No Beast More Refined
- 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.’
Eventually, he was taken on by the Royal Ballet as a kind of permanent guest artiste. After seeing him perform at a gala in London, Ninette de Valois decided she simply had to have him for her company, impressed not so much by his dancing, nor the rapturous response it received from audiences, but by the sweeping grandeur of his bow as he took the applause. At Covent Garden, his partnership with Margot Fonteyn, who was old enough to have been thinking of retirement, took the world by storm all over again. His dancing improved still further as his Vaganova moves acquired a British accent. He became one of the most famous men of the 20th century, a superstar and very rich, with homes in London, Paris, New York and Virginia, on St Barts in the Caribbean and on one of the islands of Li Galli, an archipelago in the Gulf of Salerno opposite Capri, legendary home of the sirens, where he had a five-bedroomed house built by Léonide Massine including an 11th-century Saracen tower with a built-in dance studio.
In 1983, his form failing, thanks not only to age but to the ravages of HIV and the drug AZT, Nureyev was appointed director of the Paris Opéra Ballet by Jack Lang. He was made Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur in 1988 and Commandeur des Arts et des Lettres in 1992, shortly after he had risen from his sickbed to receive his last standing ovation at the premiere of his production of La Bayadère. He died on 6 January 1993. An elaborate funeral cortège made its way first to the Palais Garnier and then to the Russian cemetery in the distant suburb of Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois, where Lang read out a message from Mikhail Baryshnikov and ballerinas filled the grave with pointe shoes. Nureyev had ordered that his tomb, an unusual monument covered with a superb mosaic rug, should be placed at a distance from that of Serge Lifar, but it was still perhaps too close for comfort.
It took Julie Kavanagh a decade to produce her biography of Nureyev. She had the full co-operation of the Nureyev Foundations, and an awful lot of his friends, former friends and acquaintances spoke to her about him with remarkable candour, some of them for the first time. It is hard to imagine a fuller documentation of one man’s life; in that respect Kavanagh’s is an exemplary modern biography, an ‘official’ biography that is also a tell-all biography, of great significance as a prism through which to view the social, sexual, cultural and political history of the second half of the 20th century, as well as being highly entertaining. Everywhere he went this most famous and recognisable of celebrities was followed by what he called the ‘glare’ of eyeballs. We get a privileged view of the great man lying face down on a rug waiting to be serviced by an instant pick-up who hadn’t had time to remove his shoes; shafting a ‘sylvan youth’ in a supposedly dark room; and, shortly after his defection, stripping off for Richard Avedon and producing a spontaneous erection, ‘after Nijinsky’ as it were. Given such remarkable material, Kavanagh has chosen the path of maximum self-effacement, so that the book reads sometimes like a litany of what Nureyev did next, fitted with a wall-to-wall carpet of cogent quotations from those who were there when he did it.
She seems to have reserved her storytelling skills for the first page – ‘the lake, a sunlit ocean of ice, seemed to merge with the far-off white mountain ridges of Khamar Daban’ – and the last: ‘Suddenly, from nowhere, she heard a clatter of hooves on the road. “A black horse without saddle or bridle cantered along the road … The horse was part Arab and beautiful, but in this context, suddenly unpredictable and dangerous.”’ In between there are hints of symbolic subplots, paths not taken, connections waiting to be made: Rudolf’s affair with Hiram Keller, who played Ascylto in Fellini Satyricon, and a quote from Edmund White about the 1970s being like Petronius’ Satyricon; or Nureyev’s role as Prince Albrecht in Giselle, compelled by the Wilis to dance to his death. It is quite arresting when Kavanagh expresses her own opinion in her own words – ‘Bournonville technique for me …’ – but her voice is immediately submerged into Nureyev’s broken English, as if he had been speaking all along.
