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Prominent Russians: Rudolph Nureyev

March 17, 1938 – January 6, 1993

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Rudolf Nureyev (sometimes spelt "Nuriev") was a Tatar ballet dancer from the Soviet Union known throughout the world for his breathtakingly talented performances and fantastic commitment. Nureyev's artistic skills explored the expressive areas of dance, providing a new role for the male ballet dancer who once served only as a support to women dancers. His life story may sound like a tale no one would ever believe – a story of a Tatar boy, born on a train, who started ballet far too late, fought his way to prizes and stardom in Russia, escaped from the KGB and moved to Paris. Later the greatest ballerina in the world, who was twenty years older than him, chose him as her partner. It may be hard to believe, but it’s all true – surely the most extraordinary tale in twentieth century ballet.

Childhood in Russia

The family Rudolf was born into on 17 March 1938 was of Tatar origin, coming from peasant stock in the Soviet Republic of Bashkir. Rudolf’s father, Khamet, was a political education officer in the Red Army who advanced to the rank of major.

Khamet had to travel much and his wife and three daughters accompanied him whatever his destination. Such a lifestyle and constant household troubles were not exactly ideal for a pregnant woman with three children, so the fourth child - finally a boy - was born a little earlier than he was due in a train on the Trans-Siberian railway, not far from Lake Baikal and the city of Irkutsk. Though the date of his birth indicated in official documents is 17 March, he may have been born a day or two earlier.

Rudolf was only three when World War II started and he had to say good-bye to his father, who went off to war. Khamet returned from military service in 1946, when Rudolf had already taken up dancing, which his father disapproved of greatly and considered to be unmanly and inappropriate. This, coupled with the sparse contact the father had with his son, added to the lack of rapport and mutual understanding that would persist in their relationship till the very end.

Since early childhood Rudolf loved music and when, at the age of six, he saw a ballet performance on TV for the first time in his life, he was swept off his feet. At the time the family lived in Ufa, the Bashkir capital. The house they occupied together with another family was a small wooden building not particularly comfortable to say the least.

Life in Ufa was abundant in limitations and troubles. Even though not many people could afford good food and proper clothing, the Nureyev family was poorer than the majority. Quite often the only food they could afford was boiled potatoes, and Rudolf was often laughed at at school for not having decent shoes and for wearing his older sister’s coat due to the fact the family simply could not treat themselves to an extra item of clothing. The weather was pretty depressing as well – springs and summers were immensely short and winters were long and so cold that tears froze on the face. Still the town boasted a good opera house. In December 1945 Rudolf’s mother, Farida, managed to smuggle all of her children into a ballet performance with just one ticket. The moment Rudolf saw the ballerina on stage, he made up his mind once and for all - he wanted to be a ballet dancer.

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At the age of ten Rudolf started attending folk classes that were organized at school and was at first admitted to the amateur group, together with other boys and girls his age. At the classes his abilities became evident and he was recommended to the ballet teacher Anna Udaltsova. After a year and a half of intense studies the talented boy was passed over to yet another ballet teacher, Elena Vaitovich. Both his teachers had once been professional ballerinas and used not only to teach Rudolf how to dance, but also spoke with him about the history of ballet and told him about the dancers they had seen. They tried to make him understand ballet was not just about technique, and believed the boy should continue his studies in Saint Petersburg – the ideal place for training and the best ballet school in the world.

But moving to Saint Petersburg seemed almost impossible. And Rudolf’s father’s opposition to his son’s dance lessons did not help matters; the mere possibility that his son might become a ballet dancer made him angry. Moreover he did not like the fact that Rudolf’s passion for ballet affected his school results. Khamet wanted to see his offspring master the respectable work of an engineer or a doctor. Rudolf’s mother, however, encouraged her son’s enthusiasm and secretly let Rudolf sneak off to lessons under the pretext of some other activities.

The Kirov Theater

At the age of fifteen, in 1953, Rudolf started serving as an extra in performances at the opera house. This was mixing business and pleasure as it enabled the young man to take classes together with the ballet company and at the same time earn some money. Soon he was allowed to dance in the corps de ballet. Nureyev had an extraordinary memory for ballet movements – it was sufficient to watch this or that dance several times and he was sure he could copy it. This happy peculiarity served him well – a ten-day tour to Moscow was planned when one of the dancers unfortunately got injured, Nureyev was appointed his substitute and thus went to Moscow. He hardly had any time to rehearse his part, but still he met the challenge and succeeded.

While in Moscow Rudolf quite unfortunately injured his toe, but the injury seemed insignificant when he found out there was a chance to audition for the Bolshoi ballet school – a chance he most certainly couldn’t afford to miss. To his great joy he was accepted.

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Still, despite the luck with the Bolshoi ballet school, Nureyev continued to dream about Saint Petersburg: the school there was considered to be better and moreover, it provided its students with accommodation – a luxury Rudolf couldn’t afford on his own. So instead of returning home with his company, which after his brilliant performance wanted to offer him a full contract, Rudolf spent his last money on a ticket to Saint Petersburg.

