Updated: Nov 24, 2020
Rudolf Nureyev, was not only the greatest dancer of the twentieth century, but also the creator of a profound transformation of classical dance, but, offstage, the icon of a rebellious, free and unconventional way of life. He profoundly marked the costume in the middle of the 900 while the western world emerged from the prejudices and hypocrisy of the post-war period. So today anyone who treads a stage cannot forget the sign he left, with which he must inevitably confront himself. The Death of Rudolf Nureyev, on 6 January 1993, created an immense void in the world of dance, which is unlikely to be filled.
He was often called a "genius of dance" and also "the natural heir of Nijinsky", the great Russian dancer of the early twentieth century and an innovator of choreography. Nureyev, in effect, extolled the figure of the male dancer, as Nijinsky had done half a century earlier.
In classical ballet, the man had a secondary relief, compared to the dancer; its function was simply to enhance the skill of the woman, making her fly as high as possible. Nureyev did not accept this difference between the roles, with him the dance and the male technique acquired a new and different physiognomy, an importance equal, if not superior, to that of the female dance. He said, not surprisingly: "I always thought that Pas de deux wanted to indicate dance for two".
Who was Nureyev, how did it come to such success, how did it become a myth?
His story has an incredible and almost seems to come from a nineteenth-century novel, from some fairy tale of the past. He was born on 17 March 1938 on a Trans-Siberian train; already: right on a Trans-Siberian train; almost a premonition of what would have been his future life, full of journeys all over the world, from one theater to another, wherever he found an audience awaiting his performance. "When I am dead, you will erect me a statue: you will see me rising from a chair with two suitcases, ready to go. That will be the story of my life ".
His mother Farida brought the baby into the world while he was traveling with his three daughters, from Ufa to Vladivostok, where his father Hamet, a career soldier, worked. Thus Rudolf was the son of Tartar parents: I cannot explain exactly what it means to me to be Tartar and not Russian, but I feel the difference in my veins. The blood tartar flows faster and, in some way, is always ready to boil. We are also more sympathetic than the Russians, more sensual; we are a curious mixture of tenderness and brutality. Tartars are more passionate, more combative, modest but at the same time astute as foxes; Tartar man is a graceful but complex animal, this is what I am ".
His family was poor; what the dancer remembered most precisely from his childhood was hunger. "Of those times I know one thing, general hunger, the desire to eat something other than a potato. Maybe he wasn't so tragic, since we survived. I also remember another thing: the fear of wolves; I never saw them, but everyone said they went around the houses and sometimes ate children. This served to keep us not too far away, obviously ”.
Nureyev had a strong admiration for her mother, a strong, intelligent woman, always ready to sacrifice herself for her children, a great worker. It was she who brought him to the theater for the first time, in 1943, when Rudolf was only 5 years old: “I thought that everything I saw was magical. I will become a dancer ”.
He started school at the age of six in a folk dance class; at home he sang and danced without stopping. "I spent a lot of time listening to music, it distracted me, it made me dream, and sometimes I forgot to do my homework, or I hurt them". At home they said to me: "Study, don't dream, go ahead, don't shut yourself up." "It's the usual story, it will have happened to you too because the parents didn't understand you."
The father wanted him a graduate, a chemist or an engineer; he wanted a son to honor his country and repay the government with a positive job; he wanted him to go hunting with him and every time he saw him dancing he beat him. His mother and sister Rosa (who later attended the university and gave Rudy the books he loved) supported him.
His teachers soon learned of his talent and inserted him in some shows of the school. At the age of 11 he was discovered by Ana Udeltosova, a ballet dancer with the Balletes Russes, of Diaghilev, who taught at that time in Ufa to an amateur group of children. Udeltosova played, in Nureyev's life, the role of the good fairy and instructed him with the first rudiments of classical ballet.
The young dancer was aiming for the maximum, namely to enter the prestigious Kirov school. He succeeded, in just three years he graduated and won the first prize at the national ballet competition held in Moscow in 1958, dancing the Pas de Deux of the "Corsaro" as representative of the Kirov. Of that event there is a film spread all over the world, which documents the birth of a star.
In the years he spent in the Kirov school, the teaching he received from Master Pushkin was fundamental to him, correcting the flaws in the layout and the lack of style that had made his first period in school difficult.
Nureyev remembered him thus: "For me it was a father, without him I could have done very little; I swore eternal gratitude and having lost it, when I chose to stay in the West, caused me real pain ”.
Pushkin discovered in him the rare gift of the interpreter and the actor, saw in him a dancer capable of expressing himself not only with the body but also with the soul. For Nureyev, in fact, the technique was nothing but the support for a meditation on people, on music, on character. He was not a great virtuoso, but he was a true artist; with him the art of dance joined the art of interpretation.