Such (Bournonvillean) unobtrusiveness gives the text a superficially ephemeridian air, but since the life itself is unique and amazing (even, it turns out, circularly self-shaping: he leaves Russia, he returns to Russia; he discards ballet-mime, he restores ballet-mime; the Berlin Wall goes up, it comes tumbling down), few will regret the absence of obtrusive narratorial interventions. Bombarded with so many juicy facts and quotations, Kavanagh’s impulse is simply to select the juiciest, an art in itself, then get out of the way and let the life take its course, day by day, month by month, year by year. The result is nevertheless pretty sensational. For what other biographical subject was invited to Khrushchev’s dacha and Kennedy’s White House, knew the secrets of the first floor of the Parisian sex club Le Trap and the château of the French Rothschilds at Ferrières, was invited to Studio 54, to Warhol’s Factory and to Stavros Niarchos’s yacht with its Degas, Delacroix and Toulouse-Lautrecs, its ‘James Bond’ features and 17th-century olive-wood panelling? Who else was an object of some interest to Mick Jagger, François Mitterrand and Greta Garbo, to Gorbachev, Judy Garland – ‘Rudi’, ‘Judy’, ‘Rudi’, ‘Judy’ – and François Truffaut? And, among those who were, who was also arrested on suspicion of drug possession along with a Dame of the British Empire in Haight-Ashbury in 1967, is known to have had a $500 handjob from a Viennese masseur in 1991, danced with Miss Piggy, and shat on, or somewhere close to, Zeffirelli’s doorstep?
All this is meticulously documented by Kavanagh. Differing accounts are carefully weighed against one another. Letters and magazine interviews are cited to contradict imperfect memories and to highlight the more startling changes of mind. It is clear she took her assignment very seriously indeed, perhaps more seriously than the sometimes trivial events warranted. She refers to Nureyev’s ‘Jewish cunt speech’ (contents not elaborated) as though it were the Gettysburg Address. There is a very careful account of l’affaire Béjart as if it were l’affaire Dreyfus (the choreographer Maurice Béjart had taken the liberty of announcing at the end of a performance that two of the dancers were to be promoted; when the applause died down, Nureyev went on stage to announce that they would not be promoted after all).
The reasons Roland Petit withdrew permission from the Paris Opéra to perform his ballets are examined so closely they might be the causes of the First World War. Was it because Nureyev had forgotten to take him on stage for a bow? Or was it because Nureyev was a little too brusque when at a post-performance party he called Petit over to say hello to Martha Graham: ‘You fucking get over here’, ‘If you talk to me like that I’m taking all my ballets away.’ Or was there another reason? Did Nureyev make a pass at his Kirov rival Alexander Soloviev, with whom he shared a room in Paris pre-defection? Or had Soloviev been persuaded to entrap Nureyev by making a pass himself? Having examined the evidence collected by Kavanagh very carefully I conclude that Nureyev, never subtle when it came to seduction, did indeed try it on with Soloviev, who either slapped him or punched him and asked to be moved to another room. Did Nureyev or did he not win the battle of the Don Quixote trousers? Well, the biography says he went on stage that night without his trousers, but in the BBC documentary recently screened to coincide with publication of this book, his partner, Ninel Kurgapkina, implies that he went on stage wearing them, albeit for the last time.[*] Did he have sex with Margot Fonteyn? Probably not, since he described sex with women as like making love to wet lettuce, which he would not have said if he had experienced ‘the dexterity of her pelvic floor muscles’. And did Nureyev shit on Zeffirelli’s doorstep? Christopher Hampton insists that he heard Nureyev himself saying he did. But Nureyev is often the worst source of all for his own achievements and his masseur and bodyguard, Luigi, insists it never happened, though he undermines his case somewhat by saying it wouldn’t have been like him.
Reading Kavanagh, I was often reminded of biographies of Alexander the Great: there are the same disagreements over what actually happened, despite numerous eyewitnesses, and the same attempts on the part of his fans to put the most positive spin on the most outrageous behaviour. For there seems no doubt that Nureyev could be rude, foul-mouthed, violent, stingy, anti-semitic, misogynistic, treacherous, deceitful and the regina assoluta of the queeny fit.
Kavanagh’s interviewees seem to have required little prompting to fall into the tropes of justification and she herself comes across as an apologist, as perhaps she felt she ought, given so much help and openness from the Nureyev Foundations. There is, for instance, the buffet incident – ‘Nureyev does not serve himself’ – at Gian Carlo Menotti’s villa at Spoleto in 1964. The event has been ‘mythologised’, Kavanagh says. He did not start throwing wineglasses at the wall, let alone a plate of spaghetti: he merely threw a glass on the floor and walked out. ‘I did not serve myself, that was all. I did not want to stand in a queue,’ he explained to Lynn Barber more than 25 years later, as if to clear up one of the great issues of our time. As for his failure to invite Petit to take a bow, well that was Makarova’s responsibility. Very soon, one begins to see Kavanagh coming. When, early on, she emphasises how much Nureyev liked Israel when he was on tour there, we know that sooner or later the question of anti-semitism will come up. I was bracing myself for nearly five hundred pages.