The Admission Board at the Saint Petersburg ballet school assessed the young man and delivered their verdict – he either was to turn into a marvellous ballet dancer or, and they stressed it was much more likely, a total failure and a disgrace. Still, Nureyev was accepted to the ballet school in Saint Petersburg, and his dream came true.

At the age of 17 Rudolf knew nothing ballet dancers were supposed to know, but he possessed a passionate desire to learn and dance. For the next three years he worked hard, desperate to catch up with his fellow students – he practiced during breaks, woke up earlier than he actually needed to and went to sleep later than usual. Apart from rehearsing, he spent every free minute at the Kirov Theater (now Mariinsky Theater) watching the true ballet dancers perform on the stage, risking punishment for being absent from the dormitory after 9 p.m.

When Rudolf was in his sixth year at school he asked to be transferred directly to the eighth class out of nine – he was afraid to be called up for military service and thus be unable to finish his studies. He was allowed to do as he wished, though he gained a reputation as a cagy and secretive young man. But apart from hurting his reputation this decision also did him much good as Rudolf was transferred into the class of one of the best-known teachers – Aleksandr Pushkin.

Photo by V. Korolkov Photo by V. Korolkov

At first the celebrated teacher did not pay much attention to the newcomer, but later seeing they boy’s determination and ambition he became eager to help. Nureyev progressed quickly and by the time he graduated from the ballet school he was one of its best pupils. Immediately after his graduation both the Bolshoi and the Kirov ballets offered Nureyev full contracts; quite unsurprisingly the young man chose the Kirov.

When his career at the Kirov Theater had only just begun, Nureyev injured his ankle, and Pushkin invited him to move in with him and his wife, Ksenia. The doctors were highly pessimistic, believing the promising young man would never dance again; but Rudolf soon recovered though he continued to feel pain in his ankle till his last days.

The injury was followed by a minor scandal in Pushkin’s family – soon after moving to his place, Nureyev was in bed with Ksenia. This painful story was whispered about for years. Some believed Ksenia seduced him, and she was not a person one said no to. Nureyev was frightened and ashamed but also curious. So it happened, and Ksenia fell in love. She darned his socks and cooked his dinners; she attended his classes and rehearsals, and she shooed away any of his friends who might compete for his time. No one knew if Pushkin realized what was going on, but the couple’s apartment consisted of only one room, so there was little chance he didn’t know. His attentions to Nureyev remained undiminished, in any case.

During the three years Nureyev spent with the Kirov Theater he performed about fifteen parts and partnered with all the company’s ballerinas, but was most often opposite his partner Ninel Kurgapkina, with whom he was very well paired, although she was almost a decade older.

Quite soon Rudolf had a certain number of loyal admirers that would come to enjoy his every performance. Nureyev appreciated the attention and did his best to improve his performances. He even asked to have some of the stage costumes redesigned, which was finally allowed. He performed his parts with military precision, but sometimes argued that this or that movement be changed thus raising his reputation of a restive and self-willed dancer.

He became one of the Soviet Union's best-known dancers and was allowed to travel outside the Soviet Union to dance 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 and was confined to tours of the Soviet republics.


Photo by Luc Fournol Photo by Luc Fournol

In 1961 the company of the Kirov Theater went to Paris for a tour. The theater’s leading male dancer, Konstantin Sergeyev, suffered a quite untimely injury and Nureyev was chosen to replace him. However, he was warned that a close watch would be kept on him. Rudolf, though, decided against obeying the rules all of the dancers were supposed to follow – instead of taking the bus provided for them every night after the performances, Nureyev would wander the city accompanied by his French and other foreign colleagues.

Such disobedience was not left unnoticed – when the company was about to proceed with the tour and take a plane to London, Nureyev was asked to return to Moscow; he was desperately needed in a gala there.

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Being a realist, Rudolf understood too well that once he arrived back in Russia, he would never be able to cross the border of his motherland again. He made up his mind to seek asylum in the West. With the help of his friends he managed to gain permission to stay in France. Russian officials, infuriated by the dancer’s actions, in his absence sentenced him to several years in prison. According to KGB archives, Nikita Khrushchev personally signed an order to kill Nureyev if he ever returned, thus making Rudolf’s decision to never reappear in Russia final.

Having charmed and absolutely conquered the French public, Nureyev was offered a full contract at the Grand Ballet du Marquis de Cuevas, which he accepted. But the cooperation turned out to be short-term: Rudolf hated the way “The Sleeping Beauty” was staged in Paris. The work at the theater however, did Nureyev some good – he met two wonderful ballerinas, Rosella Hightower whom he had danced with in “The Nutcracker” and the American Maria Tallchief.

At the time Nureyev met Maria Tallchief, she was about to go to Copenhagen to dance with Eric Bruhn - a Danish ballet dancer, choreographer, company director, actor and author, whom Nureyev had seen in films and admired believing he was the only and true

Photo by R. Winkley Photo by R. Winkley

male dancer one should copy. The two men were introduced and became greatly interested in each other and maintained a close relationship despite the occasional separation. Thanks to Eric, Nureyev started to add some western-style elements to his dancing manner, and the result turned out to be highly impressive.

