Rudolf Nureyev

This article is about the ballet dancer. For the Thoroughbred racehorse, see Nureyev (horse).
Rudolf Nureyev

Rudolf Nureyev in 1973 by Allan Warren
Born Rudolf Khametovich Nureyev
(1938-03-17)17 March 1938
near Irkutsk, Russian SFSR, Soviet Union
Died 6 January 1993(1993-01-06) (aged 54)
Levallois-Perret, France
Cause of death AIDS-related complications
Nationality Soviet
Citizenship Austria
Alma mater Kirov Ballet School
Occupation Dancer, choreographer
Years active 1958–1992
Partner(s) Erik Bruhn (1961–1986)

Rudolf Khametovich Nureyev (Bashkir: Рудольф Хәмит улы Нуриев, Tatar: Рудольф Хәмит улы Нуриев, Russian: Рудо́льф Хаме́тович Нуре́ев; 17 March 1938 – 6 January 1993) was a Soviet dancer of ballet and modern dance, one of the most celebrated of the 20th century. Nureyev's artistic skills explored expressive areas of the dance, providing a new role to the male ballet dancer who once served only as support to the women. He also worked as choreographer, actor and director.

Nureyev had his early career with the Kirov Ballet in Leningrad. He defected from the Soviet Union to the West in 1961, despite KGB efforts to stop him.[1] This was the first defection of a Soviet artist during the Cold War and it created an international sensation. Nureyev went on to dance with The Royal Ballet in London and from 1983 to 1989 served as director of the Paris Opera Ballet.

Early life and career at the Kirov Ballet

Nureyev was born on a Trans-Siberian train near Irkutsk, Siberia, Soviet Union, while his mother, Feride, was travelling to Vladivostok, where his father Hamit, a Red Army political commissar, was stationed.[2] He was raised as the only son in a Tatar family[3][4][5][6][7][8] in a village near Ufa in Bashkir ASSR, Soviet Union. When his mother took him and his sisters into a performance of the ballet "Song of the Cranes", he fell in love with dance.[2] As a child he was encouraged to dance in Bashkir folk performances and his precocity was soon noticed by teachers who encouraged him to train in Leningrad. On a tour stop in Moscow with a local ballet company, Nureyev auditioned for the Bolshoi ballet company and was accepted. However, he felt that the Kirov Ballet school was the best, so he left the local touring company and bought a ticket to Leningrad.[9]

Owing to the disruption of Soviet cultural life caused by World War II, Nureyev was unable to enroll in a major ballet school until 1955, aged 17, when he was accepted by the Leningrad Choreographic School, the associate school of the Kirov Ballet. The ballet master Alexander Ivanovich Pushkin took an interest in him professionally and allowed Nureyev to live with him and his wife.[10] Upon his graduation in 1958, Nureyev continued with the Kirov when the prima ballerina Natalia Dudinskaya, 26 years his senior, chose him as her partner[10] in the ballet Laurencia. He went on to become a soloist with the Kirov.

Before long he became one of the Soviet Union's best-known dancers. In his three years with the Kirov, he danced fifteen rôles, usually opposite his partner, Ninel Kurgapkina, with whom he was very well paired, although she was almost a decade older than he was.[11] Nureyev and Kurgapkina were invited to dance at a gathering at Khrushchev's dacha,[10] and in 1959 they were allowed to travel outside the Soviet Union, dancing in Vienna at the International Youth Festival. Not long after, he was told by the Ministry of Culture that he would not be allowed to go abroad again.[12] In one memorable incident, Nureyev interrupted a performance of Don Quixote for 40 minutes, insisting on dancing in tights and not in the customary trousers. He relented in the end, but his preferred dress code was adopted in later performances.[10]


Rudolf Nureyev after his defection from the Soviet Union in 1961.

By the late 1950s, Nureyev had become a sensation in the Soviet Union. Yet, as the Kirov Ballet was preparing to go on a tour to Paris and London, Nureyev's rebellious character and a non-conformist attitude made him an unlikely candidate for a trip to the West, which was to be of crucial importance to the Soviet government's ambitions to portray their cultural supremacy. Furthermore, tensions between Nureyev and the Kirov's artistic director Konstantin Sergeyev, husband and former dance partner of Natalia Dudinskaya, were growing.[13] After a representative of the French tour organizers saw Nureyev dance in Leningrad in 1960, the French organizers urged Soviet authorities to let him dance in Paris, and he was allowed to go.[10]

