Nureyev’s animal passions If Rudolf Nureyev’s behaviour was often disgraceful, his dancing was anything but
Julie Kavanagh RUDOLF NUREYEV The biography 787pp. Fig Tree. £25. 978 1 905490 15 1
Biography will always be a frustrated enterprise. It will never bring the dead back to life; it will never make us privy to the secret world inside the minds of others, or rescue us from being islanded within our own. This is true of all biographical subjects, as it is true of all lives; but a subject like Rudolf Nureyev – with characteristic intransigence – proves more uncooperative than most.
They called him an animal, and at times he behaved like one. Most notoriously, there is the incident in which he defecated on the steps of Franco Zeffirelli’s villa, after he finished smashing up the interior. He broke the jaw of a teacher at the Paris Opera Ballet, who sued and was awarded 2,500 francs in compensation; the only remorse he expressed was for the missed opportunity: “If I’d known it would be that little, I’d have hit him a second time”. He let drop a ballerina who had gained weight; he dragged another by her hair across the floor. If he didn’t like a costume he would shred it, or defenestrate it, or just refuse to go onstage, even if he kept the audience waiting. He was called primitive, and brutal, “a wild animal let loose in a drawing room”, a “dirty little Tatar”, and a “Bashkirian pig”. Jerome Robbins described him in his diary as “an artist – an animal – & a cunt”. It is tempting to conclude that he may have returned the compliment by playing to type. For Rudolf Nureyev was also a classical artist of intense dedication and rare virtuosity, the “Rimbaud of the Steppes”, in Frederick Ashton’s rather conscious formulation. If his behaviour was often disgraceful, his dancing was anything but. He was capable of great refinement and sensitivity, when he bothered, and of inspiring – and offering – lifelong devotion. He had, in his own words, a “carnivorous approach to knowledge”, ensuring that he learned English as soon as he began touring, for example, so that he wouldn’t be “deaf and dumb when he was abroad”. Arrogance may have been his most salient characteristic, but there is also more than a little mythmaking at work in the many tales of a hero blessed by the gods, born in obscurity, raised to Olympian heights, and destroyed by hubris. Nureyev’s “true” greatness as a dancer continues to be debated by balletomanes, but the rest of us would probably settle for whatever it is he had. Certainly there was talent, charisma, beauty, single-mindedness and bloody-mindedness to spare: in all, a recipe for glory if ever there was one.
The outlines of Nureyev’s story are conveniently melodramatic: the impoverished beginnings in a remote outpost of the Soviet Union; the meteoric rise to fame as a late starter at the renowned Vaganova Academy of the Kirov; the sudden defection in Paris in 1961; the partnership with Margot Fonteyn at the Royal Ballet that revived her flagging career and made him a phenomenon in the West; the triumphs on stage, the temperament and tantrums off; the frequenting of Saturnalian leather bars in downtown 1970s Manhattan and promiscuous, anonymous post-Stonewall sex; the commercialism of his accommodations with American popular culture (from Richard Avedon to The Muppet Show); the tragic, AIDS-ravaged decline, and determination to keep dancing, despite his failing body; the brief foray into conducting; and the grossly premature death. The leitmotifs of the myth are all there in the outline – pride, lust, gluttony, avarice, wrath, envy. Nureyev was an exuberant sinner. (Julie Kavanagh likens him more than once to a Miltonic Satan, but this seems a trifle unfair, even if he would doubtless have appreciated the comparison.) There was one sin, however, to which Nureyev was immune: sloth. Mere velleity seems to have been foreign to him.