The problem is that Kavanagh’s generosity also extends too obviously to her more helpful and positive informants. Wallace Potts, an ex, a pioneering gay pornographer and archivist for the Nureyev Foundation in Bath, on whose initiative the biography was commissioned, is depicted as saintly, which perhaps he was. Another ex, Robert Tracy, who proved difficult to dislodge from Nureyev’s apartment in the Dakota Building and has some unwelcome things to say about Nureyev and safe sex, gets it gratuitously and vicariously in the teeth: ‘that shit-boy’, a quote that looks like Nureyev’s own opinion and may well have been, but which is footnoted to his loyal ‘Boy Friday’ known as ‘Blue’ (loyal, that is, until he had to go begging for money to pay off the Viennese masseur).
Kavanagh likes Kenneth Greve, a Danish dancer with whom Nureyev was besotted and who was therefore casus belli for a warlet with the Paris Opéra Ballet. Not interested in a sexual relationship, Greve, some believed, ‘was playing Rudolf like a fiddle’. Kavanagh comments: ‘Like most dancers, Kenneth was unself-consciously physical, thinking nothing of giving him scalp massages. “But I could see how much it tortured him.”’ Nureyev gets full marks for reacting to Greve’s subsequent marriage in a far more positive way than Diaghilev had reacted to Nijinsky’s.
Given all this, it is hardly surprising that many reviewers, such as Peter Conrad in the Observer and John Carey in the Sunday Times, have applauded Kavanagh’s labours while dismissing her attempts to excuse Nureyev and denouncing him as an out-and-out monster, a spreader of Aids and overly fond of man-made fibres. But Kavanagh could have spent less time excusing him and more time explaining him or at least contextualising him. One example: until the age of 17, Nureyev lived in abject poverty in a one-room house where the toilet, he claimed, was the street. This makes what happened on Zeffirelli’s doorstep, when the director had locked Nureyev out of his villa, a little less shocking; in fact, the real issue for Zeffirelli was that Nureyev had made the cornuto gesture at him, though ultimately he forgave him even that.
She (and her reviewers) could also have tried a little harder to interrogate the discourses that always seemed to surround him. Nureyev was a Bashkirian. His parents’ first language was not Russian but Tatar, a Turkic language. His grandfather had been a mullah and his mother wrote in Arabic script. So, from the moment when the ‘dirty little Tatar boy’, the ‘provincial fool!’, arrived in Leningrad, a discourse of the savage Other was ready and waiting for anyone who wished to draw on it. His performance as the slave Ali, therefore, reminded Violette Verdy of ‘a great Muslim whore’, and also King Kong, while Truffaut was inspired by his performance as Romeo (of all things) to start work on L’Enfant sauvage. Animal comparisons festoon the text: Nureyev is repeatedly a ‘bête’, ‘no beast more refined’, ‘this animal’ or, according to Jerome Robbins, ‘an animal and a cunt’. His wonderful Vaganova dorm-buddy Sergiu Stefanschi recalls Nureyev’s reaction when he called him a ‘Bashkirian pig’, ‘like a crazed animal, biting and wrestling me to the ground’.
Such metaphors are invoked on the slightest pretext, even when Nureyev seems to be behaving like a normal rational human being. Shortly after his defection and knowing full well that the KGB was watching him, he was taken to a restaurant and shown to the men’s room at the end of a dark corridor in the basement: ‘I became aware,’ Nigel Gosling recalls, ‘of this very natural instinct he had that there could be a trap … of almost animal sense.’ When in another restaurant someone arrives to whisper to Fonteyn that her husband, Tito Arias, had been the victim of an assassination attempt, ‘Rudolf,’ according to Kavanagh, was ‘like an animal sensing danger’. And of course when he falls ill he falls ill ‘like an animal’.
In the Nureyev bestiary, the horse, ‘part Arab … beautiful … unpredictable’, is one of the more flattering comparisons; though when Kavanagh entitles her chapter about his relationship with Fonteyn ‘The Horse Whisperer’, the image she conjures up is simply of a dumb animal. Elsewhere he is a ‘raging tiger’, the press lined up as if for a ‘tiger shoot’. Two adjacent entries in the index indicate fortuitously where some of this comes from: ‘steak favoured by’, ‘Tatar heritage of’. For the Tatar tiger liked his steak raw or barely cooked, and although his tomb and his superb collection of kilims testifies to proud retaliatory investment in his nomadic Tatardom, at times he too bought into the bestial image of himself, saying he was absolutely convinced his family came ‘from wolves’ and comparing his many homes to ‘wolves’ lairs’. Indeed, his first appearance on stage was as the wolf in ‘Little Red Riding Hood’.
