1938 - 1992
The Russian-born dancer and choreographer Rudolph Nureyev (born
1938) captured international acclaim as the greatest male ballet
dancer of the 1960s and 1970s. His virtuosity, versatility, and
charismatic energy were expressed in countless classical and
contemporary roles, on both stage and screen.
Hametovich Nureyev, born on a train journey between Lake Baikal
and Irkutsk in Russia, was the youngest child of poor parents of
Asiatic Mongol stock. Despite early discouragement from his
parents, Nureyev began his dancing career with amateur folk
dance groups and the Ufa Opera Ballet. At the age of 17 he
entered the Leningrad Ballet School to study with the
outstanding teacher Alexander Pushkin. After three years of
training he joined the Kirov Ballet as a soloist, dancing
fulllength roles in Don Quixote, Gayane, Giselle, La Bayadere,
The Nut-cracker, Swan Lake, and The Sleeping Beauty.
His offstage reputation was equally sensational, bringing him
constant trouble with both the Kirov management and the Russian
political authorities. In the Kirov's first-ever appearance in
Paris in 1961 Nureyev was an outstanding success, yet his
defiance of company regulations provoked a command return to
Moscow. On June 17, 1961, Nureyev cut his ties with the Soviet
Union, seeking political asylum at Le Bourget Airport in Paris.
Within five days, Nureyev embarked on a six-month season with
the international Grand Ballet du Marquis de Cuevas, dancing the
Prince and the Blue Bird in The Sleeping Beauty. As partner to
Rosella Hightower, he made his London debut in October 1961 at
the Royal Academy of Dancing, where he met the ballerina Margot
Fonteyn, who subsequently became his principal partner for many
years. He became a regular guest artist with the Royal Ballet
from 1962 to the mid-1970s, in addition to performing with Ruth
Page's Chicago Opera Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, and on
U.S. and French television.
With an inexhaustible stamina, Nureyev continued to perform at a
non-stop pace, acquiring over 90 roles and appearances with over
30 major ballet and modern dance companies. Frederick Ashton,
the British choreographer, was the first to create a role
specifically for Nureyev in Marguerite and Armand in March 1963.
Nureyev's own first production was the last act of "La Bayadere"
for the Royal Ballet in November 1963, and his first
reconstruction the 19th-century three-act classic Raymonda for
the Royal Ballet in June 1964. His fascination with modern
dance, which led to performances with American choreographers
Martha Graham, Murray Louis, and Paul Taylor, began with Rudi
Van Dantzig's Monument for a Dead Boy with the Dutch National
Ballet in December 1968. He penetrated the film medium in 1972
with his directing debut of his own production of Don Quixote in
Melbourne, Australia, and the creation of the film I Am A
Dancer. The film Rudolph Valentino, directed by Ken Russell in
1976, gave Nureyev his debut as a film actor.
Self-reliance and a compulsive drive directed his energy into a
performing schedule around the world that only Anna Pavlova
could equal. His guest performances were slightly curtailed with
his assumption of a three-year directorship of the Paris Opera
Ballet in 1983. A mercurial character, shrewd, cunning,
charming, and passionate, Nureyev demonstrated a commitment and
a savage power equalled by no other dancer in his day. His last
stage appearance was for a curtain call at the Palace Garner
after the production of his dance La Bayadere had been
performed. He succumbed to AIDS in Paris, January 6, 1993. He
was 54 years old. "Any time you dance," Nureyev once said in an
interview in Entertainment Weekly, "what you do must be sprayed
with your blood."
Early life and career at the Kirov
Nureyev was born on the Trans-Siberian train near Pysinky
Irkutsk, Siberia, Soviet Union, while his mother Farida was
travelling to Vladivostok, where his father Hamat, a Red Army
political commissar was stationed. He was raised as the only son
in a Tatar family in a village near Ufa in Soviet republic of
Bashkiria. When his mother smuggled him and his sisters into a
performance of the ballet "Song of the Cranes", he fell in love
with dance. As a child he was encouraged to dance in Bashkir
folk performances and his precocity was soon noticed by teachers
who encouraged him to train in Leningrad. On a tour stop in
Moscow with a local ballet company, Nureyev auditioned for the
Bolshoi ballet company and was accepted. However, he felt that
the Kirov Ballet school was the best, so he left the local
touring company and bought a ticket to Leningrad.