Bruhn agreed with Rudolf that the role of a man in ballet should be as important and prominent as that of a woman; such understanding led the two men to include a male solo in their latest production of “Swan Lake” thus introducing a new style of dancing.

The perfect partner

In 1961 Nureyev was invited to London to perform at the annual gala night organized by Margot Fonteyn at the Royal Academy of Dancing; he would finally make the very journey he had not managed to make earlier because of problems with the Russian government.

Nureyev’s brilliant performance at the gala left the Royal Ballet fascinated, and Rudolf was asked to dance in the “Giselle” ballet with Margot Fonteyn. He was also invited to perform in “Don Quixote,” “The Sleeping Beauty” and “Swan Lake” with other ballerinas of the company.

The tremendous success with which the Russian dancer performed in the West made it impossible for the Western public to forget him. While he continued to dance, he also took a shot as a choreographer and a producer. But what Nureyev considered his most important achievement was his continuous work with Margot: she was nearly 20 years his elder, but despite the disproportion in age they both gained much from thier cooperation.

Photo by Frederika Davis Photo by Frederika Davis

The audience loved the pair, and enterprising agents even charged twice as much when the star couple was performing together. The two dancers, apart from enjoying the teamwork, became true friends – and remained so till the end of their lives.

Career abroad

At the beginning of the 1960s Nureyev settled in London for good. He enjoyed working with the Royal Ballet, which however did not prevent him from working with other companies from time to time, mainly because he was always eager to try new roles and experience new techniques.

Thanks to his inborn abilities and extraordinary memory, he was very soon able to perform a great number of different parts – by the middle of the sixties he had danced in over a hundred roles. A considerable part of these were created especially for Rudolf – to best emphasize his fortes.

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Nureyev was equally good when performing in modern and classical ballets; in both cases he tried to introduce his own elements in order to “personalize” the roles.

Nureyev as a choreographer

The fact that Nureyev did not completely agree with any received version of the classics naturally made him start thinking of staging a ballet himself, as a choreographer. Thus in 1964 having no experience in the field Rudolf managed to stage two serious performances in the relatively short period of two months – a revised version of Petipa’s “Raymonda” for the Royal Ballet and an original version of “Swan Lake” for the Vienna State Opera.

These were the first two out of the six ballets he staged during his career; each of the performances could be altered thus allowing different ballet companies to change the dances according to the abilities and fortes of their premier dancers.

Nureyev’s major merit is that he managed to stage ballets that were challenging both for the leading dancers as well as for the ensemble - something choreographers rarely did. In 1977 when the Royal Ballet was in need of a new choreographer, Nureyev’s name topped the list of those considered for the job, but he refused, as he was desperate to continue dancing.

Director of the Paris Opera

Photo by Roger Urban Photo by Roger Urban

In 1983 the Paris Opera asked Nureyev to take the position of ballet director, which Rudolf gladly accepted. He spent six years heading the place. The terms were more than favorable: according to the contract Rudolf could dance with other companies and solve any problems that might arise by phone. Still he was to spend at least six months a year in Paris.

Nureyev wanted the dancers to try different styles of performing – from modern to classic; he wanted to challenge them, so that each one might try his or her hand at various lines. Newcomers never felt abandoned - instead Nureyev gave them a chance from the very beginning to illustrate their talent and abilities thus making them try hardest. The dancers loved him and much appreciated the chances they were granted.

Last years

Apart from dancing on the stage Nureyev also acted in two films. Both, however, were not very successful. In 1962, Nureyev made his screen debut in a film version of “Les Sylphides” and in 1977 he played Rudolph Valentino in Ken Russell's “Valentino.” The art of acting did not seem too complicated to Nureyev who believed that performing in ballets included acting as well.

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Still he decided against an acting career in order to branch into modern dance with the Dutch National Ballet in 1968.

As he began to feel that ballet was becoming more and more difficult for him, he set up a “Nureyev and Friends” project that presupposed performing together with small casts; the roles he performed himself became easier and less technically challenging as his condition worsened.

In the mid eighties Rudolf was diagnosed HIV positive. Even though Nureyev knew that not everyone who had the virus would necessarily have AIDS, he still wanted to be given the newest available medication, and continued to perform.

At the beginning of October 1992 the “Bayadere” ballet was staged in Paris. This was the last ballet produced by Nureyev and, as most people agree, the most successful one. On the opening night Nureyev was present in the theater, but looked weak and positively ill.

Despite his never-ending lust for life and work Nureyev died in Paris on 6 January 1993.

Nureyev died a rich man, having bought several beautiful, spacious houses in different corners of the world.

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After his death a certain sum of money was given to his two surviving sisters and their families, and the rest was subscribed to two ballet foundations, hospitals for ballet dancers and the people who helped and supported him during his lifetime.

Written by Anna Yudina, RT

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