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Rudolph Nureyev
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.


Rudolph 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 republics.


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.

Royal Ballet

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 the 1980s.

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 schedule.

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 considerate partner.

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 person.

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.










This web page was last updated on: 02 November, 2011