Rapacious Rudy, Divine Dancer and Lifelong Émigré

NUREYEV: THE LIFEBy Julie KavanaghPantheon, 800 pages, $37.50 “I will never return to my country, but I truly believe that

By Julie Kavanagh
Pantheon, 800 pages, $37.50

“I will never return to my country, but I truly believe that I will never be happy in yours.”

—Rudolf Nureyev

Julie Kavanagh’s Nureyev: The Life initially came to me in “galleys”—that is, a reviewer’s copy, without photographs. Reading though its 700 pages, I kept finding myself wondering, “Why would anyone have put up with him?” Then there arrived on my mail table the finished book, very handsome, with its 24 pages of photographs, from Rudik the little boy to Rudolf the young man to Rudy the superstar who inspired the cry, “We want Rudy in the nudy!”

Look at him! All I could think was what Yeats wrote about his love Maud Gonne, comparing her to Helen of Troy: “Why, what could she have done, being what she is? Was there another Troy for her to burn?”

What could Rudy do? His was the face, and the bod, to launch a thousand ships, and leave devastation in his wake. He was, in a word, a sensation. Ms. Kavanagh chronicles him with even-mindedness and original research and a mastery of detail, having spent 10 years in pursuit of the life, entire. And that is what we get: Not a tell-all, but a tell-everything. There may be moments when you feel you’re learning too much about peripheral characters, but you’re left holding a biography with content and context, to make of its subject what you will.

I have a dance colleague who complains that there’s too much about sex in this book, and another who says that there isn’t enough, soon enough. Sex, surely, is central, because the body is central, onstage and off-. It isn’t, after all, Nureyev’s mind that interests us so much, or even, possibly, his mind that interested him so much. For Nureyev was one of those rare equal-opportunity crushes, up close and in the theater, where he was galvanic. For men, for women. He was capable of performing sexually with either, but his preference—and he was rapaciously demanding—was for men. (Many men.) Still, our author notes a love bite on the neck of his most celebrated partner, Margot Fonteyn, and details a European tryst with, of all ballerinas, our own American Maria Tallchief. (They must have made an exotic couple).

Nureyev was very lucky in love during his early and middle years—those who loved him, mostly not so lucky. The surviving letters from his great amour, the Danish danseur noble Erik Bruhn, are but one proof of this. Really, they could break your heart.

What also could break your heart is not merely the inevitable havoc Nureyev created in the Soviet Union by defecting at Le Bourget—this part of the book reads like a spy novel—but his cavalier treatment in later years of those he left behind. For instance, by braving a meeting he desired her to have with Lee Radziwill in St. Petersburg, Nureyev’s great friend Liuba Romankov found herself frozen in her career as a scientist, and banned from international travel. Rudy was heedless, and narcissistic. (Not that others around him always emerge so well.) By far the most charming personage in the entire book, in her incidental appearances, is (not surprisingly) the French ballerina Violette Verdy. The least charming would have to be Nureyev himself.

Handsome is, but not handsome does: His behavior was sometimes disgusting.

And yet, onstage, he was divine. And not by right, but by self-invention. Yes, he was born with that face, but his legs were, by his own reckoning, too short; so he began to dance pulled up onto his toes. He noticed that ballerinas got the best choreography, so he appropriated their plastique. (Dancers after him followed suit, changing the look of male dancing.) He met Bruhn because he went to Denmark to study his technique, his line. He invented himself, and he decorated himself, and later his houses, with an orientalist panache and a French flair.

Rapacious Rudy, Divine Dancer and Lifelong Émigré