Sometimes the animal imagery takes a more sinister turn. Even his lover Erik Bruhn, seen on one memorable occasion shouting ‘i will kill him kill him kill him!’, addressed Nureyev as ‘My dearest beautiful monster’. Watching him warm up at the barre, Rudi van Dantzig felt ‘like some immobile and mesmerised victim being slowly but surely eviscerated’, by which he seems to mean no more than that the dancer took his time and didn’t talk to him while doing his pliés. John Huston offered Nureyev the part of the snake in the Garden of Eden, ‘a kind of hybrid, homoreptile’. Kavanagh herself, in one of her grosser moments, seems to see him rather as a supernatural sexual leech: ‘He had made up his mind to seek Erik out in order, vampirically, to feed himself. “He was draining Erik,” Sonia said, “absorbing everything that Erik had.” Sexually, too, Rudolf expected to be the recipient, and with just as voracious an appetite.’ Teaching is not a zero-sum exchange that leaves the teacher in deficit, and you cannot learn Bournonville technique by being buggered by a principal of the Royal Danish Ballet, nor Balanchine’s by having sex with one of his ballerinas, ‘as if coition were a compulsory first step’. The only proper reaction to this kind of stuff is provided by Clara Saint: ‘Oh, please!’
Saint was expressing her final exasperation after one too many queeny fits. One wonders why more of Nureyev’s victims did not do the same. There is no doubt that there was some element of performance in his bad behaviour, ripping up Cecil Beaton’s costumes, throwing a copy of Bertrand Russell out of the window, testing how far the dirty little Tatar homosexual would be allowed to go before he was thrown off the millionaire’s yacht. When Zeffirelli, having foolishly relented, let him back into his villa, Nureyev went on the rampage, tipping over the plant-filled pithoi that lined the paths, hurling a wrought-iron chair at the director, before starting on the house itself. Christopher Hampton found him in the drawing-room, smashing a collection of majolica pottery with a curtain rod. Nureyev paused for a second: ‘Oh, good evening,’ he said. It’s the ‘oh’ that gives the game away.
Phyllis Wyeth would put up with no such nonsense: ‘Rudolf, if you stay here you cut off your own crusts.’ ‘And from that day on he would come into the kitchen … and make his own tea.’ Most illuminating of all is an anecdote from when he went to stay with van Dantzig and his boyfriend, Toer (the wolf with many lairs spent most of his life sleeping in other people’s tiny spare bedrooms). On the first morning Rudolf was caught making his bed, which was not considered necessary in this particular household, as Toer tried to indicate by showing him their own unmade bed: ‘Yes, yes, I know,’ he said. ‘I’ll do that too.’ From this it should be obvious that Nureyev could be hilarious, and not always unwittingly. At the climax of l’affaire Béjart he came out with a brazen one-liner to cancel the much applauded promotions: ‘April Fool’. And when van Dantzig explained to him at some length that a ballet he was choreographing was about a boy who was confused about his sexuality, Nureyev shot back: ‘A stupid boy then.’ But the humour was mostly unwitting. Immediately after his defection he started to complain about the coldness of the marble in the supposedly luxurious apartment in which Saint had installed him. Her friends started laughing at his oversensitivity: ‘I am not oversensitive. I am a dancer.’ He engaged in a long-drawn-out campaign to get his family out of Russia, writing letters to the New York Times and appearing before a Congressional committee to plead for them to be allowed to visit him. Unfortunately, he was successful and was soon telephoning one of his supporters in the campaign: ‘You’ve got to send them back!’
It is clear from the BBC documentary that Nureyev’s imperious persona was a front adopted the minute he stepped off the train in Leningrad, as a complete and utter nobody, a piece of shit from Ufa with trousers several sizes too short, but already announcing that he would be the world’s greatest dancer. Those who were close to him, like Tamara, treated this imperiousness as a kind of game, as Nureyev did himself, at least initially. Indeed, the documentary leaves one with a completely different impression of the man, not just because his Leningrad friends have nice things to say about him, but because they are all so nice themselves. A man who is remembered so fondly by such warm, intelligent people, despite what friendship with him cost them, must have had something going for him. And if misogyny and anti-semitism, and even, when it came to Stefanschi, anti-Romanianism, informed the Bashkirian pig’s vituperations, they seem to have had little impact on his behaviour towards people. He was always surrounded by devoted women and was himself utterly devoted to several, notably Maude Gosling and Margot Fonteyn. Jane Hermann, the artistic director of the American Ballet Theater, even forgave him in the end for that ‘ghastly night he made his “Jewish cunt” speech’ and descended like a tornado to rescue him from the filth and squalor to which his illness had reduced him, changing beds and washing floors.
