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BOOK REVIEW

NUREYEV: EVERYTHING HE EVER SAID OR DID

 

By Patricia Boccadoro

PARIS, 26 NOVEMBER 2007— "Rudolf Nureyev had it all: beauty, genius, charm, passion, and sex appeal" reads the inside jacket cover of Nureyev: The Life , by Julie Kavanagh (Pantheon) the latest book about the world's most famous dancer who brought the best of Russian ballet to the West. In her weighty, "definitive" biography, everything he ever said or did has been meticulously recorded within its almost 800 pages, including a list of lovers to make Don Giovanni pale into insignificance.

Kavanagh begins by telling the well-known tale of the poverty-stricken boy from the Russian provinces who sees his first ballet at the age of seven, eventually joins the Kirov school and company, thrills the West with his dancing and subsequently defects making headlines throughout the world. She writes of his partnership with Margot Fonteyn, the legendary ballerina almost twenty years his senior, and dissects Nureyev's "private" life from his first "secret" affair with an East German student to his love for the great Danish dancer, Erik Bruhn, which lasted a lifetime. Bruhn's intensely personal and moving letters meant for Nureyev alone, which should by rights have been destroyed with the death of both dancers according to their pact, are there for all to see.

Rudolf Nureyev was diagnosed HIV-positive in 1984; Kavanagh obtained all information relevant to the treatments he underwent and the medication he took over the next eight years from Michel Canesi, the young doctor described as being only too "excited" to be consulted by one of the greatest artistic figures of this century. The dancer's fight against AIDS in his later years, including the time he performed with a catheter under his costume, is set against the incongruous background of the glittering Palais Garnier and often makes painful and upsetting reading.

The first few chapters are beautifully written. Based on Nureyev's own 1962 biography, Nureyev, His Spectacular Early Years edited by Alexander Bland, Nureyev's own family including his sister, Razida Yevgrafova, his niece, Alfia Rafikova and his cousin, Amina Galiakbarova, gave Kavanagh a lot of new information about his childhood in Ufa during World War II . And while we have already been well-informed of how Nureyev lived in a dark cramped cabin in a room nine meters square with his mother and three sisters, Kavanagh throws light on the background of his parents, particularly of the enigmatic Hamet Nureyev.

But the outstanding part of the biography lies in Julie Kavanagh's comprehensive study of the period in Leningrad between 1955 and 1961, from Rudolf's arrival at the Vaganova school "carrying all his belongings in a bag no bigger than a briefcase", to his defection. Here, she has been guided by the magnificent book, Rudolf Nureyev, Three Years in the Kirov Theatre, the first publication to focus on Nureyev's Russian career, and which was compiled by his life-long friends, Liuba Myasnikova, Tamara Zakrzhevskaya and her son, Alexander Storozhuk, whom the biographer visited several times.

The three of them, joined by Leonid Romankov, Liuba's twin brother, played key roles in piercing together these years and are key witnesses in the B.B.C.documentary, From Russia with Love. Tamara Zakrzhevskaya's memories of Rudolf saying how Shelkov repressed everything in him contribute in part to explaining why he moved to Pushkin's class, while Kavanagh's account of his relationship with Teja Kremke as well as her conversations with such people as Ninel Kurgapkina, Alla Osipenko, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Olga Moiseyeva throw invaluable light on his development as a dancer. Already an immense star at the Kirov theatre, it becomes easier to understand Nureyev's intolerance of Soviet conventions in the late 1950's, including his rejection of the unsightly, out-dated costumes still worn there.

As a dancer herself, Julie Kavanagh writes authoritatively of Nureyev's fascination for Balanchine, of the differences between the Vaganova and Bournonville technique, and also of how Rudolf had already begun to push the boundaries of male dance in Russia, changing the image of the heavy Russian macho-style men. He jumped like them, but gave a greater musicality and grace to each movement. It was the way he used his body, "poetically –as an instrument of poetic exploration" as much as his "vulnerable quality", which so overwhelmed Violette Verdy. Nureyev elongated lines, arched his feet and gave grace to dancers who worked with him, in particular, those of the Paris Opéra Ballet who are passing on his legacy today. Always generous with his knowledge to both male and female dancers, standards rose wherever he went.