If we accept Carlyle’s much-disputed definition of genius as “the transcendent capacity for taking pains, first of all”, then Rudolf Nureyev was, first of all, a genius. Although much has been made of his off-stage shenanigans – they make great copy, after all – what Kavanagh’s compendious new biography demonstrates is Nureyev’s obsessive, absolute passion for dance, and his endless capacity for discipline. The melodrama is all in the margins; the life was dedicated to dance, work, art, and music, in more or less that order. He lived in Paris, London, and New York during the swinging Sixties and the louche Seventies, but the only “vice” in which he seems to have indulged – apart from violent outbursts – was plenteous sex, and this before anyone knew that it was possible to be a casualty of lust. According to Kavanagh Nureyev was abstemious with drugs and alcohol; she devotes a long passage to describing the excesses of Studio 54, which are consistent with Nureyev’s debauched image, before admitting, somewhat lamely, that “Studio 54 was not really his scene . . . Rudolf had never liked disco dancing or the drug and soft-core-sex culture that went with it”. He seems to have preferred a hardcore sex culture, but never mind; the point is that he never knowingly endangered his ability to dance the next day. Everything converged on the stage: when Margot Fonteyn’s mother served him chicken instead of the raw beefsteak he lived on, he sulked, muttering “Chicken dinner, chicken performance”. Like Prince Albrecht in Giselle, Nureyev would dance to death, only for him it was a blessing, not a curse. While in the advanced stages of AIDS, he danced with a catheter in place and in nappies. He knew that he was falling apart, telling a friend to come to a performance if she wanted to “see un vieux con onstage”. But for Nureyev the urgent, elemental need to keep dancing superseded any abstract, Platonic commitment to maintaining the dignity of Dance – or of himself, for that matter. Other dancers understood, guessing that Nureyev would continue to do a barre until he couldn’t walk. They were right.
“When the lights are extinguished I die”, he said, and if it is an extravagant claim, it also seems to have been true. Choreographers and critics complained that his late forays into modern dance were unsuccessful because “he conjugated; he didn’t disappear”. But Nureyev’s inability to disappear was the wellspring of his cult of personality. For purists, his showmanship was Nureyev’s downfall (Kavanagh, a former ballet dancer, takes this line, not even deigning to acknowledge his legendary “Swine Lake” on The Muppet Show). Others, who might detect the faintest whiff of snobbery in such an attitude, will argue that it was Nureyev’s showmanship that made him. Either way, in the words of his compatriot and competitor Mikhail Baryshnikov: “Definitely, for him, it was a death to be offstage. No matter how he was dancing. At least it was killing time, because he knew time was killing him”. Presumably time is killing all of us, but Nureyev seems to have objected more vigorously than most. In part, no doubt, this was because his end was hurtling towards him so precipitously (he died in 1993, at only fifty-four). But one suspects that Nureyev would never have gone quietly.
The fact that he survived his childhood at all was sufficient proof that Rudolf Nureyev was, as Mr Rochester said of Jane Eyre, tenacious of life. He was born on a train rattling across Siberia in 1938; much has been made of this portent of the nomadic life to come, and Kavanagh instantly succumbs to temptation, titling her first chapter “A Vagabond Soul”. However, Nureyev rapidly comes to seem less a nomad than a permanent exile, a reluctant outcast whose exclusion was overdetermined; only by the end, when he had resigned himself to it, did Nureyev cultivate isolation.
His family were Tatars, his parents both raised as Muslims in the Russian provinces; his mother could only read and write in Arabic, and, as an adult living in the West, Nureyev would need a translator for her letters. While Rudolf was still a toddler, the family was forced by the Second World War to relocate to the remote outpost of Bashkiria, 800 miles from Moscow. In Ufa, a small industrial town, Nureyev’s family of six, and a dog, shared a tiny one-room apartment and narrowly avoided starvation. Ufa boasted few amenities, but it had a provincial theatre where, having been smuggled in by his mother one New Year’s Eve, young Rudik underwent a conversion experience. He became demonstrably consumed by dance from that moment until he died, “like a dope addict”, as he characterized his own childhood craving. Improbably, he found reasonable ballet teachers in Ufa, who themselves had been exiled from the Kirov and the Bolshoi.
Exile defined him in every sense, but it was trying to escape exile that determined the course Nureyev’s life would take. He spent his childhood fighting to get to Leningrad, the centre of Russian ballet’s universe. At the unusually late age of seventeen, he made it, in a chapter Kavanagh incongruously titles “A Hollywood Story”. But almost immediately Nureyev found himself once again an outcast. After a childhood as an artist among apparatchiks (his Stalinist father predictably opposed his son’s career choice), he found himself a Tatar among Russians, a savage among savants. They never let him forget it, and to some extent he seems to have stopped trying; egotism is, after all, an extension of the survival instinct.