In Paris, his performances electrified audiences and critics. Oliver Merlin in Le Monde wrote,

I will never forget his arrival running across the back of the stage, and his catlike way of holding himself opposite the ramp. He wore a white sash over an ultramarine costume, had large wild eyes and hollow cheeks under a turban topped with a spray of feathers, bulging thighs, immaculate tights. This was already Nijinsky in Firebird.[14]

Nureyev was seen to have broken the rules about mingling with foreigners, which alarmed the Kirov's management[15] and the KGB agents observing him. The KGB wanted to send him back to the Soviet Union. On 16 June 1961 the Kirov group had gathered at Le Bourget Airport in Paris to fly to London. Sergeyev then took Nureyev aside and told him that he would have to return to Moscow, for a special performance in the Kremlin. Nureyev became suspicious and refused. Next he was told that his mother had fallen severely ill and he needed to come home immediately to see her.[16] Nureyev refused again, believing that on return to the USSR he was likely to be imprisoned. With the help of French police and a Parisian socialite friend – Clara Saint, who was engaged to the son of the French Minister of Culture Andre Malraux[17] – Nureyev got away from his KGB minders and asked for asylum. Sergeyev and the KGB tried to discuss it with him but he chose to stay in Paris.

Within a week, he was signed up by the Grand Ballet du Marquis de Cuevas and was performing The Sleeping Beauty with Nina Vyroubova. On a tour of Denmark he met Erik Bruhn, soloist at the Royal Danish Ballet[18] who became his lover, his closest friend and his protector until Bruhn's death in 1986.[19]

Russian authorities made Nureyev's father, mother and dance teacher Pushkin write letters to him, urging him to return, without effect.[10]

Although he petitioned the Soviet government for many years to be allowed to visit his mother, he was not allowed to do so until 1987, when his mother was dying and Mikhail Gorbachev consented to the visit. In 1989, he was invited to dance the role of James in La Sylphide with the Kirov Ballet at the Kirov Theatre in Leningrad.[20] The visit gave him the opportunity to see many of the teachers and colleagues he had not seen since his defection.[21]

Royal Ballet

Nureyev's first appearance in the United Kingdom was at a ballet matinée organised by The Royal Ballet's Prima Ballerina Dame Margot Fonteyn in 1961. The event was held in aid of the Royal Academy of Dance, a classical ballet teaching organisation of which she was President. He danced Poème Tragique, a solo choreographed by Frederick Ashton, and the Black Swan pas de deux from Swan Lake.

Dame Ninette de Valois offered him a contract to join The Royal Ballet as Principal Dancer. His first appearance with the company was partnering Margot Fonteyn in Giselle on 21 February 1962. Fonteyn and Nureyev would go on to form a partnership. Nureyev stayed with the Royal Ballet until 1970, when he was promoted to Principal Guest Artist, enabling him to concentrate on his increasing schedule of international guest appearances and tours. He continued to perform regularly with The Royal Ballet until committing his future to the Paris Opera Ballet in the 1980s.

Nureyev and his dance partnerships

Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn in the Grand adage from Nureyev's staging of the Petipa/Minkus The Kingdom of the Shades for the Royal Ballet, London, 1963.

Yvette Chauviré of the Paris Opera Ballet often danced with Nureyev; he described her as a "legend". [22] Chauviré attended his funeral with French dancer and actress Leslie Caron.[23]

Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn at the Royal Ballet became long-standing dance partners. Nureyev once said of Fonteyn, who was 19 years older than him, that they danced with "one body, one soul". Together Nureyev and Fonteyn premiered Sir Frederick Ashton's ballet Marguerite and Armand, a ballet danced to Liszt's Piano Sonata in B minor, which became their signature piece. Kenneth MacMillan was forced to allow them to premiere his Romeo and Juliet, which was intended for two other dancers, Lynn Seymour and Christopher Gable.[24] Films exist of their partnership in Les Sylphides, Swan Lake, Romeo and Juliet, and other roles. They continued to dance together for many years after Nureyev's departure from the Royal Ballet. Their last performance together was in Baroque Pas de Trois on 16 September 1988 when Fonteyn was 69, Nureyev was aged 50, with Carla Fracci also starring, aged 52.

He celebrated another long-time partnership with Eva Evdokimova. They first appeared together in La Sylphide (1971) and in 1975 he selected her as his Sleeping Beauty in his staging for London Festival Ballet. Evdokimova remained his partner of choice for many guest appearances and tours across the globe with "Nureyev and Friends" for more than fifteen years.


