Once upon a time… Rudolf Nureyev !

The story of how Rudolf Nureyev became the "lord of the dance", one of the most influential and charismatic artists of the 20th century.

Once upon a time… Rudolf Nureyev !
Once upon a time… Rudolf Nureyev ! , © Getty / Michael Ward

He would leap onto the stage like a lion, jumping unquestionably higher than his fellow dancers, and drew with great ease the audience's attention... In 1961, the Parisian public discovered Rudolf Nureyev, a young Soviet dancer who went on to overthrow the rules and traditions of ballet, and the forms of classical dance. 

The birth of a calling

Fifteen years earlier, at the Bashkir State Opera and Ballet Theatre, in Ufa (USSR), the young "Rudik" Nureyev was only 7 years old when he attended his first dance performance, accompanied by his mother and his sisters: a patriotic work entitled The song of the storks. Though the work was far from the great classical ballets that would come to fuel his passion, the emotional shock was already intense. The performance was a revelation for the young boy.

However, the Nureyev family was far from well-off, and though the father, Hamit, would have preferred to see his only son wandering the forests with a rifle in his hands, nothing else but dance mattered to Rudolf. He already began developing his flexibility, his dégagés, alone or with his professor, and at the age of 17, he was already on his way to Leningrad. 

Bye Bye Kirov

Nureyev began studying at the prestigious Kirov Academy of Ballet in Leningrad, already widely noticed for his prodigious talent. Before even leaving the USSR, his presence and his charisma fascinated the public, a success with which the young dancer could have been satisfied. 

Rudolf Noureev en 1955, à Moscou.
Rudolf Noureev en 1955, à Moscou., © AFP / Farabola/Leemage

Nureyev, however, dreamed of dancing elsewhere, on other stages, in front of other audiences... As the series of performances of the Kirov Academy in Paris came to an end, the young dancer chose not to return to his native country. Advised and defended by various recent Parisian encounters, the dancer requested political asylum, escaping the clasp of the Soviet regime. Though the French press immediately portrayed the young Russian as a symbol of freedom, he remained solely motivated by his ambition and his irresistible desire to dance. 

His eyes set on the West

Whether in Paris, London, or New York, Rudolf Nureyev was an undeniable sensation. Yet he did not possess the traditional physique of a ballet dancer: Rudolf was smaller and stockier than his colleagues. But the energy behind each one of his leaps was magnetic. He seemed elastic, possessed, performing each role with the same burning intensity. 

He was a regular guest of the Opéra de Paris. The London Royal Ballet welcomed him in 1962, shortly followed by the Vienna Opera and the New York Metropolitan Opera. Fans fought to catch a glimpse of the legendary dancer at airports and theatre exits. In France, Rudolf Nureyev was a "lord of the dance", and a "pop star dancer" abroad. He was even on the front page of various newspapers, a rare occurrence for a classical dancer. 

You can't please everybody

The story of Nureyev was as divisive as it was fascinating. Though his greatest critics recognised his stage presence, his rebellious nature was considered problematic. Nureyev took the liberty of endlessly changing choreographies, modifying costumes, stage entries, not to mention his temperamental nature and his regular tantrums… In the world of codes and tradition that is classical dance, such behaviour was hard to accept. 

Certain choreographers dreaded working with the infamous dancer, due to his character or his artistic liberties. George Balanchine, whom Nureyev greatly admired, was little interested by the dancer's style and classical aesthetic... 

Yet the untameable Nureyev managed nonetheless to forge several important alliances, even falling in perfect harmony with certain artists such as the English dancer Margot Fonteyn, who would become his stage partner for almost 20 years.

Margot Fonteyn et Rudolf Noureev en 1969, dansant 'Pelléas et Mélisande' sur la scène du  Covent Garden de Londres.
Margot Fonteyn et Rudolf Noureev en 1969, dansant 'Pelléas et Mélisande' sur la scène du Covent Garden de Londres., © Getty / Victor Blackman

The third sex

On stage, nothing was out of bounds for Nureyev, including a sensuality and softness usually reserved for the female performers. This became one of the key characteristics of his style, and one of the principal evolutions he would bring to the world of dance: encouraging male dancers to explore a greater range of expression and female dancers to use their strength, eventually blurring the line between both genders.

In each of the ballets in which he participated, Nureyev freely added and changed whatever he considered necessary. The idea was of course to highlight his own talents, his leaps, his pirouettes, but he was also keen to develop and add complexity to the masculine characters, often reduced to (literally) supporting roles promoting other characters, particularly in the classical ballets. 

