End of the Dance

updated 11/02/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

originally published 11/02/1992 AT 01:00 AM EST

EVEN WHEN THE LEGS THAT HAD VAULTED him to stardom faltered, Rudolf Nureyev delivered a courageous—and stirring—performance. The Paris Opera had scheduled the premiere of La Bayadère, a classic Russian ballet that Nureyev had newly rechoreographed. Determined to see that the production met his standards, the gravely ill dancer dragged himself from his hospital bed to attend rehearsals and the Oct. 8 premiere. He had to be supported as he moved about the theater. "He has a willpower that is incredible," says ballet historian Vicente Garcia-Marquez. After the performance Nureyev was awarded the insignia of Commander of Arts and Letters by France's Minister of Culture, Jack Lang, "It was moving. People were in tears," says Garcia-Marquez.

Four days after the premiere the 54-year-old ballet legend was assisted onto a plane that would carry him to his villa on the Caribbean island of St. Bart's. Though many of the dancer's friends deny it, Nureyev is widely believed to be suffering from AIDS.

The ravages of the long-rumored infection appear to have pulled the curtain on one of the most remarkable careers in dance. Idolized by balletomanes for his blend of classical elegance and animal sensuality not to mention his gravity-defying jumps—Nureyev also riveted those who wouldn't know a plié from pliers. His macho stage persona revolutionized the image of ballet, while his appearances everywhere from movies to The Muppet Show helped popularize it. "He transformed the definition of male dance," says George de la Peña, a former principal at the American Ballet Theatre, seen most recently acting on L.A. Law. "He gave it power. He gave it athleticism and artistry."

Nureyev soared onto the world stage in 1961 when he defected from Leningrad's Kirov Ballet while on tour in France—leaping over a railing at Paris's Le Bourget Airport in an electrifying bid for personal and artistic freedom. Looking back years later at this bold move, he said, "I had the feeling that if I didn't try everything, then my life would be wasted."

No one would ever accuse him of shrinking from risk. Exotic, flamboyant, Nureyev took his newfound freedom to the limit. Back when the Rolling Stones were still scrabbling for gigs, the sloe-eyed hunk with the killer cheekbones swaggered through life with rock-star excess. He seduced men and women alike—including his famous partner the late Margot Fonteyn—partied furiously and danced even more so the next day. And he hung with the glitterati among the now AIDS-decimated Studio 54 set. "Rudolf had a sex life that was probably as wide-ranging as anyone's in this century," says James Toback, who directed the dancer in the 1983 film Exposed. "He had an aesthetic elegance and at the same time a kind of pan-gender power." Adds De la Peña: "He is the most extraordinarily vibrant human being that I have met in my life. He is a tireless adventurer."

That adventure began on March 17, 1938, when Rudolf Hametovich Nureyev was born on a train en route to Vladivostok, where his father, a soldier, was stationed. Both his parents, who already had three daughters, were descended from Tatars, a storied race of nomadic horsemen. They soon relocated to Moscow and, after their home was bombed during World War II, to remote Ufa, capital of the Republic of Bashkir. There the future superstar gave his first performances, entertaining wounded soldiers with folk dances. Nureyev didn't begin ballet until the relatively late age of 11, sneaking off to lessons against his parents' wishes.

At age 20, Nureyev won a national ballet competition in Moscow and was offered the exalted position of soloist with the country's two most prestigious companies. He picked the Kirov, believing that the more tradition-bound Bolshoi turned out dancers "with marvelous muscles of steel but no heart." He got his next big break during the Kirov's 1961 European tour. Tapped at the last minute to step in for ailing leading dancer Konstantin Sergeyev, Nureyev thrilled both audiences and critics.

The response was even more ecstatic following his defection. At a 1963 performance in London, he and Fonteyn, his collaborator in one of ballet's most legendary partnerships, took 40 curtain calls. Fonteyn, the Royal Ballet's star, was a full two decades older than her Prince Charming. But such was the power and passion of their coupling that no one seemed to notice. He soon caught the fancy of choreographers ranging from classical paragon George Balanchine to modern dance's Martha Graham. Hollywood beckoned. In those glory days of the mid-'70s, there seemed to be nothing he couldn't do.

And then there was. The years of great jumps and punishing landings began to take their toll. He tried movies but stumbled badly in the bombs Exposed and Valentino (1977). As recently as the mid-'80s he was still grinding out a crippling 200 performances annually, even as his turns grew shakier, his balance more unsteady and the reviews more savage.

But still he went on, and still he commanded an audience. People came to see the legend as much as the dance. "I think he's heroic—he's dancing against the clock," said longtime friend Jacqueline Onassis. "Here is a man who will dance to the end, to the last drop of blood."

Nureyev would agree. "Inside," he has said, "I am only 23, an eternal youth. Dancing, for me, is forever."

PAM LAMBERT
CATHY NOLAN in Paris, LYNDON STAMBLER and LYNN MORGAN in Los Angeles and MARIA EFTIMIADES in New York City

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