Film, television and musical

In 1962, Nureyev made his screen debut in a film version of Les Sylphides. He decided against an acting career in order to branch into modern dance with the Dutch National Ballet in 1968.

In 1972, Sir Robert Helpmann invited him to tour Australia with Nureyev's production of Don Quixote.[25] The film version (1973) was directed by Nureyev and Helpman and features Nureyev as Basilio, Lucette Aldous as Kitri, Helpmann as Don Quixote and artists of the Australian Ballet.

In 1977 he played Rudolph Valentino in Ken Russell's film Valentino.

In 1978 he appeared as a guest star on the television series The Muppet Show[26] where he danced in a parody called "Swine Lake", sang "Baby, It's Cold Outside" in a sauna duet with Miss Piggy, and sang and tap-danced in the show's finale, "Top Hat, White Tie and Tails". His appearance is credited with making Jim Henson's series become one of the sought after programs to appear in.[27]

In 1983 he had a non-dancing role in the movie Exposed with Nastassja Kinski.

In 1989, he toured the United States and Canada for 24 weeks with a revival of the Broadway musical The King and I.

Documentary films

Director of the Paris Opera Ballet

In 1982, Nureyev became a naturalized citizen of Austria.[28] In 1983, he was appointed director of the Paris Opera Ballet, where, as well as directing, he continued to dance and to promote younger dancers. He remained there as a dancer and chief of choreography until 1989. Among the dancers he groomed were Sylvie Guillem, Isabelle Guérin, Manuel Legris, Elisabeth Maurin, Élisabeth Platel, Charles Jude, and Monique Loudières.

His artistic directorship of the Paris Opera Ballet was a great success, lifting the company out of a dark period. His Sleeping Beauty remains in the repertoire and was revived and filmed with his protégé Manuel Legris in the lead.

Despite advancing illness towards the end of his tenure, he worked tirelessly, staging new versions of old standbys and commissioning some of the most ground-breaking choreographic works of his time. His own Romeo and Juliet was a popular success. When he was sick towards the end of his life, he worked on a final production of La Bayadère which closely follows the Kirov Ballet version he danced as a young man.

Personality and personal life

Nureyev in his dressing room c. 1974, by Allan Warren

Nureyev did not have much patience with rules, limitations and hierarchical order and had at times a volatile temper.[29] He was apt to throw tantrums in public when frustrated.[30] His impatience mainly showed itself when the failings of others interfered with his work.

He socialized with Gore Vidal, Freddie Mercury, Jackie Kennedy Onassis, Mick Jagger, Liza Minnelli, Andy Warhol, Lee Radziwill and Talitha Pol, but developed an intolerance for celebrities.[31] He kept up old friendships in and out of the ballet world for decades, and was considered to be a loyal and generous friend.[32]

Most ballerinas with whom he danced, including Antoinette Sibley, Gelsey Kirkland and Annette Page paid tribute to him as a considerate partner. He was known as extremely generous to many ballerinas, who credit him with helping them during difficult times. In particular, the Canadian ballerina Lynn Seymour – distressed when she was denied the opportunity to premiere MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet – says that Nureyev often found projects for her even when she was suffering from weight issues and depression and thus had trouble finding roles.[33]

Depending on the source, Nureyev is described as either bisexual,[34][35] as he did have heterosexual relationships as a younger man, or gay.[36][37][38] He had a turbulent sex life, with numerous bathhouse visits and anonymous pickups.[30] Nureyev met Erik Bruhn, the celebrated Danish dancer, after Nureyev defected to the West in 1961. Nureyev was a great admirer of Bruhn, having seen filmed performances of the Dane on tour in the Soviet Union with the American Ballet Theatre, although stylistically the two dancers were very different. Bruhn and Nureyev became a couple[36][39] and the two remained together off and on, with a very volatile relationship for 25 years, until Bruhn's death in 1986.[40]

In 1973 Nureyev met the 23-years-old American dancer Robert Tracy and a two-and-a-half-year love affair began. Tracy later became Nureyev's secretary and live-in companion. According to Tracy, Nureyev said that he had had sex with three women in his life, he had always wanted a son, and once had plans to father one with Nastassja Kinski.[41]

