The great male ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev arrived in this world with a grand cinematic gesture on a train speeding across the Soviet Union, and departed having changed what it is to be a man in a female-dominated art form.
His onstage presence personified a marriage of masculinity and femininity combined. A panther and an exotic rose, magnetic and indisputably singular. In 1961 and already an established young star in Russia, Nureyev risked his life in a stand off with the KGB and French authorities at Paris’ Orly Airport. This defection to the West from the USSR made him a subject of world television news, and perhaps the first internationally-renowned name in ballet. His subsequent relationship with London’s Royal Ballet and his famed partnership with Margot Fonteyn, who was remarkably 20 years his senior, further cemented Nureyev as an almost godlike figure on the international stages of the ballet world.
Rudolf Nureyev’s life and career were wrapped in a blanket of excess and luxury, often reflected in his unique stagings of classical ballets, largely for the Paris Opera, where he served as Artistic Director until his death in 1993.
His voracious sexual appetite for young men was renowned, and tightly woven through the more permanent romantic relationships of his life. Ex-lovers putting up with short-lived dalliances with men understanding that even this fueled his artistic creativity and translated into the stage creature that his audiences adored.
When I was a young ballet student at The Royal Ballet School, Nureyev was at the top of my list of influences. Never feeling particularly unique as a dancer myself, I marveled at his ability to transcend technique and exist onstage in a cloud of sensual perfume.
It was 1989, I was 16 and at lunch break, I was passing the company canteen. I glanced in and to my surprise there sat Rudolf Nureyev alone. He signaled for me to come in. I got closer and he spoke to me in an accent still rich with his homeland.
“Carry me to studio, boy.” That’s all he said.
I recall thinking at the time that I wasn’t the strongest of young men, a bit of a late developer, but there was no way I wasn’t going to oblige him. Wrapped around my shoulders, cradled like a baby and weak with the AIDS virus that was draining away the life force from this indisputable poet of movement, I carried the great Nureyev up to the Covent Garden Studio. Three flights of stairs, praying that my knees wouldn’t buckle.
At this very moment in time, I was struggling to come to terms with my own sexuality. So afraid to come out to my parents who would fear my contracting the very illness that was already raging through this great man’s body. I left him in a chair at the front of the studio and said goodbye.
Three or four days later, he performed the role of Mercutio in a gala performance celebrating the 70th birthday of his most famous onstage partner Dame Margot Fonteyn. His performance somewhat diminished, but still there were Tartarian flashes of the fire that had ignited the world stages.
Four years later, he would be carried once again. This time out onto the stage of The Palais Garnier in Paris to receive rapturous applause on the opening of his sumptuous production of La Bayadere and to receive France’s highest cultural honor, Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters. This was his final curtain call.
Every young man in ballet for future generations will be indebted to the mark that Rudolf Nureyev made on the art form. He has shaped the way we will craft our art forever.