En 1979, à New York, Noureev reprend le rôle du Faune créé en 1912 à Paris par Vaslav Nijinski, danseur russe installé à Paris et membre de la compagnie des Ballets Russes.
En 1979, à New York, Noureev reprend le rôle du Faune créé en 1912 à Paris par Vaslav Nijinski, danseur russe installé à Paris et membre de la compagnie des Ballets Russes., © Getty / Bettmann

Nureyev, a dancer between tradition and modernity

Rudolf Nureyev was not only an illustrious dancer, performing such roles as Siegfried (Swan Lake) and Basilio (Don Quixote), but also a rising international ambassador of this romantic repertoire, still relatively unpopular in Western Europe at the time. 

The choreographies favoured by Nureyev were those by Marius Petipa, an undeniable master of 19th-century Russian ballet. In St Petersburg, Petipa created several fantastic choreographic frescos for the music of Pyotr Ilitch Tchaïkovsky: The Nutcracker, Swan Lake, and Sleeping Beauty. In a "ballet blanc" style, poetic, full of fantasy, the choreographer incorporated into his ballets all the essential ingredients of romanticism.

Rudolf Nureyev preserved these ingredients, all the while adding a psychological, and almost psychoanalytical, depth. The prince Siegfried from Swan Lake turns into a troubled young man, in search of his sexual identity; the young Clara from The Nutcracker dreams of confronting her own parents... From the age of 25 until his final moments on stage (such as La Bayadère created at the Opéra de Paris in 1992, only months before his death), Nureyev dedicated a major part of his career to reviving these classical works.  

Though faithful to the work of Petipa and the repertoire's great works, Nureyev was no less interested in the contemporary works and modern creation. He collaborated with the choreographers Rudi van Dantzig, Martha Graham, Roland Petit and Maurice Béjart (though tensions between Béjart and Nureyev were often tense). 

Arrival at the Opéra de Paris

In 1983, Nureyev was named Ballet director at the Opéra de Paris. The challenge was immense, and though confrontations and clashes with the ballet corps were frequent, Nureyev contributed immensely during the 1980s to the Parisian institution's growing popularity.

Within the Palais Garnier, Nureyev was like a bull in a china shop, yet the unusual combination seemed to bear fruit. The new director promoted a new generation of dancers, amongst which Sylvie Guillem, Manuel Legris, Elisabeth Platel, Laurent Hilaire… He also included to the repertoire of the Opéra de Paris older styles of dance (namely Baroque), alongside the more modern creations, and of course his own choreographic productions. 

Noureev, sur le toit du Palais Garnier, en 1979.
Noureev, sur le toit du Palais Garnier, en 1979., © Getty / Michele Brabo /Leemage

To this day, 25 years after his death, the Opéra de Paris continues to stage and perform the works of its former director of ballet. For its 2018-2019 season alone, two of Nureyev's choreographies were programmed: Cinderella, and Swan Lake.

The music comes first!

While working on a ballet, Rudolf Nureyev always studied the score, hoping to better understand the musical ambition of the composer. As a choreographer, he sought to develop a musical conception through the dance. Though he was often criticised for not respecting the strict musical structures and bar lines, he would respond by explaining that he timed the evolution of his movements according to the progression of the musical phrase as a whole. 

Nureyev often explained how, as a child, he would sit by the radio and listen to the music of Tchaikovsky and Mozart. During his studies in Moscow, he developed considerably his musical culture, and in particular a passion for the works of Johann-Sebastien Bach

Rudolf Noureev au piano, en 1962.
Rudolf Noureev au piano, en 1962., © Getty / Jack Mitchell

The dancer was also a skilled player of keyboard instruments, with several (priceless) harpsichords in his possession. In the 1990s, he even developed his talents as an orchestral conductor, performing the works amongst others of Mozart, Tchaikovsky, and Stravinsky. One of his final appearances on stage was on the conductor's podium, in July 1992, at the Berkeley University in San Francisco. 

That same year, Nureyev hoped to conduct the premiere of his choreography of the ballet La Bayadère, at the Opéra de Paris. However, heavily weakened by his (publicly concealed) illness, the famed dancer and choreographer was forced to watch the premiere of his work sat in audience. Several months later, on 6 January 1993, Rudolf Nureyev passed away at the age of 54.