Final years

When AIDS appeared in France's news around 1982, Nureyev took little notice. The dancer tested positive for HIV in 1984, but for several years he simply denied that anything was wrong with his health. However, by the late 1980s his diminished capabilities disappointed his admirers who had fond memories of his outstanding prowess and skill.[42] Nureyev began a marked decline only in the summer of 1991 and entered the final phase of the disease in the spring of 1992.[43]

In March 1992, living with advanced AIDS, he visited Kazan and appeared as a conductor in front of the audience at Musa Cälil Tatar Academic Opera and Ballet Theater, which now presents the Rudolf Nureyev Festival in Tatarstan.[44][45] Returning to Paris, with a high fever, he was admitted to the hospital Notre Dame du Perpétuel Secours in Levallois-Perret, a suburb northwest of Paris, and was operated on for pericarditis, an inflammation of the membranous sac around the heart. At that time, what inspired him to fight his illness was the hope that he could fulfill an invitation to conduct Prokofiev's Romeo and Juliet at an American Ballet Theatre benefit on 6 May 1992 at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. He did so and was elated at the reception.[43]

In July 1992, Nureyev showed renewed signs of pericarditis but determined to forswear further treatment. His last public appearance was on 8 October 1992, at the premiere at Palais Garnier of a new production of La Bayadère that he choreographed after Marius Petipa for the Paris Opera Ballet. Nureyev had managed to obtain a photocopy of the original score by Minkus when in Russia in 1989.[46] The ballet was a personal triumph although the gravity of his condition was evident. The French Culture Minister, Jack Lang, presented him that evening on stage with France's highest cultural award, the Commandeur de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.[43]

Death, funeral and tributes

Nureyev's tomb in Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois

Nureyev re-entered the hospital Notre Dame du Perpétuel Secours in Levallois-Perret on 20 November 1992 and remained there until his death from cardiac complications at age 54 on 6 January 1993. His funeral was held in the marble foyer of the Paris Garnier Opera House. Many paid tributes to his brilliance as a dancer. One such tribute came from Oleg Vinogradov of the Kirov Ballet in St. Petersburg, Russia, stating: "What Nureyev did in the west, he could never have done here."[47]

Nureyev's grave, at a Russian cemetery in Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois near Paris, features a tomb draped in a mosaic of an oriental carpet. Nureyev was an avid collector of beautiful carpets and antique textiles.[43][44][48] As his coffin was lowered into the ground, music from the last act of Giselle was played and his ballet shoes were cast into the grave along with white lilies.[49]

After so many years of having been denied a place in the Kirov Ballet history, Nureyev's reputation was restored.[47] His name was reentered in the history of the Kirov and some of his personal effects were placed on display at the theatre museum in St. Petersburg.[47] At the famed Vaganova Academy a rehearsal room was named in his honour.[47]

As of October 2013, the Centre National du Costume de Scene has a permanent collection of Nureyev's costumes "that offers visitors a sense of his exuberant, vagabond personality and passion for all that was rare and beautiful."[50]

In 2015 he was inducted into the Legacy Walk.[51]


Nureyev's influence on the world of ballet changed the perception of male dancers; in his own productions of the classics the male roles received much more choreography.[41] Another important influence was his crossing the borders between classical ballet and modern dance by performing both.[52] Today it is normal for dancers to receive training in both styles, but Nureyev was the originator and excelled in modern and classical dance. He went out of his way to work with modern dance great, Martha Graham, and she created a work specially for him.[53] While Gene Kelly had done much to combine modern and classical styles in film, he came from a more Modern Dance influenced "popular dance" environment, while Nureyev made great strides in gaining acceptance of Modern Dance in the "Classical Ballet" sphere.[53]

The novelist Colum McCann wrote a novel about Nureyev's life entitled Dancer published in 2003.

