The girl who led Nureyev to de­fect

The Australian - - WORLD -

LON­DON: More than half a cen­tury af­ter the de­fec­tion of Ru­dolf Nureyev, the woman who was the key to his leav­ing the for­mer Soviet Union has spo­ken pub­licly for the first time.

The dancer fled into the arms of French po­lice at Le Bourget air­port in Paris, de­feat­ing ef­forts to stop him by Rus­sian agents. He was helped by Clara Saint, whom he had be­friended over the pre­vi­ous six weeks dur­ing the tour of the Kirov Bal­let.

She sped to the air­port on June 16, 1961, af­ter a phone call telling her Nureyev was about to be sent to Moscow.

Once there, she told him to go over to the gen­darmes, as his Rus­sian min­ders could not force him back when they and Nureyev were on French soil. Her act se­cured his de­fec­tion.

“I said to him, ‘You see th­ese two men, French po­lice, you have to go to them,’ ” says Ms Saint in a pro­gram to be aired by the BBC. “It’s like in a bal­let. He jumped. The French po­lice­men took him, and then there was a fight be­tween one of the po­lice­men and one of the body­guards.

“The French po­lice­man said to the Rus­sian: ‘Don’t touch me’, scream­ing ‘ Vous etes en France ici.’ ”

Ms Saint was the 19-year-old daugh­ter of a Chilean artist liv­ing in Paris and was en­gaged to the son of the French nov­el­ist and cul­ture min­is­ter An­dre Mal­raux. She met Nureyev, then the 23-year-old ris­ing star of the Kirov. Their re­la­tion­ship was al­most cer­tainly not sex­ual, though Nureyev was still un­sure of his ho­mo­sex­u­al­ity and had had li­aisons with women.

Ms Saint, now 74, agreed to record an au­dio in­ter­view with Richard Cur­son Smith, the di­rec­tor of Dance to Free­dom, but does not ap­pear on screen in the doc­u­men­tary. “She is a very, very pri­vate per­son,” he said.

It was the death of her fi­ance, Vin­cent, and his brother in a car crash in May 1961 that deep­ened her in­volve­ment with Nureyev.

“It was my car,” says Ms Saint, who was in­formed of her fi­ance’s death while sit­ting in a box re­served for Sovi­ets at a bal­let in Paris as the guest of Nureyev.

“The two died in a car accident in the south of France. I did not want to look at all the mag­a­zines and news­pa­pers. For me it was very im­por­tant

con­tin­uer sans plus penser” — to carry on re­gard­less.

French dance critic Rene Servin says in the pro­gram: “Clara Saint was more in love with Nureyev than with her fi­ance.”

Cur­son Smith does not ask Ms Saint to con­firm this, but sus­pects she was in love. In­stead, he asks if Nureyev loved her. “I don’t think so,” she replies. “He thought I was an in­ter­est­ing per­son. I was free and I didn’t work at the time. Ev­ery­thing was easy with me. But, you know, he was such a star. I was happy for him.”

On their last evening be­fore his de­fec­tion, Ms Saint — who later worked for Yves St Lau­rent and Andy Warhol — as­sured him she would see him in Lon­don, where the Kirov was due next. In fact, the KGB had de­cided he would be has­tened back to Moscow and had a plane ar­ranged.

The KGB in Paris had be­come wary of Ms Saint’s close as­so­ci­a­tion with Nureyev, even send­ing re­ports to Moscow that she was a CIA agent. In the pro­gram, Ms Saint jokes about this ac­cu­sa­tion. “I was a paid CIA agent. Yes, I was Mata Hari.”

Nureyev’s love for the West was alarm­ing for Sovi­ets at the height of the Cold War. One in­ter­vie­wee sug­gests Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev had con­sid­ered or­der­ing Nureyev’s legs be bro­ken to stop his ca­reer in the West.

Nureyev’s friends from the Kirov did suf­fer. “I was branded a traitor af­ter the de­fec­tion,” says one, Alla Osipenko. She was not al­lowed to travel abroad with the bal­let com­pany for a decade.

The KGB got Nureyev’s par­ents to write let­ters urg­ing him not to be­tray his coun­try. “It was par­tic­u­larly awk­ward for Nureyev’s fa­ther as he was a party of­fi­cial,” said Cur­son Smith. Nureyev was not al­lowed to re­turn un­til 1987, five years be­fore his death.

The de­fec­tion was a pro­pa­ganda coup for the West.

Michael Cox, pro­fes­sor of in­ter­na­tional re­la­tions at the Lon­don School of Eco­nomics, said: “It meant the West could claim a vic­tory in the Cold War.”

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