From leap to freedom to dance of death – tragic final days of ballet star Nureyev

image.pngA fascinating new documentary about the extraordinary life and mercurial career of Russian ballet sensation Rudolf Nureyev arrived in British cinemas this week. Called simply Nureyev it tells a story so astonishing that it is hard to credit that it really happened. It traces one of the creative legends of the 20th century. A dancer of such amazing talent that despite an impoverished background he kicked down barriers and enriched and changed the world of classical ballet forever.

Rudolf Nureyev was born on a train on the Trans-Siberian railway in 1938. He came from a poor family but discovered a love of ballet as a child. His father was horrified and tried to beat the passion for dance out of his young son. This brutality simply made a defiant Rudolf even more determined to fight for a place at ballet school. His brilliance, power and grace soon shone and by his early twenties he was a star of the famed Kirov Ballet.

He was also a free spirit, a gay man who felt straight-jacketed and psychologically at odds with the restrictive Soviet regime. In 1961 on tour in Paris he made a break for freedom and defected to the west. 

It was the very height of the Cold War, just weeks before the construction of the Berlin Wall. The Russians were furious, the west grabbed its prize with glee. Nureyev was free but knew he could never go home or see his beloved mother again.

So it began: a life of fame, flamboyance, excess and stunningly sensational dance. He was proud, stubborn and outrageous but his brilliance was such that when he demanded the spotlight it was his for the taking. 

Nureyev was an artistic and creative sensation.  His partnership with 42-year-old Royal Ballet ballerina Margot Fonteyn became the stuff of legend. He broke all the rules but stunned the world with the explosive charisma of his performances.  

Offstage he was petulant, volatile, reckless and never far from the headlines. He partied with the biggest stars, cruised the discos, gay clubs and bath-houses. Eventually, in the 1980s, the almost inevitable happened and he was diagnosed as HIV Positive.  Unable to confront his own mortality, Nureyev struggled on as his talent gradually faded and his health collapsed. He died in 1993. He was just 54 years -old. 

The official announcement said that his death had been due to “a cardiac complication following a grievous illness.” The wording had been drafted by Nureyev himself reflecting the fact that AIDS was still a difficult subject for many people.

It was a strange situation. Many in Nureyev’s circle had long been aware of his condition but the dancer himself desperately hoped for recovery and couldn’t bring himself to admit the truth. A little over a week later his doctor, Michel Canesi, publicly admitted that Nureyev had had AIDS. In an interview with the French paper  Le Figaro, Dr  Canesi said that the dancer had feared that revealing his illness might limit his career.

 “If I clarify things now, it is because there is no such thing as a shameful disease,” he said. “I am thinking of all the anonymous patients who are suffering from being ostracised. Rudolf lived for 13 or 14 years with this virus, thanks to his force, his combativeness. People should know that. He was too famous to be able to hide the truth.”

I encountered Rudolf Nureyev at the end of his life  and wrote a newspaper story about an event that I really really would rather had never happened. Reading about the film this week I went to my files and found a 1991 cutting containing what amounted to my demolition of his shabby late-career attempt to  pretend he was still a contender. It was a good piece but I was dreadfully sad to have had to write it. 

I genuinely wanted to see one of the greatest dancers in the world in action. What we got by the time he and his troupe arrived at the Bournemouth International Centre in May that year was a poorly staged ballet show with a visibly ageing and seriously ill 53-year-old galumphing  around a badly dressed provincial stage to a recorded soundtrack. 

This man who had filled the great ballet stages of the world was a shadow of his former self. There were flashes of brilliance, genius even but the production billed as a ‘Farewell Tour: A Gala Evening of Ballet with the World’s Greatest Dancer’’ was a sad, tawdry affair. 

It featured bite-sized excerpts from well known ballets with a team of dancers on hand to do most of the challenging stuff while Nureyev, who appeared in just two set pieces, struck attitudes between finding the energy, finesse and balance to briefly remind us that he really had once been the greatest.

It was heartbreaking to see this magnificent dancer in such artistically reduced circumstances. Perhaps even more tragic was the fact that he was in deep denial. 

People had walked out, demanded their money back. The theatre was fielding a list of complaints about the show but, apparently oblivious to his lacklustre performance, Nureyev still insisted on  appearing at the stage door to sign autographs for his fans. But the days of crowds of admirers rushing to lavish  him with flowers and messages of undying love had long past.  When Nureyev finally appeared in the doorway wearing a stylish beret and leather coat he looked tired but still magnificent as he surveyed the small gaggle of autograph hunters grouped in this unprepossessing  corridor at the back of the barn-like BIC. There was a defiance in his eyes. He signed a photograph or two and a pair of children’s ballet shoes and then he came to me.

 Almost as soon as the lights went down Hattie and I had realised this wasn’t just another review, there was a real story here and we wanted to give Nureyev a chance to have a say,

Hattie had raced to the car and grabbed her camera and I had joined the little group of autograph hunters. I turned a copy of the show’s press release inside out and thrust into Nureyev’s hand. As he signed his name with a  flourish he joked: “I hope I am not signing some goddam statement.”  I shook my head and asked if he had enjoyed the evening. “Yes, he said, looking surprised. “I danced well.” 

It was then that I told him I was a journalist and asked if he realised that dozens of people had walked out of the show. He looked horrified and started backing off.  “Could we do an interview? I asked but a couple of minders were already closing in.  “No interviews”  I was told as they ushered a shocked looking Nureyev away. The remaining fans looked angry. “What a dreadful thing to ask,” scowled one. Someone yelled: “Take his pen away.” My biro was snatched from my hand and I was unceremoniously escorted from the building. 

Standing on steps of the BIC I wondered for a moment what to do. I knew Hattie had got at least one picture and in the confusion no one had connected that we were together. I felt inside my jacket pocket, grabbed my notebook and another pen and realised that I also had the press release on the back of which was a rather splendid Rudolf Nureyev autograph.Nureyev letters copy

I waited a couple of minutes and walked back into the foyer. I spotted the International Centre’s then director Luis Candal  seemingly engaged in an agitated conversation with the entertainment’s manager Rob Zuradzki. They were shaking their heads and looking troubled. I wandered over just in time to hear Zuradzki  utter the immortal words. “Nureyev has really got the hump.” I took a deep breath. “I’m afraid you’re not going to want to hear what I’m going to say,”  I said.

The story that appeared in the next morning’s paper brought praise from my editor and colleagues but inevitably fury from Nureyev’s fans, particularly those who had not seen the performance.  Those who had been present complained about the poor sight-lines, the price of the tickets, the  ‘school hall atmosphere” and the feeling that they had been conned.

Those who hadn’t actually been there really let me have it with both barells. One wrote that the age of chivalry was obviously dead as my reporting was “discourteous and biased.” Sadly it was merely accurate. I did however agree with another correspondent who pointed out that Nureyev’s achievements had cost an enormous amount of effort and sacrifice – “far more one suspects than it takes to be a journalist…How many people would pay to see Jeremy Miles?” he asked. 

That letter appeared under the headline ‘Sacrifice and the stage-door scribbler.’ So the whole episode did give me one thing. I have weekly blog that I write for a theatre company. It is called Stage-door Scribbler. And of course I still have that autograph.

Author: Jeremy Miles

Writer, journalist, photographer, arts and theatre critic and occasional art historian.

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