See also


  1. Bridcut, John (17 September 2007). "The KGB's long war against Rudolf Nureyev". London: The Telegraph. Retrieved 22 May 2010.
  2. 1 2 Rudolf Nureyev Foundation official website
  3. "- Официальный сайт Фонда Рудольф Нуреев".
  4. Rudolf Nureyev Foundation official website: short biography
  5. "Rudolf Nureyev IBC - Biography".
  6. Frazier, Ian (2010). Travels in Siberia. Farrar, Straus and Giroux. ISBN 9781429964319.
  7. "О Рудольфе Нурееве".
  8. "Rudolf Nureyev Biography".
  9. Rudolf Nureyev Foundation official website
  10. 1 2 3 4 5 6 John Bridcut (2007). Nureyev: From Russia With Love (Motion picture). BBC.
  12. Watson, P., Nureyev: A Biography, p.147
  13. Richard Curson Smith (producer/director) (2015). Rudolf Nureyev - Dance To Freedom (Motion picture). BBC Two.
  14. Watson, P., Nureyev: A Biography, p.152
  15. Watson, P., Nureyev: A Biography, p.151
  16. Watson, P., Nureyev: A Biography, p.161
  17. "The girl who led Nureyev to defect". The Australian. 14 December 2015.
  18. At the time of Nureyev's meeting Bruhn, soloist was the Royal Danish Ballet's highest rank.
  19. Soutar, Carolyn (2006). The Real Nureyev. St. Martin's Press. ISBN 0-312-34097-4.
  20. Watson, P., Nureyev: A Biography, p.426
  21. Watson, P., Nureyev: A Biography, p.429
  22. "Mémoires d'étoiles, Yvette Chauviré -".
  23. Rudolf Nureyev Eulogized And Buried in Paris Suburb, New York Times, 1993
  24. Watson, P., Nureyev: A Biography, p.283
  25. Set and Costume Designs for Don Quixote by Barry Kay for both the stage production at the Adelaide Festival (1970) and Nureyev's movie version, gala world premiere at the Sydney Opera House, 1973.
  26. Garlen, Jennifer C.; Graham, Anissa M. (2009). Kermit Culture: Critical Perspectives on Jim Henson's Muppets. McFarland & Company. p. 218. ISBN 078644259X.
  27. McKim, D. W.; Brian Henson. "Muppet Central Guides – The Muppet Show: Rudolf Nureyev". Retrieved 19 July 2009.
  28. "1961 - Nureyev defects to the West". Retrieved 24 March 2014.
  29. Watson, P., Nureyev: A Biography, p.133
  30. 1 2 Bentley, Toni (2007-12-02). "Nureyev: The Life - Julie Kavanagh - Book Review". The New York Times.
  31. Watson, P., Nureyev: A Biography, p.370
  32. Watson, P., Nureyev: A Biography, p.369
  33. Watson, P., Nureyev: A Biography, p.321
  34. Acocella, Joan (8 October 2007). "Wild Thing". The New Yorker. Retrieved 23 August 2015.
  35. Soutar, Carolyn (27 December 2005). The Real Nureyev: An Intimate Memoir of Ballet's Greatest Hero. 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10010: Thomas Dunne Books. p. 84. ISBN 978-0312340971. Retrieved 21 January 2016.
  36. 1 2 Kavanagh, Julie Nureyev: The Life (2007) ISBN 978-0-375-40513-6
  37. The Canadian Press (2009-11-30). "TV dance-winner Archambault tackles Nureyev - Arts & Entertainment - CBC News". Retrieved 2012-05-03.
  38. John Ezard and Carolyn Soutar (30 January 2003). "Nureyev and me | Stage". The Guardian. Retrieved 2012-05-03.
  39. "Literary Review". Retrieved 13 March 2009.
  40. "Rudolf Nureyev Foundation Official Website". Retrieved 19 March 2009.
  41. 1 2 Ezard, John; Soutar, Carolyn (2003-01-30). "Nureyev and me". The Guardian.
  42. Watson, P., Nureyev: A Biography, p.407
  43. 1 2 3 4 "Nureyev Did Have AIDS, His Doctor Confirms". The New York Times. John Rockwell. 16 January 1993. Retrieved 18 September 2011.
  44. 1 2 Yaroslav Sedov. Russian Life. Montpelier: Jan/Feb 2006. Vol. 49, Iss. 1; p. 49
  45. "Rudolf Nureyev Foundation official website". Retrieved 18 January 2011.
  46. Watson, P., Nureyev: A Biography, p.441
  47. 1 2 3 4 Watson, P., Nureyev: A Biography, p.455
  48. John Rockwell (13 January 1993). "Rudolf Nureyev Eulogized And Buried in Paris Suburb". New York Times. Retrieved 5 December 2009.
  49. Watson, P., Nureyev: A Biography, p.457
  50. Roslyn Sulcas (11 December 2013). "At a French Museum, Peeks at Nureyev's World". New York Times. Retrieved 16 December 2013.
  51. "Legacy Walk unveils five new bronze memorial plaques - 2342 - Gay Lesbian Bi Trans News - Windy City Times".
  52. Watson, P., Nureyev: A Biography, p.436
  53. 1 2 Watson, P., Nureyev: A Biography, pp.339–340


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