Home » books » On March 1st, 2010, “NUREYEV: THE LIFE” BY JULIE KAVANAGH…
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cover of "Nureyev: The Life" by Julie Kananagh with 1961 Richard Avedon portrait

…was one of the best biographies I have read in a while, and it made me completely obsessed with Rudolf Nureyev. (book info)

Here is an excerpt from Laura Jacob’s review in Dance Magazine:

It’s hard to believe there’s now a generation, maybe two, that’s never heard of Rudolf Nureyev. Starting in the ’60s, his surname was a household word combining the high culture of Maria Callas, the iconoclastic.

And was any face better made for the spotlight, the flash bulb, than Rudi’s? He had the high cheekbones of a big cat, the rapt eyes of a Romantic poet, the sensual lips of a cad. It was the decade of the photographer, and Nureyev was like solar heat, answering the camera with his own Promethean fire. His burning desire was to dance every day, every role, everywhere. His life, in fact, was about desire–his own desire for the stage, for stardom, and the world’s desire for him. His first performance after defection was in The Sleeping Beauty–the role of Prince Desire.

Here in the West, we tend to think of Nureyev’s life as having begun on June 16, 1961, the day of his defection. And in the newsreels and photographs he does look a babe, an orphaned fledgling suddenly finding flight (his second role in the West was Sleeping Beauty’s Bluebird–notice, by the way, how happily metaphors fit this dancer). Within months he formed a now-legendary partnership with Margot Fonteyn, 19 years his senior. The maternal calm she brought to his youthful burn added a powerful poetic dimension to their stage chemistry. Nureyev, however, wasn’t as impressionable or innocent as the imagery suggests. In a fascinating new documentary, Nureyev: The Russian Years.

The documentary takes us to the rural city of Ufa, where Nureyev grew up in grinding poverty. It shows us the kind of local folk dance club he joined and tells of the visit to Ufa’s opera house, Rudi’s first glimpse of ballet, which ignited his passion for classical dance. Despite his father’s deep disapproval, Rudi went to ballet class on the sly. By the age of 17, through his own implacable push, he made his way to the Vaganova Academy in St. Petersburg, and once there pushed further into the fabled class of Alexander Pushkin. Interviews with roommates and friends reveal a teen who lived and breathed ballet. “I will be the number one dancer in the world,” he declared. Arrogant, yes, but he was willing to sacrifice everything to that goal.

The clips of Nureyev dancing, many of them never seen before, show us an arrowy young man with a tiny waist and an ardent intensity. His chain,s are whip-quick (and would become a signature), his grand jet,s not long and reaching but high and hilly. His double tours en l’aire are clean, plumb, but the fifth positions from which he takes off are a mess, something between third and fourth position. Witnesses to these early Kirov performances all remark on the wild excitement, the exotic beauty, of Nureyev.