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People Top 5
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- June 28, 1976
- Vol. 5
- No. 25
Ballet's Greatest Performer
An Intimate Look at Rudolf Nureyev Life –a Dance Against Time
With spring temperatures hovering in the 70s, Rudolf Nureyev sweeps into Manhattan's deluxe La Caravelle restaurant in a floor-length black mink coat, high-heeled boots and Dutch-boy cap tugged tightly around hair still damp from rehearsal. He immediately asks that the air conditioning be turned off. And before ordering a sirloin steak bleu, he sips the first of many cups of hot, sweet tea that he will consume throughout lunch.
"I should have stayed in bed this morning," he grouses, staring moodily at his plate. Suddenly he looks up with a smile of dazzling, seductive insouciance. "And what is it," he asks, "that you want to know about me?"
Well, why, at age 38, is he in the midst of his most physically grueling dance marathon to date? How, at a most precarious age for a male dancer, does he continue to defy the encroachment of time and gravity? And how, despite two recent severe bouts with pneumonia, is Nureyev dancing better than he has in many seasons?
This month, after an exhausting winter and spring season in New York and Washington as guest artist with the Royal Ballet, Nureyev is in London for a nonstop Nureyev festival. There, in the 2,400-seat Coliseum Theatre, he is dancing 48 performances in 47 days with three different ballet companies—and the entire seven weeks are sold out. In mid-July he returns to New York for three weeks with the National Ballet of Canada. At summer's end Nureyev begins preparations for his screen debut, starring as Valentino in a film directed by Ken Russell.
"Well, I'm not physically dilapidated yet," the dancer teases, then turns quickly serious. "Of course I push my body. What else is there to do? I will dance until I drop. One has to be serious about the goods one delivers to the public. After all," he continues, "dance is not a casual affair."
Nureyev has never been more serious. It is now 15 years since the young Russian rebel defected to the West by hurling himself melodramatically into the arms of the French police at a Paris airport, crying "I won't go back." Dancing as often and wherever he could, Nureyev not only became the capitalist West's reigning superstar but whetted the public's current immense appetite for dance.
Two years ago, having conquered the entire classic standard repertory, from Swan Lake and Giselle to Stravinsky's Petrouchka, Nureyev successfully invaded modern dance, retraining his body to the entirely new demands. By now he has mastered such avant-garde works as Paul Taylor's own signature role in Aureole and Murray Louis's Moments. And Martha Graham, doyenne of modern dance, has choreographed two ballets specially for him, Lucifer and The Scarlet Letter. "I didn't come to the West to be a star," Nureyev insists. "I already was one with the Kirov. I came to dance everything—and I have."
It is this obsessive need to dance that dominates Nureyev's life more and more—offstage and on. "The truth is, I dance from fear," he admits. "It is better for me to do it this way. It fights the tension and superhysteria. It is actually less strain than dancing just three times a month the way they do in Russia. If I had to do that again, I'd have a nervous breakdown."
Nonetheless, the pace tells. Nureyev these days is thinner of face. He is often tired and winds more easily. He concedes that his breath-catching leaps have lost some of their elevation. Yet, even when standing perfectly still, he can mesmerize an audience. No one on the ballet stage today can compete with his potent magic.
Nureyev's dance against time is partly the result of being a late starter. Born into the cruel poverty of a peasant family in the Urals village of Ufa, 250 miles from the Siberian border, Nureyev remembers "always being hungry and cold—and knowing I had to dance. There was nothing else." His father disapproved, and Nureyev had to steal away from home to tour with a local folk-dance troupe. "I couldn't ask my family for the train fare to Leningrad to audition for the Kirov," he says. "If I had failed, six people would have gone hungry for weeks." At 16 he bought a one-way ticket to Moscow to perform with a folk festival. He caught the eye of a Kirov teacher and auditioned in a hotel room doing ballet's vocabulary of classic exercises clutching an iron bedpost as the barre. Immediately accepted at the Kirov, he became the school's most gifted and incorrigible student. He hired a private tutor to teach him English (reading Oscar Wilde and Sherlock Holmes) and saw every foreign ballet company he could. It was not always easy. "Every time an American company came, I would suddenly be sent on a bus tour of the subarctic," he recalls. "I was threatened often. They tried to make me promise I would not try to get away. But I had to get visual confirmation of what I thought dance could be." In 1961, during a Kirov performance in Paris, he leapt for freedom with the equivalent of $10 in his pocket. Two months later a call came from the Royal Ballet's Margot Fonteyn to appear in a gala. Their first performance together made ballet history.
Nureyev today is still grateful. "Margot has influenced me more than anyone. What she gave me was her vulnerability—she invested herself in me. That's really how I started to travel. She traveled, so I did."
Nureyev is still ballet's vagabond. He speaks of himself as a "loner" but he has little solitude. A night creature, he is fond of parties. Or he watches Mission: Impossible reruns till the early hours, falling asleep under a pile of blankets. (A recurring nightmare is that he will one day go onstage in street shoes.) When performing, he rises promptly at 9 a.m., breakfasts on hot tea and buttered toast. He takes class religiously and rehearses up to six hours a day, broken only by a late-afternoon nap. But he has few possessions that display his earning power—his fees range from $3,000 upwards. After exhausting performances, he sometimes unwinds at a nightclub or a porno film. "After the emotional intensity, one can't recharge oneself in normal ways," explains Nureyev. "It's then I don't want to be alone."
What about his reputation as a temperamental Tartar? He concedes: "I make no compromises—for myself or anyone." Intensely self-critical, he can still work himself into what Fonteyn calls "a creative rage." "Well, it's sometimes true," he grins, "that I walk around looking for someone to insult so I can go home." His profanity in a variety of languages can shock a hardened stagehand. Longtime observer Lincoln Kirstein adds: "Rudolf is a theatrical animal; most of those rages are play, well-choreographed. They're not destructive—just the dark side of being Russian."
Less well-known to the public is Nureyev's acute, analytical intelligence and impish humor. A compulsive punster, he is capable of enormous charm. In class, where he could of course outdance anyone in the room, he quietly submerges himself. Teacher Stanley Williams says, "Rudolf never plays the star, never makes demands. He is very giving with the kids here." Royal Ballet star Anthony Dowell concurs: "All one has to do is ask for help and it's there." Monique Van Vooren, an Andy Warhol star and singer with whom Nureyev often stays, says of their relationship: "He is gentle and generous. I've been together with him longer than with my husbands and had the best times of my life with him. He has flown me halfway around the world for one night. Knowing Rudolf has spoiled me for any other personal relationships."
Nureyev is consistently evasive about his own relationships. "It's not the public's business," he says. He scorns marriage. "What for?" he asks. "To ruin some girl's life with the way I live?" And adds: "It is best to get on with the dancing and leave the emotions for later."
Always the adventurer, Nureyev is excited about his movie role as Rudolph Valentino, the screen's most famous lover. "Let's be honest," he says, "everyone wants to be a movie star. Valentino had incredible magnetism on screen—an animal quality he had the strength to maintain. It's a tremendous challenge. If it doesn't work," he smiles, "I'd rather have a failure of that magnitude. Anyway, it's time to do it before I get wrinkles and they have to photograph me through a mattress."
At the moment he is troubled only by his failure over the past 15 years to wrest an exit visa from the Soviet Union for his mother, whom he has not seen since his defection. "But I can't complain," Nureyev says. "At least there's still something to write home about."
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