- Remembering Nureyev: The Trail of a Comet
- University Press of Florida, 304 pp.
Lord of the Dance
For Rudolf Nureyev, the audience was all. The first male superstar of ballet, he traversed the world, year after year, reviving old works, commissioning new, demanding, cajoling, insisting that his sole purpose, no matter how old he was, no matter how sick, was to dance for someone.
This is the impression we gain, at any rate, from Rudi van Dantzig’s reminiscences. As written by the innovative choreographer and artistic leader of the Dutch National Ballet, Remembering Nureyev is a hybrid of sorts. It is not a biography — we learn nothing of Nureyev’s early years in the Soviet Union — nor is it a straightforward account.
Rather, it is a conversation between the living and the dead. On one side of the divide is van Dantzig, an intellectual interested in pushing the boundaries of avant garde and modern art, a phlegmatic, almost introspective narrator, a man accustomed to order, a splash of pale blue. On the other, Nureyev, the lover of classic showpieces, the Tatar who delights in romanticism and spectacle, the scarlet streak who thrills, dramatically, to the business of living.
Their first meeting occurred in the 1960s, when Nureyev was at his peak, and their fluid professional and personal relationship continued right up to Nureyev’s death of AIDS in 1993. It is an uneasy friendship, a friendship that plays itself out in the metaphor of dance. Here is van Dantzig writing about their first rehearsals:
The main thing we were doing now was the reconnaissance of unmapped territory: the sound of the music, the color of the movement idiom. Above all, it was a comparison of characters: how does he work, how do I respond, what does he want, to what extent do I drop my guard?
Van Dantzig never truly drops his guard with Nureyev, but this pull between his sympathy and his critical judgment is what makes the book. He refuses to sacrifice his own, quite strident, opinions to Nureyev’s charm. He dislikes much of his work with Margot Fonteyn. He is constantly irritated by Nureyev’s showiness.
And this gives us a sense of Nureyev as a dancer, not a star:
No matter how high he leapt, he never gave the impression of grace or buoyancy: he pushed off with power and effort and sailed or circled through the air with that same power, a tense mass of energy, never losing contact with the earth.
Of course, van Dantzig is also judicious enough to acknowledge the phenomenal talent, and the publicity, that the volatile star brought to the neglected Dutch National Ballet. Though he may not agree with his friend’s heroic leanings, he recognized glory when he saw it. As the arrogant Albrecht in the company’s production of Giselle, for instance, Nureyev was perfection:
In Giselle, especially, the training he had received at the Leningrad Kirov Ballet was clearly visible. That precise execution of certain technical principles which he would not – often could not – relinquish on any account, made him into a solitary figure on stage, a brilliant, glittering diamond among shimmering, rounded pearls.
More intimately, van Dantzig shows us the idiosyncratic human being that powered the death-defying leaps and diamond-cut footwork. Paranoid about the KGB and Scotland Yard, perennially late to any rehearsal or engagement, often rude to his female partners, free with his sexual life at dinner parties, Nureyev comes across as a royal pain in the ass.
But there is also a willing listener here, a man moved to tears by Mozart, a generous host, and a sympathetic soul:
It was amazing how amiable and open he was in those hours, seeming to understand my creative dilemmas, how I was wrestling with the music, the large number of dancers, the laborious arrangements at the Opera which caused me to suffer from a constant lack of time, and he even seemed to understand my displeasure at his own early-morning whims.
One gets the sense that Nureyev cultivated his Puckish personality deliberately. He dressed like a gypsy, he seldom slept, he filled his houses with piles of exotic stuff, and he kept anyone he knew on their toes in confusion of his moods. But he always had them interested in what would happen next. That was paramount. Driven by this manic energy, Nureyev continued dancing well into the 1980s, even as his knees and feet and body gave out. As his fame began to fade, a new star was rising. A settled, less capricious star with equally incredible talent. Nureyev was now an old pair of shoes. Baryshnikov had arrived.
As the book nears its finish, the Dutchman becomes surer of his company’s talents and less tolerant of an aging dancer’s whims. He pulls away, and is not there on a daily basis to witness the gradual ravages of AIDS on his friend. At one point, he even considers skipping Nureyev’s 50th birthday celebration.
Yet the fact that he felt compelled to write this account shows how much impact this unique persona had on him. As a star, Nureyev was a one-off, a comet who came along at the right time, in the outlandish anything-goes world of the 60s and 70s, and blazed a trail for male dancers to follow.
As a dancer, though, he had but one aim. In the Hans Christian Andersen fairy tale, The Red Shoes, a girl becomes so consumed by her love of dancing that she is condemned to dance in a pair of red shoes until she dies. In this book, Nureyev asks a famous Austrian conductor for advice on a new career:
“Aber Sie sollen tanzen, junger Mann, nur tanzen. [But you should dance, young man, only dance.]”
To dance, only dance, was the destiny, for better or worse, he made for himself:
“You have to adapt,” he preached to me, “that is number one. Always work everywhere, no matter how. Number two is that you must make yourself indispensable, make sure you’re always everywhere. Without even noticing, the audience must become addicted to you, first they can’t get rid of you, but later they can’t do without you.”
Elinor Teele is a freelance writer and photographer living in Massachusetts. In addition to reviews and essays, she writes short stories, novels and plays for children and adults. An adopted New Zealander, she holds a PhD in English Literature from the University of Cambridge, England.