Kavanagh also obtained access to the dancer's K.G.B. file which she used in her account of the events leading to his defection as well as depositions made in preparation for his trial on April 2, 1962. Such information throws light on just how ugly and dangerous the situation was for him at the time.

But unfortunately there are too many yachts, celebrities, plane journeys, bitchy remarks, and who wore what and where in the book. Of what interest to anybody is Jimmy Carter's mother? Although Kavanagh does write of Rudolf Nureyev's artistic dedication, when "he only lived when he danced", too much of the great Russian's legacy to the world has been buried in a morass of empty details.

Maude Gosling, the woman Rudolf regarded as a second mother and loved dearly, told me as early as 1996 that she, as well as several other friends of Nureyev, had signed a "contract of exclusivity", and was bound to withhold all her memories of Nureyev to all writers excepting one chosen by the two Nureyev Foundations. As the writer of an authorized biography who was granted complete editorial freedom, Kavanagh benefited not only from these souvenirs, but was also given unique access to the Foundation's archives, photographs and films. One can only assume that selection became too hard a process and she fell into the trap of cramming everything she learnt into her work.

On a personal level, I had to struggle hard to find the sparkling young dancer I met in the sixties and whom I knew for over thirty years. His sense of fun and self-derision fails to come out. Moreover, he was always gentle, kind and ultra sensitive to any unorthodox situation I found myself in, qualities not sensational enough for the sale of books.

In such a detailed biography entailing ten years research, it is also astonishing why the section on the Paris Opéra Ballet is incomplete and why equal importance was given to "one-off" works as to the current repertoire of productions Nureyev left which brings joy to thousands of spectators. And whatever happened to the voices of Elisabeth Maurin, Isabelle Guèrin, Laurent Hilaire, Manuel Legris, or his last young protégé, Agnès Letestu, the younger generation of dancers he nurtured, those who are responsible today for continuing his work? Neither is there a word from Brigitte Lefèvre, artistic director in Paris, on Nureyev's legacy in which his vision of the repertoire there was that of fifty-fifty, classical and contemporary, which it is today.

Secret Muses, Julie Kavanagh's 1996 biography of Frederick Ashton is a magnificent book. It is the best biography of any dance figure I have read, but then, Ashton was a reasonably accessible figure. With Rudolf Nureyev, Kavanagh is dealing with a much more difficult subject. Nureyev was complex and complicated, and a different person to everyone who thought they knew him and Kavanagh loses the dramatic thread of his life in a mass of extravagant details which only leave her reader confused. One can also regret that greater emphasis is given to his excesses as a man rather than to his genius as an artist.

Nureyev: The Life (Hardcover)
By Julie Kavanagh

Pantheon (October 2007)
Hardcover: 782 pages
ISBN-10: 0375405135
ISBN-13: 978-0375405136
$37.50

Patricia Boccadoro writes on dance in Europe. She contributed to The Guardian, The Observer and Dancing Times and was dance consultant to the BBC Omnibus documentary on Rudolf Nureyev. Ms. Boccadoro is the dance editor for Culturekiosque.com.   

Related Culturekiosque Dance Archives

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Book review of Rudolf Nureyev : Three years in the Kirov Theatre

Rudolf Nureyev's "Swan Lake" Still Fresh and Exciting

The Paris Opéra Ballet: Ten Years After Rudolf Nureyev

The Dancer Who Flew : A Memoir of Rudolf Nureyev

A Week For Rudolf Nureyev

Exhibition Review: A Tribute to Rudolf Nureyev

Cinderella in Hollywood

Rudolf Nureyev's "Don Quixote" Reveals New Stars

Rudolf Nureyev's "Raymonda" Thrives at the Paris Opera Ballet

DVD: "Don Quixote" on Film: Restoring the Impossible Dream

Kirov Ballet's Saison Russe: A Window Into Ballet History



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