Elusive as the dance
Deborah Jones Never mind the avalanche of biographical detail, what about Rudolf Nureyev the man, asks
SCHOLARLY and salacious in more or less equal parts, Julie Kavanagh’ s Rudolf Nureyev is an undeniably, even wearyingly, thorough dissection of the dancer ’ s public and private life. It also feels curiously unfinished. Rudolf Nureyev — Rudik — was born on a train in March, 1938, near Lake Baikal in what was then the Soviet Union. His mother, Farida, was heading to meet her husband, Hamet, a Red Army soldier who was based in the Russian Far East. Both were Tartars brought up as Muslims and Farida wrote in Arabic all her life. Hamet was a keen communist who did well at this tumultuous time in Soviet history; his only son would be less good with authority.
The family settled in Ufa, capital of the province of Bashkiria, where Rudik showed aptitude for folk dancing. He loved music and over the years studied it closely enough that towards the end of his life he could credibly — just — b e hired as a conductor. When he was seven he was smuggled, on New Year’ s Eve,
Song into Ufa ’ s opera house to see the ballet,
, a Swan Lake - like Bashkirian of the Cranes story, and fell in love. I knew. That’ s it, that’ s
‘‘ my life, ’’ he later said of that moment.
There was one other defining matter. The
Rudolf Nureyev By Julie Kavanagh Fig Tree, 787pp, $ 59.95
family was extremely poor and young Rudik knew real hunger and deprivation. At times he had no shoes, little food other than potatoes, and lived six people and a dog, all in one
‘‘ room’’ . You can imagine him, just like Scarlett O ’ Hara, vowing never to be hungry again.
When he got to the Vaganova Academy in Leningrad, Nureyev worked insanely hard to improve on his early training and quickly became noticed, particularly as he usually did things differently from everyone else. The ultra- high demi- pointe and extravagantly arched back that made him look more feminine, and sexier, than his earthier male counterparts can be seen in early footage of him dancing what became a signature gala piece, the slave dance from Le Corsaire .
He had affairs with women at this time but also with a young East German student, Teja Kremke, who made amateur films that give Kavanagh valuable information about the dancer’ s development.
The story of Nureyev’ s defection in Paris in 1961 is well known and related here with some dash. He was left with what he stood up in and knew he might not see his family again. For some years he was in real danger of kidnap and harm from the Soviets.
Nureyev quickly took the measure of what the West could give him. He amassed celebrity friends, lovers, helpers, motherly figures in every important city, artworks and property. He made the rules about what he would dance and with whom, and it turned out to be pretty much anyone as long as there was money on the table, although he acknowledged the value Margot Fonteyn brought to his career.
What was going on in his head? It ’ s hard to say, and Kavanagh isn’ t terribly helpful. She writes without irony or explanation, to give just one example, that Nureyev and a companion were forced to travel like students’’ to an
‘‘ engagement in Buenos Aires because of the low fee on offer. At this time Nureyev was most comfortably off, and when he died, in 1993, he was worth more than $ US20 million. The hunger he knew as a child had turned into greed and acquisitiveness, even miserliness.
His voracious appetite did its best work in the theatre. He devoured the stage like no other man, not as technically pure as others of his generation but so much more exciting. And he didn’ t mind if people saw the effort. It
was hard work.
Weighing in at about 150 pages longer than the other important Nureyev biography of the past decade, Diane Solway’ s excellent Nureyev: His Life ( Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1998), Kavanagh ’ s book brandishes access to papers, film and reminiscences not previously available and she mines the material with the obsession of someone who needs to show just how much work she ’ s done.
She is evocative on the early life and draws a vivid picture of the glamorous society that embraced the dancer after his defection. Overall, though, the tsunami of minutiae privileges facts over insights.
More seriously, Kavanagh, in getting down and dirty with the failings of the man — and they were many — lets the artist sink from view. She heads into the bedroom ( and bathhouse) with a completist’ s zeal and delivers anecdote after anecdote to illustrate the dancer ’ s more unsavoury inclinations.
I should have charged him,’’ commented ‘‘ dancer Robert La Fosse about his less than fulfilling tryst with the wham- bam Nureyev.
Nevertheless, many people seemed genu-
inely to love him. It would be good to understand why: his celebrity and somethingfor- everyone sexual allure can’ t have been the only reasons.
Kavanagh, who has written a fine biography of Frederick Ashton, presumably thinks ballet is more than posh gymnastics but in Rudolf Nureyev she fails to put the dancer and classical dance into a compelling intellectual context. And she seems so keen to appear morally neutral that she distances herself from Nureyev ’ s extremely problematic behaviour towards friends and lovers, particularly after he was diagnosed with AIDS. Rudolf Nureyev might give a first impression that it’ s the final word on Nureyev, but the man remains elusive.
The Life, a s if The book is gutsily subtitled there ’ s nothing more to be said. Not so.
Something for everyone:
Though not as technically pure as other dancers of his generation, Rudolf Nureyev was so much more exciting