He said: "I work and dance with my mental energies, my muscles are just a means to express myself".
Entering the Kirov dance corps as first dancer, he immediately aroused sympathy for the main dancers, who preferred him as a partner to other colleagues because he gave confidence and security, he knew how to wear the dancer well. In particular he danced with Natalia Dudynskaja, who taught him classicism, musicality, the sense of suspension. However, relations with the Kirov soon cracked.
Nureyev was an independent spirit and could not accept or submit to the strict rules of that environment; moreover he felt the weight of a stale situation, of closure to a western world in which, unlike Russia, there were experiments in the field of classical dance and in the modern one. Nureyev was convinced he could improve through contacts and comparisons with the outside world. "I used to dance little at Kirov, three or four times a month and always the same things."
Thus, with the first tours abroad, his desire to react inevitably grew, until on June 17, 1961, during a Kirov tour in Paris, Nureyev decided to stay in the West and asked for political asylum. He fled from Russia and was allowed to return only many years later, in 1989.
He had courageously wanted to stay in Paris, where he also received the Nijinsky prize from the Université de la danse in 1961. "I had nothing with me, only a few coins in my pocket, nothing else and no job offer; I could only count on my body. I had nothing but my body and the talent that was recognized to me by many. "
The first to receive him in a company was Raimondo De Larrain, director of the company of the Marquis of Cuevas; one of the étoiles was Rosella Hightower, who then told: "He gave us a new vision of dance, gave us a kind of electric discharge. After his arrival, everything we did looked dated, old. I realized that a new era was beginning for the ballet ".
Nureyev soon after moved to Denmark, from Erik Bruhn, his model and his idol, the most admired danseur noble of the ballet world. He wanted to know him to get rich, to grow and so it happened. In Denmark Nureyev worked with Vera Volkova, who sharpened the sense of beauty in him and taught him to transform his athleticism, his virtuosity, into an element of superior beauty. Rudolf understood the importance of being above styles. "If I had to define myself I would say that Nureyev is a great stylist, who knows how to find the right style in every ballet: an interpretative figure that remains etched in the memory ... Others perhaps have a greater acrobatic technique than mine or are more beautiful: but I believe that it is much more important to know how to use one's defects, one's limits to do art ".
Soon after he was invited to London by Margot Fonteyn, the true star of English dance, Nureyev accepted and was born the most illustrious couple of artists of the second half of the 20th century. The collaboration with Dame Fonteyn was one of the things Nureyev was most proud of: "Dancing is like walking the same path together, the most important thing is the way you dance, but when you dance with Fonteyn there is only one goal and a single vision of things, there is nothing that divides us ”.
Margot was twenty years older than Rudolf and the meeting with him gave her the courage and the desire to continue. They danced together "Giselle" and that show went down in history as one of the most memorable events of our times; together they found an agreement on a thousand details to be finished. A deep bond was born between the two, which kept them united on the stage for many years. For them it was created by the choreographer Frederik Ashton a ballet, "Marguerite and Armand", inspired by the "Lady of the Camellias" by A. Dumas and built on their temperament, their sensitivity, their intelligence. It became a triumph.
Margot thus spoke of Nureyev: "I have never met a similar professional; he demanded maximum precision even from others. Some of his observations were perhaps unpleasant but perfectly fitting; he obliged me gently to rethink my repertoire ".
Nureyev's intervention on the repertoire was indeed decisive for the future of dance. It can be said that he took away everything that was old and no longer had a reason for being for him (heavy tricks, wigs, mannerless gestures without meaning) but above all that he entered the psychology of the characters, giving them a role new. All this was accentuated when Nureyev began to dedicate himself to choreography: he reinterpreted the classics and gave his versions, still taken up and used in many theaters of the world, in particular at the Paris Opera, of which he was director from 1983 to 1990 .
Nureyev, danced all over the world, with many partners, worked with the best contemporary choreographers, also testing himself in modern dance, in new experiments (G. Balanchine, R. Petit, M. Grahm, M. Béjart, G. Tetley , etc ...), always with great success. He also approached the cinema, interpreting Valentino in the film of the same name by Ken Russel and even had some experience as a conductor. There was always little information on his private life, but it was right. "Consider me for what I am, a dancer; it is not permissible to enter the private life of an artist; man will think God to judge him ".
He wanted to die on the scene, but he couldn't: the illness took him away with him. In recent years he loved to take refuge on the island of Li Galli in front of Positano, which he bought.
"Dance is my whole life. There is in me a predisposition, a spirit that not everyone has. I must carry this destiny to the end; taken this way one cannot go back. It is my condemnation, perhaps, but also my happiness. If they asked me when I will stop dancing, I would answer: when I stop living ”.