Owing to the disruption of Soviet cultural life caused by World
War II, Nureyev was unable to enroll in a major ballet school
until 1955, aged 17, when he was accepted by the Leningrad
Choreographic School, the associate school of the Kirov Ballet.
Alexander Ivanovich Pushkin took an interest in him
professionally and allowed Nureyev to live with him and his
wife. Upon graduation, Nureyev continued with the Kirov and went
on to become a soloist.
In his three years with the Kirov, he danced fifteen roles,
usually opposite his partner, Ninel Kurgapkina, with whom he was
very well paired, although she was almost a decade older than
he. He became one of the Soviet Union's best-known dancers and
was allowed to travel outside the Soviet Union, when he danced
in Vienna at the International Youth Festival. Not long after,
for disciplinary reasons, he was told he would not be allowed to
go abroad again. He was confined to tours of the Soviet
In 1961 the Kirov's leading male dancer, Konstantin Sergeyev,
was injured, and Nureyev was chosen to replace him on the
Kirov's European tour. In Paris, his performances electrified
audiences and critics but he broke the rules about mingling with
foreigners, which alarmed the Kirov's management The KGB wanted
to send him back to the Soviet Union immediately. As a
subterfuge, they told him that he would not travel with the
company to London to continue the tour because he was needed to
dance at a special performance in the Kremlin. He believed that
if he returned to the U.S.S.R., he would likely be imprisoned,
because KGB agents had been investigating him.
On June 16, 1961 at the Le Bourget Airport in Paris Rudolf
Nureyev defected. Within a week, he was signed up by the Grand
Ballet du Marquis de Cuevas and was performing The Sleeping
Beauty with Nina Vyroubova. On a tour of Denmark he met Erik
Bruhn, a dancer who became his lover, his closest friend and his
protector for many years.
Although he petitioned the Soviet government for many years to
be allowed to visit his mother, he was not allowed to do so
until 1989, when his mother was dying and Mikhail Gorbachev
consented to the visit. During this visit, he was invited to
dance with the Kirov Ballet at the Maryinsky theatre in
Leningrad. The visit gave him the opportunity to see many of the
teachers and colleagues he had not seen since he defected,
including his first ballet teacher in Ufa.
Nureyev's first appearance in Britain was at a ballet matinée
organised by The Royal Ballet's Prima Ballerina Dame Margot
Fonteyn. The event was held in aid of the Royal Academy of
Dance, a classical ballet teaching organisation of which she was
President. He danced "Poeme Tragique", a solo choreographed by
Frederick Ashton, and the Black Swan pas de deux from Swan Lake.
Dame Ninette de Valois offered him a contract to join The Royal
Ballet as Principal Dancer. His first appearance with the
company was partnering Margot Fonteyn in Giselle on 21 February
1962. Fonteyn and Nureyev would go on to form a partnership.
Nureyev stayed with the Royal Ballet until 1970, when he was
promoted to Principal Guest Artist, enabling him to concentrate
on his increasing schedule of international guest appearances
and tours. He continued to perform regularly with The Royal
Ballet until committing his future to the Paris Opera Ballet in
Rudolph Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn became longstanding dance
partners and continued to dance together for many years after
Nureyev's departure from the Royal Ballet. Their last
performance together was in Baroque Pas de Trois on 16 September
1988 when Fonteyn was 69, Nureyev was aged 50, with Carla Fracci
also starring, aged 52. Nureyev once said of Fonteyn that they
danced with "one body, one soul".
Together Nureyev and Fonteyn premiered Sir Frederick Ashton's
ballet Marguerite and Armand, a ballet danced to Liszt's B minor
piano sonata, which became their signature piece. They always
completely sold out the house. Kenneth Macmillan was forced to
allow them to premiere his Romeo and Juliet, which was intended
for two other dancers. Films exist of their partnership in Les
Sylphides, Swan Lake, Romeo and Juliet, and other roles.
When Fonteyn was suffering from cancer, Nureyev paid many of her
medical bills and visited her constantly despite his busy
When Nureyev admitted that his body was too wracked with disease
and injury to dance, and he was considering conducting, Fonteyn
exclaimed, "Darling, that's perfect!!!"
