Elu­sive as the dance

Deb­o­rah Jones Never mind the avalanche of bi­o­graph­i­cal de­tail, what about Ru­dolf Nureyev the man, asks

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

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

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