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RUDOLF NUREYEV AT 70 ACCORDING TO ARIANE DOLLFUS

By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 17 MARCH 2008-There are far too many ill-informed and biased opinions concerning Rudolf Nureyev (17 March 1938 - 6 January 1993) around. Was he really an "incompetent choreographer" and as "disgusting" as certain biographers, official and otherwise, who never met him and who never saw any of his ballets on stage, have proclaimed? And was his personal life really as important as his contribution to dance? Books divulging secrets by people who seem to have known everything about him including various doctors, chauffeurs and disgruntled lovers as well as a selection of second-rate dancers and envious contemporaries who, frankly, can say what they like now there is no one around to contradict them, are beginning to have as much credibility as a game of Chinese whispers.

Ariane Dollfus is a young French journalist who, after 5 years of meticulous research, has just published her own book on the man who was her childhood hero. For her, there were no expensive pre-paid trips to Russia, no big-media publicity, no "exclusive" interviews with the so-called, "inner circle", and above all, no hounding down of all of Nureyev's would-be lovers. On this last topic, she is quite clear, "Between those he's supposed to have slept with and those who say he slept with them"… She gave an eloquent shrug of her shoulders. "I wasn't there", she added, "were you? Does anyone really know? Erik Bruhn was the man who counted and whose influence on his life was inestimable. My goal was not to write a "tell-all" story, but to demonstrate that the great love of Rudolf Nureyev's life was dance".

Dollfus first saw Rudolf Nureyev dance in 1978. He was 40 years old, an age when most male dancers are hanging up their ballet shoes, but she was marked for life by the beauty of what she saw, Nureyev's own version of Romeo and Juliet at the Palais des Sports with the London Festival Ballet.

"I had been given the beautiful book, The Nureyev Image, by Alexander Bland for my 10th birthday 2 years before, and I knew every photograph by heart. Like many small girls, I wanted to be a ballerina, but by the age of 18 I recognized my limitations and turned to journalism instead. If I couldn't dance for my living, then I would communicate my love of this sublime art by writing about it."

It so happened that when she arrived at France-Soir in the December of 1988, the Parisian newspaper where she remained as dance critic for the next eight years, one of her first assignments was to interview the legendary Russian on a movie set in Brie-sur-Marne, on the outskirts of Paris. He was filming his version of The Nutcracker with the Paris Opéra Ballet.

"I was shivering in my shoes, I was so nervous", she recalled. "I had been told he was going to nominate Elisabeth Maurin étoile, and also that he was extremely difficult, so when I saw him coming with a face like thunder, his boots click-clacking down the corridor, I nearly turned tail and fled. I'm only small and looked much younger than my 22 years, and I was sure he was going to tell me where to get off, but he gave me an enchanting grin and was absolutely charming."

"I must have met him a dozen or so times after that and on each occasion he was highly professional. I knew then that I would write his biography, for he was far more than just an exceptional dancer or international star. He was an idol, an icon if you like, someone with a destiny who reflected the times in which he lived, from Stalinism, the Cold War crisis, sexual liberation and the era of Aids, and as such, a fascinating subject."

Ariane Dollfus told me that she began her research on Nureyev 8 years after he died. "It seemed the right time to begin", she explained. "People were ready to talk about him on a less emotional level, and I contacted over 100 witnesses, including several of his closest friends as well as people who had eyed him with suspicion and dislike, and all in all I think I was able to get a fairly complete picture".

One of the highlights of her book comes in her excellent account of his defection at the airport of Le Bourget, just outside Paris, where Nureyev was denied access to the plane leaving for London with the rest of the Russian dancers. Accurate eye-witness accounts have been given by the people who were there at the time, in particular by Pierre Lacotte, a French dancer who had befriended him, Clara Saint, the girl with whom he had visited Paris that night, and Janine Ringuet, the young woman who had seen him dance in Leningrad in 1960 and proclaimed him the greatest dancer in the world. All three are native French speakers and not a word they said has been misinterpreted. No, there were no political reasons for asking for asylum.

The myth of the "incompetent choreographer" has also been firmly dealt with. "Rudolf Nureyev", Dollfus said, "never intended to create a style; he had a duty to fulfill: to bring the work of the French choreographer, Marius Petipa to the West. He certainly didn't have the pretension to be a creative choreographer."

"His aim was to transmit the great traditional ballets. All of his productions are exceptional. Of course there are those who say there are too many steps in his re-staging just as one can lament there are too many notes in Mozart's music, but the ballets staged at the Paris Opera Ballet reflect his own existence, excessive and bursting with life. All his re-readings of Petipa are psychologically fascinating, particularly Swan Lake , and The Nutcracker , while his versions of Don Quixotte and Romeo and Juliet are outstanding.

"He used to say that Petipa's ballets were like precious gems which needed to be put in their proper setting. It is also important to stress that while he was the director of the Paris Company for only six years, those years are amongst the most important in its history. Before his arrival, generally speaking, the dancers there were not too good, the level wasn't high and a succession of directors had been inefficient."

Indeed, Ariane Dollfus has put together a very fair picture of life at the Paris Opéra during the time Nureyev was there. Of course, the biographer informs us, there were conflicts because Rudolf was aiming high. He "shook them all up", she writes, "and in doing so, naturally, some of them made a fuss. He made Guillem, Guèrin, Maurin, Hilaire and Legris into the great artists that they might never have been without him, by working with them in a completely different way."

The two chapters on this period rely less on hearsay or published interviews than direct contact with many of the dancers and choreographers Nureyev was working with at the time, from Michael Denard and Jean Guizerix, both nearing retirement age, to Charles Jude, the young dancer closest to his heart. First hand reports of events have been given from people such as Marie-Suzanne Soubié, Nureyev's assistant whom he adored, as well as comments from Brigitte Lefèvre, the current director, who speaks of the heritage left by the great Russian dancer.

Strangely enough, the only witnesses missing from this lucid account come from among Nureyev's intimate circle and include Maude Gosling, Wallace Potts and Douce François, who were asked to sign a paper forbidding them to share their memories with anyone except an official biographer. Ironically, as a mere reader, I cannot help wondering in which biography they would have found the man they knew so well; the supposedly "official" one or this. Sadly, none of them are here to say. Moreover, it seems amazing that Mikhail Baryshnikov, with the stature he enjoys, should have refused to see Dollfus, replying that he needed permission from the Foundation before doing so, an "authorization" which was not forthcoming.

Here is a scholarly, objective book, written without the support of the Rudolf Nureyev Foundation in Europe and the U.S., which nevertheless gets reasonably close to its legendary subject. Anyone who knew him can get a glimpse of the man they knew in this biography which does not hesitate to recount prurient details of his private life and illness, details which, however, in no way dominate the text.

Moreover, Dollfus admitted that she admired Rudolf Nureyev too much to let herself sink into writing a hagiography and so did not let him get away with anything, rather the reverse. She hoped that she had produced a work in which readers could get a glimpse of this extraordinary being.

Mission accomplished.

Noureev L'Insoumis
By Ariane Dollfus

Softcover: 531 pages
Flammarion, January 2007
24 x 16 cm
Language: French
ISBN-10: 2080686518
ISBN-13: 978-2080686510
24,00 Ç

Patricia Boccadoro is the Dance Editor at Culturekiosque.com

Related Culturekiosque Dance Archives

Book Review: Nureyev: Everything He Ever Said or Did

Reader Comment: 10 December 2007
Nureyev: Everything He Ever Said or Did

Rudolf Nureyev - The Dancer Who Flew, A Memoir of Rudolf Nureyev



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