye with tears in their eyes. Rudolf was distraught and told his French friends that he was a ‘dead man’. Clara Saint, however, spoke to the French border police, one of whom happened to be a White Russian. Plain-clothed officers took up position close to where Nureyev was sitting with his minders. All he had to do was go up to them and ask for freedom, which he duly did. There was a brief tug-of-war, with Nureyev in the middle, until the French shouted: ‘Ah non! Ne le touchez pas – nous sommes en France.’

He was immediately engaged by the Marquis de Cuevas company and was back on stage in a week, giving another sensational performance as the prince in Sleeping Beauty in a theatre surrounded by police cars and the world’s press. He took at least 24 curtain calls and broke down in tears. The KGB had orders either to kill him or to break his legs, but meanwhile they merely tried to put him off. Just before he was due to perform in the ‘Blue Bird’ pas de deux he was given telegrams from his father, his mother and his teacher, Pushkin, respectively denouncing him as a traitor, cajoling him into returning and prophesying the loss of his technique. At the same time French Communists had been sent out in force. As Nureyev imitated the flight of the beautiful bird there were shouts of ‘traître’ and ‘à Moscou’ while coins, tomatoes and banana skins rained down on the stage.

In Russia his family and friends were interrogated, their correspondence intercepted, their telephones tapped. Those perceived to have been too close to him found their careers curtailed. His friend Tamara was thrown out of university. The Stasi opened what would become a huge file on Teja Kremke, an East German who had been his lover and blood brother in Leningrad. It seems probable that he was physically or psychologically tortured during his interrogation, which paid particular attention to degenerate sexual activity: Nureyev started it, he wrote; he had resisted. Kremke became an alcoholic and died young in mysterious circumstances.

Nureyev himself was tailed everywhere he went. On a trip to Deauville he was surprised to receive a phone call from his mother, once more urging his return: ‘They never heard of Deauville.’ Even in Copenhagen he was followed, and the Danish dancer Erik Bruhn, who had become Nureyev’s new lover, indeed the love of his life, found his invitation to appear with the Bolshoi abruptly cancelled. It was a long time before Nureyev stopped looking over his shoulder at border crossings, ‘absolutely pale and petrified, waiting to be grabbed’ and bundled off back to Russia to serve out his seven years.

The Marquis de Cuevas company paid him peanuts and had something of the circus about it. But leading ballet companies were not exactly queuing up to take on the ‘spaceman’. Most, in fact, didn’t want anything to do with him, anxious to preserve their artistic exchanges with the other side of the Iron Curtain. His immediate desire was to go to America to work with George Balanchine at the New York City Ballet. In a letter to Richard Buckle, Lincoln Kirstein described Nureyev ‘making peeeteeyous Russky noises’ about joining the company. But ‘Mrs K says defunutely: Nyet.’ The dance critics Arnold Haskell and John Martin denounced his ‘tragic’ mistake, his lamentable disloyalty. An article appeared in Izvestia under the name of Serge Lifar, the same Lifar who had awarded Nureyev the Nijinsky Prize: ‘He has become a star by sheer virtue of the fact that he is a traitor … his moral behaviour is unbalanced, hysterical and vain.’

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[*] Nureyev: From Russia with Love directed by John Bridcut.