She was prepared to do that because ‘I wasn’t going to stand by and see one of the greatest artists the world has ever known dying in such disgraceful conditions.’ And there is the crux. For there is something else about this biography that reminded me of books about Alexander the Great: the question of Nureyev’s ‘greatness’, which is often hopelessly mixed up with questions about his goodness as a human being and his technical ability. If Nureyev really was ‘one of the greatest artists the world has ever known’ then we might be happy to put him alongside any number of men and women who behaved appallingly but are nevertheless admired for their cultural impact, Alexander among them. What is most extraordinary about Kavanagh’s biography, however, is that she doesn’t really seem to share Hermann’s opinion about the man on whom she has spent ten years of her life.
A trained dancer, she knows her ballet, and shows it, sprinkling the text with untranslated technical terms, never one to say ‘bounciness’ when she can say ballon and always preferring relevé to ‘tip-toe’; readers will get far more out of the book if they keep a glossary within easy reach. It was nice to have a bit of help from Joan Acocella when it comes to Nureyev’s obsession with Bournonvillean petite batterie: his ‘goddamn ronds de jambe and those little steppy things’. Kavanagh is very illuminating, though, on national company styles, on the speed and strength of the New York City Ballet, the grandeur of the Maryinsky, the lascivious athleticism of the Bolshoi, the hoppy, skippy, village-square dancing of the Danes, the restraint of the British, the allure of the Parisians, so that we actually know what she means when she refers to Kirov with a bit of Bournonville, or Russian ‘with an English accent’. Indeed, this is the major theme of her book, although we could have done without her bizarrer thoughts on the vampirically sexual transmission process.
But Kavanagh’s technical knowledge also means that she is too attentive to the not infrequent deficiencies of Nureyev’s technique, as if she were constantly grading him for an exam. Other dancers are often said to be as good as or better than him; indeed, reading the biography one gets the impression that the second half of the 20th century was chock-full of wonderful male dancers, although it is always a good idea to check her more flattering assessments against the list of names in the acknowledgments; and there does seem to be a tendency for London-based dancers to get more frequent and more effusive praise than, say, Parisians.
Dancers can get into the history books for things other than dancing. Nijinsky’s importance is assured by The Rite of Spring and L’Après-midi d’un faune, works that show him to have been a revolutionary creative artist close to the epicentre of a very significant Modernist moment. But making dances was not where Nureyev’s genius lay. The ‘doyenne’ of dance critics, Arlene Croce, referred to his ‘staggering incompetence’; more damning was Ninette de Valois’s faint praise: ‘a certain talent as a choreographer, but not very much’. Kavanagh is actually more generous about his choreography than most others have been and occasionally even gives Nureyev credit for trying to put ideas on stage, but this is merely to salvage something from a dismal reputation, not to suggest we start comparing him with Balanchine.
Dancers can also make their mark by having masterpieces created ‘on’ them by great choreographers. Nijinsky scores again because of his role in Fokine’s Petrushka, and Lifar will always be known as Balanchine’s original Apollo in what is often considered the greatest classical ballet of the 20th century. But the best choreographers did not want to work with Nureyev – Balanchine reduced him to tears with his steadfast refusal – or not for long, and when they did they often found their talents failing. Even MacMillan’s Romeo, which Nureyev premiered in 1965, had been created not on him but on Christopher Gable. This was considered a great scandal at the time, a kind of larceny, and although Nureyev made the role his own, winning rapturous applause forty minutes long, his Romeo was not MacMillan’s Romeo, and Kavanagh sees it (through the eyes of her colleague-loyal, long-memoried Royal Ballet sources) as a travesty, almost occluding one of her subject’s greatest successes.
In fact, the only thing Kavanagh really seems to think was exceptional in Nureyev was his ability as a teacher, a ‘pedagogue of genius’, not in the way that Vaganova or Cecchetti or Pushkin were great teachers, but more as a trainer or motivator, transforming individuals and companies with whom he spent any time. This is in line with many modern assessments of Nureyev as the most influential male dancer of the 20th century, and there is a straightforward ‘greatness’ in that perhaps, but not the kind that excuses bad behaviour or justifies adoration.