In March 1992 Rudolf Nureyev, living with advanced AIDS, visited
Kazan and appeared as a conductor in front of the audience at
Musa Cälil Tatar Academic Opera and Ballet Theater in Kazan.
This was his only appearance on the stage of the Musa Cälil
Tatar Academic Opera and Ballet Theater, which now annually
organizes the Rudolf Nureyev Festival in Tatarstan.
Film and television
In 1962 Nureyev made his screen debut in a film version of Les
Sylphides. In 1977 he played Rudolph Valentino in Ken Russell's
Valentino, but he decided against an acting career in order to
branch into modern dance with the Dutch National Ballet in 1968.
In 1972 Robert Helpmann invited him to tour Australia with his
own production of Don Quixote, his directorial debut. The film
version (1973) features Nureyev, Lucette Aldous as Kitri,
Helpmann as Don Quixote and artists of the Australian Ballet.
During the 1970s, Nureyev appeared in several films and toured
the United States in a revival of the Broadway musical The King
and I. He was one of the guest stars on the television series
The Muppet Show where he danced in a parody called "Swine Lake".
In 1982 he became a naturalized Austrian. In 1983 he was
appointed director of the Paris Opera Ballet, where as well as
directing he continued to dance and to promote younger dancers.
He remained there as a dancer and chief of choreography until
1989. Among the dancers he groomed were Sylvie Guillem, Isabel
Guerin, Manuel Legris, Elisabeth Maurin, Elisabeth Platel,
Charles Jude, and Monique Loudieres. Despite advancing illness
towards the end of his tenure, he worked tirelessly, staging new
versions of old standbys and commissioning some of the most
ground-breaking choreographic works of his time. His own Romeo
and Juliet was a popular success.
Nureyev was notoriously impulsive and did not have much patience
with rules, limitations and hierarchical order. His impatience
mainly showed itself when the failings of others interfered with
his work. Most ballerinas with whom he danced, including
Antoinette Sibley and Annette Page paid tribute to him as a
Nureyev was homosexual at a time when it was illegal and might
have ended his career had it become known. It is though that he
would occasionally solicit male prostitutes, and he was known to
frequent the gay baths in New York. He was a very reclusive
He socialised with Freddie Mercury, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis,
Mick Jagger, Andy Warhol and Talitha Pol, but developed an
intolerance for celebrities. He kept up old friendships in and
out of the ballet world for decades, and was considered to be a
loyal and generous friend. He was known as extremely generous to
many ballerinas, who credit him with helping them during
difficult times. In particular, the Canadian ballerina Lynn
Seymour - distressed when she was denied the opportunity to
premiere Macmillan's Romeo and Juliet - says that Nureyev often
found projects for her even when she was suffering from weight
issues and depression and thus had trouble finding roles. He is
also said to have helped an elderly and increasingly
impoverished Tamara Karsavina.
By the end of the 1970s, when he was in his 40s, he continued to
tackle big classical roles in the late 1980s, and his rather
diminished capabilities disappointed his admirers who had fond
memories of his outstanding prowess and skill. Towards the end
of his life, in the later stages of AIDS he worked on
productions for the Paris Opera Ballet. His last work was a
production of La Bayadere which closely follows the Kirov Ballet
version he danced as a young man.
Nureyev's influence on the world of ballet changed the
perception of male dancers; in his own productions of the
classics the male roles received much more choreography. Another
important influence was his crossing the borders between
classical ballet and modern dance by performing both. Today it
is normal for dancers to receive training in both styles, but
Nureyev was the originator, and the practice was much criticized
in his day.
Final years and death
When AIDS appeared in France in about 1982, Nureyev took little
notice. For several years he simply denied that anything was
wrong with his health. When, about 1990, he became undeniably
ill, he is said to have attributed the symptoms to other
ailments. He tried several experimental treatments but they did
not stop his deteriorating health.
At his last appearance, a 1992 production of La Bayadère at the
Palais Garnier, Nureyev received a standing ovation. The French
Culture Minister, Jack Lang, presented him with France's highest
cultural award, the Commandeur de l'Ordre des Arts et des
Lettres. He died in Paris a few months later, aged 54.
His grave, at a Russian cemetery in Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois
near Paris, features a tomb draped in a mosaic of an oriental
Turkic-style carpet. Nureyev was an avid collector of beautiful
carpets and antique textiles.
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This web page was last updated on:
02 November, 2011