Rudolf Nureyev

(Fig Tree £25)

Daily Mail   11 October 2007

When Rudolf Nureyev made his dramatic bid for freedom at Le Bourget airport in June 1961, he changed the image of the male classical dancer for ever.  With his unique artistry and virtuosity, not to mention his sex appeal and ruthlessness, he dazzled audiences all over the world.
Nureyev enjoyed a career of unparalleled longevity as he defied his critics and, at times, dismayed his fans by maintaining a literally crippling schedule into his fifties.  In his last years, his was literally a dance of death as he sought to escape the ever-present spectre of AIDS.

The story of his life is familiar from countless profiles and documentaries and well over a dozen biographies:  how the Tartar wild boy born into poverty so extreme that he was carried to school by his mother because he had no shoes, escaped first to Leningrad and then to the West, becoming an international superstar.

It is now authoritatively retold by Julie Kavanagh, who puts her own dance training and critical background to excellent use as she analyses the virtues and defects of Nureyev’s performances, his legendary partnership with Margot Fonteyn, his remounting of Russian classics and his seemingly interminable battles with ballet companies and administrators.

The most revelatory sections of the book are those that deal with Nureyev’s artistic and sentimental education in Leningrad.  It has long been known that he had his first heterosexual affair with the predatory middle-aged Xenia, wife of his revered teacher, Alexander Pushkin.  Kavanagh here provides evidence of his first gay affair with the young East German dancer, Teja Kremke, who encouraged his desire to defect.

Like previous commentators, Kavanagh is unable to determine how much of Fonteyn and Nureyev’s on-stage passion spilt over to their offstage lives.  Instead, she records the voices on either side of the debate, with Nureyev himself claiming both to have ‘missed the bus’ with Fonteyn and to have made her pregnant.

The one certainty is that, throughout the golden years of their partnership, Nureyev was romantically involved with the great Danish dancer, Erik Bruhn, an affair which drove both men to the brink of despair and convinced Nureyev never again to give his heart so freely.  Instead, he cruised the backrooms of clubs in Paris and New York for anonymous sex, while treating his few live-in lovers with contempt.

After his departure from the Royal Ballet and his split with Bruhn, both Nureyev’s personal and professional lives lacked a centre and that is reflected in the middle section of this book, which dwindles into an overlong record of performances and productions, punctuated by high society parties and lowlife escapades.

The book regains focus in the final chapters, when Nureyev moves to France as director of the Paris Opera Ballet, where he engages in violent rows with colleagues (at one point fracturing the jaw of a teacher at the school), provokes his dancers by stealing the limelight (declaring productions to be presents ‘From me to me’) and promotes young talents such as Sylvie Guillem and, more controversially, the nineteen year old Dane, Kenneth Greve, with whom he was besotted.

At the same time the shadows hanging over his life start to lengthen, with the deaths of his surrogate father, Nigel Gosling, and his friend, Charles Murland, a wealthy patron of the arts and early victim of AIDS.  He made painful farewell visits to Erik and Margot, both of whom died of cancer, and, after a decade of denial, was forced to confront his own mortality as he too succumbed to AIDS.

The Nureyev who emerges from these pages is not altogether good company.  For all his undoubted genius, he appears as a spoilt child, overindulged by a coterie of largely female admires whom he shamelessly exploited.  From his Kirov days onwards, he provoked authorities, disparaged directors and promoted himself at the expense of his colleagues.  His rare acts of generosity, such as to Maude Gosling after her husband’s death, were eclipsed by his insensitivity to friends and lovers, including Fonteyn whom he publicly abused.

Kavanagh has produced a meticulously researched and judiciously argued study which, as a record of Nureyev’s career, will surely never be bettered.  She fails, however, to pierce the core of her subject’s mystery.  One longs for the imaginative empathy and psychological insight which Colum McCann brought to Dancer, his fictional account of Nureyev’s life.  In this case, it is the novelist who is the true exponent of the biographer’s art.