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Spotlight: Rudolf Nureyev

This week's Spotlight Saturday focuses on legendary dancer Rudolf Nureyev.

Rudolf Khametovich Nureyev was born 17 March 1938 near Siberia in what was then the Soviet Union, on a train to Vladivostok. His mother, Feride, had been travelling to visit his father Hamit, a Red Army political commissar who was stationed in the city.

Nureyev discovered a passion for dance when his mother took him and his sisters to the ballet 'Song of the Cranes'. He frequently participated in Bashkir folk dancing, and his teachers encouraged him to train in Leningrad. Though he auditioned for the Bolshoi Ballet and was accepted, Nureyev felt that the Kirov Ballet (formerly the Mariinsky) had the best school.

As Conrad in 'Le Corsaire'

Due to the difficulties caused by World War II, Nureyev was not accepted into a major school until 1955. Finally, at the age of 17, he was accepted into the Leningrad Choreographic School, the associate school of the Kirov Ballet. His ballet master Alexander Pushkin took a keen interest in him, and allowed Nureyev to live with him and his wife.

As Conrad in 'Le Corsaire'

Upon graduation in 1958, Nureyev danced in the ballet Laurencia as the partner of ballerina Natalia Dudinskaya. He stayed on with the Kirov, becoming a soloist. He performed 15 roles during his 3 years with the company, often partnering Ninel Kurgapkina. The two travelled to Vienna in 1959, after which Nureyev was told by the Minister of Culture that he would not be allowed to travel abroad again.

In 'La Bayadere'

However, after a French representative saw Nureyev dance in 1960, he was specifically requested to appear on the upcoming Kirov tour of Paris and London. Nureyev was allowed to go, stunning French audiences in Paris. However, Nureyev broke the rules about mingling with foreigners, alarming the group's KGB minders. When the company gathered at the airport to fly to London, Nureyev was told he was to fly back to the Soviet Union for a special performance at the Kremlin. When this failed, he was told his mother was extremely ill. Nureyev still refused to return to the Soviet Union, believing he would be imprisoned if he did so. Instead, with the aid of the French police and a friend, the Parisian socialite Clara Saint, Nureyev slipped his KGB minders and received asylum.

Within a week of his defection, Nureyev had been signed by the Grand Ballet du Marquis de Cuevas, and was performing The Sleeping Beauty with Nina Vyroubova. While on a tour of Denmark with the company, he met Erik Bruhn, a soloist of the Royal Danish Ballet, who became his partner until Bruhn's death in 1986.

In 1961, Margot Fonteyn organised Nureyev's appearance at a performance held in aid of the Royal Academy of Dance, of which she was President. He danced Sir Frederick Ashton's Poeme Tragique, and the Black Swan Pas de Deux from Swan Lake. Dame Ninette de Valois lost no time in offering Nureyev a contract with The Royal Ballet, as Principal Dancer. His first appearance with the company came on 21 February 1962, partnering Margot Fonteyn in Giselle. Despite the 19 year age gap, the partnership of Fonteyn and Nureyev is one of the most famous of the ballet world. They last performed together in 1988, when Fonteyn was 69 years old.

With Margot Fonteyn in 'The Kingdom of the Shades' from 'La Bayadere'

In 1970, Nureyev became a Principal Guest Artist with The Royal Ballet, allowing him to spend more time on international engagements. He danced regularly with ballerina Eva Evdokimova, with their first appearance being in 1971 in La Sylphide. During his time at the Paris Opera Ballet, he danced frequently with Yvette Chauvire, whom he described as a 'legend'.

With Margot Fonteyn in Romeo and Juliet

Nureyev also made frequent film appearances. He appeared in Giselle in 1962, and Don Quixote in 1972, among others. In 1977, he played Rudolph Valentino in Ken Russell's Valentino, and appeared on The Muppet Show in 1978, in a parody of Swan Lake and a sauna duet with Miss Piggy. He was the focus of a 1981 documentary and had a role in the 1983 movie Exposed. He also appeared in a revival of the musical The King and I in 1989, when the production toured the United States and Canada.

Nureyev in rehearsal

Nureyev became a naturalised citizen of Austria in 1982, and was appointed the Director of the Paris Opera Ballet in 1983, where he remained as a dancer and choreographer until 1989. He also had a series of famous protégés, including Sylvie Guillem, Isabelle Guerin, Manuel Legris, Elisabeth Maurin, Elisabeth Platel, Charles Jude, and Monique Loudieres. He had many choreographic successes with the company, including The Sleeping Beauty, Romeo and Juliet, and La Bayadere, which closely followed the Kirvo version he had danced in Russia.

With Noella Pontois in 'La Bayadere' at the Paris Opera

Nureyev was diagnosed with AIDS in 1984, but for years denied there was anything wrong with his health. He began a marked period of decline in 1991, and by 1992 was in the final stage of the disease. In March 1992 he was admitted to hospital and underwent an operation to fight an inflammation of the heart. He still managed to conduct Romeo and Juliet at the Metropolitan Opera House for the American Ballet Theatre on 6 May 1992. In July of 1992, he showed renewed signs of inflammation, but refused further treatment. His last public appearance was on 8 October 1992, at the premiere of his La Bayadere for the Paris Opera Ballet. The ballet was a triumph, and the French Minister of Culture, Jack Lang, presented him with France's highest cultural award, the Commandeur de l'Ordre et des Lettres, on stage.

With Margot Fonteyn in 'Swan Lake'

He died in hospital from cardiac arrest on 6 January 1993, at the age of 54. His funeral was held in the foyer of the Palais Garnier Opera House in Paris, and he is buried in a Russian cemetery in Sainte-Genevieve-des-Bois near Paris. He was buried with his ballet shoes and a bouquet of white lilies. Music from the last act of Giselle was played as his coffin was lowered. A rehearsal room at the Vaganova Academy in Russia is named in his honour.

In 'Romeo and Juliet'

Nureyev's influence can be seen in the increased roles of male dancers, especially in classical productions. He was also the first classically trained dancer to go out of his way to perform modern dance, working with Martha Graham. Today, it is normal for dancers to be trained in both modern and classical dance, but Nureyev was the first.

Here's Nureyev's first appearance on American television in 1963:

And here's Nureyev and Fonteyn in Act 4 of Swan Lake in 1966:

Nureyev takes a bow at the English National Ballet

Thanks for reading! Next week the Spotlight will be on Mathilde Kchessinskaya.

- Selene

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