So was Rudimania merely pop hysteria, a worldwide outbreak, in the words of the critic John Martin, of ‘ephebolatry’ for a beautiful man who was also a pretty phenomenal dancer and one with a great story, ‘a star by sheer virtue of the fact that he is a traitor’? Was it a huge amount of fuss about quite a lot but not all that much? Part of the problem, of course, is that Nureyev’s transforming impact meant that within a few years other younger male dancers had caught up with him, and it may be hard to re-create now how he looked to audiences at the time. Moreover there is always lurking in the background a juxtaposition with that other great defector and student of Pushkin, Mikhail Baryshnikov, whose technique was perfect as Nureyev’s was not and who was much easier to work with. Often preferred to Nureyev by critics, Baryshnikov makes some of the warmest and sharpest contributions to the book. In the end the Russians do rally round.
The people who make the strongest claims for Nureyev’s greatness as a dancer are not screaming teenagers and camp old balletomanes: they are people who know what they are talking about. Part of it, of course, was his multiple, resonant Othernesses, a man who could make audiences think of a Muslim, a whore and King Kong all at the same time. As Frederick Ashton put it: ‘Chaboukiani’ – the ‘owner’ of the Corsaire party-piece – ‘was the most exciting dancer I ever saw; and Nureyev has some of his fire; but more grace. There is a strangeness about him.’ That was it in a nutshell: fire and grace and strangeness. More substantially, Nureyev was able to invoke images both feminine and bestial, the one dangerously balancing the other. His Russian contemporaries, interviewed for the documentary, were utterly divided on the question of his effeminacy, some saying that during his duets it was hard to tell who was the ballerina, others dismissing any such suggestion out of hand. But both views are right. There is no question that Nureyev moved the ballerino closer to the ballerina in specific and demonstrable ways: for example, by dancing on tip-toe and by adding a great deal of expressive plastique to the movements of the upper half of his body, making his glorious male predecessors look flat-footed, stiff and clunky by comparison. But he never seemed anything other than masculine, because of the impression he gave of ‘masculine’ power, the energy (animal or otherwise) and oomph he put into everything he did, the ‘Rolls-Royce’ engine that he seemed to have inside him; and then there was his cocky struttiness, like a ghetto gang-leader, and, of course, his prominent paquete, the handsome frontal bulge that was revealed as soon as he removed his trousers in Don Quixote, quietly and quickly dismissing any doubts as to his gender.
But there was something even more straightforwardly extraordinary about Nureyev, something often hinted at by the interviewees, something that will always set him apart from both Nijinsky and Baryshnikov: his figure. What I mean is that if you saw the three of them walking down the road together, or running across the stage or just standing around together, there seems no doubt that it would be to Nureyev that your eyes would be drawn. Tamara Karsavina, who competes with Pavlova for the title of the greatest ballerina of the 20th century and who partnered Nijinsky in some of his most famous performances, put her finger on it immediately after seeing him for the first time: ‘Certain steps he does better than Nijinsky, but he is without Nijinsky’s gift for pausing in the air. On the other hand he has not got Nijinsky’s overdeveloped thighs, which makes for better line.’ Slim waist, slender limbs, a great pair of shoulders, beautiful face, just enough height, plus a butt that even Baryshnikov admired, Nureyev was always lovely to look at. Sergiu Stefanschi compared his body to a Stradivarius, an instrument that could ‘sing’ in the hands of its master – a great quote that is missing (I think) from Kavanagh’s biography. But perhaps the most eloquent testimony as to Nureyev’s greatness comes in the documentary, from his lovely and brilliant partner Ninel Kurgapkina. She is not a reticent interviewee, but when the question of Nureyev’s quality as a dancer comes up, she just falls back and gasps, in speechless, sighing submission.
So I, who was born three years after Nureyev’s defection and never saw him at his best, still think that Nureyev was probably without peer, not as a teacher, but as a dancer, and that he will remain without peer for many more, though hopefully not too many more, years to come. Such a combination of grace, fire and strangeness, tiger, wolf and stallion, King Kong and a Stradivarius, is not likely to be repeated any time soon, and certainly not by today’s managed and sensible professionals. When the channels were fully functional, as quite often they were, the music and the role would fill Nureyev, Nureyev would fill his body and his body would fill the stage.
[*] Nureyev: From Russia with Love directed by John Bridcut.