Even the defection in 1961, the fabled “leap to freedom” (actually six steps, as Kavanagh somewhat wryly explains) was no embrace of exile; it was, ironically enough, an attempt to elude it. Never one for following rules, and increasingly wayward as he felt his star power coalesce, the young Nureyev was on tour with the Kirov Ballet in Paris, and was about to embark for London when he was informed by the KGB that he was to return home for a command performance before Khrushchev. Oh yes, and his mother was ill. The message was clear: he was being sent home in disgrace, and the punishment would be a return to the provinces he’d fought so hard to escape. Nureyev wept, and chose the lesser of two exiles, heading West into the bright lights of media celebrity. He spent the remainder of his life acquiring residences in Paris, New York, the South of France, the Caribbean, Italy, London and a farm in Virginia. If a “vagabond”, he was an exceptionally homeful one.
Just as he serially acquired homes, arguably trying to replace the one he’d lost, so he accumulated surrogate families, and a long inventory of lovers. In Leningrad he had lived with his teacher, the saintly Alexander Pushkin, and his wife Xenia, who began tutoring young Rudik in the finer things of life, including the art of what Kavanagh delicately, if categorically, terms “seduction”. (The “Hollywood Story” Kavanagh seems to have in mind is The Graduate; she also believes that Pushkin remained unconscious of the affair, which is hard to imagine, given that its setting was yet another one-room Soviet apartment.) Nureyev would embark on his first gay relationship soon afterwards, and although he continued to have infrequent heterosexual relationships for the rest of his life, these seem generally to have been characterized by opportunism on his part. Of course, so were most of his homosexual ones. Even Erik Bruhn, the great Danish dancer with whom Nureyev had a long and intense affair, started out as someone to be made use of. Kavanagh repeatedly calls Bruhn the love of Nureyev’s life, but although he obviously cared deeply for Bruhn, this bromide does not quite convince. The great love of Nureyev’s life, to which he remained faithful until the end, was dance.
A capable writer and sensible thinker, Kavanagh, who spent ten years researching this book, successfully evades one of the major pitfalls of contemporary biography, the glib, simplistic post-Freudian formulas that pass today for psychological insight. Unfortunately, she falls into the other, which is to eschew psychological insight altogether in favour of the exhaustive accumulation of detail. Add a series of arbitrary comparisons, and the result is a lengthy mixed metaphor: Nureyev is a homesick nomad; he is like Byron; he is like Liszt; he is like a toreador called El Cordobés, in a simile that runs amok for two pages; most often, he is like an animal. These comparisons are not necessarily inaccurate, but they are certainly insufficient. Kavanagh’s chapter titles, especially, lack a certain acuity: “A Vagabond Soul”, “Hollywood Story”, “Blood Brothers”, “The Horse Whisperer”, “Wild Thing”, “This Thing of Darkness”. Surely the primary obligation of biography is to maintain the subject’s humanity; calling him a “thing” seems like an abdication of responsibility. The comparisons to animals, which abound, are similarly problematic: Nureyev is a “raging tiger” one minute, an animal sensing danger the next, then the wild stallion tamed by Margot Fonteyn as “horse whisperer”. From there it is a short step to calling him “bête”, “monstre sacré”, “enfant sauvage” and “enfant terrible”: French clichés may sound more elegant, but they are no less reductive or patronizing than English ones.
Instead of analysis, Kavanagh offers accretion; instead of synthesis, parenthesis and footnote. The footnotes are particularly intrusive: there are over 200 discursive asides delivered at the bottom of the page, often two or three at a time. Problems with organization are endemic to biographies with such long gestations, but Kavanagh has to add the problem of weighing her ballet expertise against a general readership, and it throws her off balance. For example, one of Nureyev’s signature ballets, La Bayadère, is first mentioned on page 79, and is referred to throughout the narrative; on page 676, Kavanagh suddenly offers an extended summary of the ballet’s plot (she should not take all the blame, however; an editor would have been useful). In general, her descriptions of ballet are not for the uninformed or faint of heart. A passing knowledge of dance – or of French – will help, but the protracted accounts of individual choreographies, and debates over various techniques and schools, will leave all but the most devoted, or dogged, readers behind. That said, Nureyev would probably have appreciated these passages, even those that are critical of his choices as a dancer, for Julie Kavanagh does him the justice of making the perfectionist detail that defined him central to his life story, as it was central to his life. But she also leaves us with a new perspective on the Yeatsian conundrum: not simply, can we separate the dance from the dancer; but can we know a dancer by means of his dance?
Sarah Churchwell is Senior Lecturer in American Literature at the University of East Anglia and the author of The Many Lives of Marilyn Monroe, 2004.