Rapacious Rudy, Divine Dancer and Lifelong Émigré

FREDERICK ASHTON DESCRIBED him as “the Rimbaud of the steppes,” but he was not, in fact, Russian. Kavanagh’s chapter on

FREDERICK ASHTON DESCRIBED him as “the Rimbaud of the steppes,” but he was not, in fact, Russian. Kavanagh’s chapter on his early years reads like something out of Dr. Zhivago, with Rudik’s Tatar mother walking through a dark, wolf-ridden forest to get food for her children. The family spoke Tatar, and Rudik’s grandfather was a mullah. Rudolf might have ducked into the Madeleine in Paris to pray, but he was born Muslim—on a train, his mother going into labor as the cars clattered across Siberia, with Lake Baikal outside the windows. The author stresses her subject’s later attraction to trains—watching them as a boy, buying electric sets as an adult—and indeed there are a lot of things trains can stand for. But none of them is home.

Upon completing this book, it seemed to me that home was always missing in this life, though Nureyev was the purchaser of many. He was the ultimate, lifelong émigré, from age 17, when he left his meager childhood home in Ufa, a backwater in Bashkiria, to study at the Kirov School in St. Petersburg, where he was considered a foreigner. The subsequent flight to the West doubled the psychic distance. Mother, and Mother Russia.

There are other such figures, of course, in literature, in music, in art and in dance, but many had the consolations of marriage, of family, of community or, as with George Balanchine, the Russian Orthodox Church. It would be sentimental to think that Nureyev’s home was the stage, and if it was, it was inhospitable to him for the last years of his life there.

 

HE WAS A PRINCIPAL IN TWO OF the great offstage dramas of his day. He was the first of the wave of Soviet dancers who defected to the West, in a blaze of attendant publicity that led the Danish ballet dancer Adam Luders to remark to me, once, with considerable bitterness, “It’s a pity you can’t defect from Denmark.” His participation in the second drama was purely tragic. He was among the first wave of dancers, and others, who contracted AIDS. He was diagnosed with H.I.V. when he was 46, and danced on for as long as he could, visibly ravaged in form and figure. In 1993, age 54, he died in Paris, where the Paris Opera Ballet possesses his finest tangible (if dance can be such) legacy: his staging of La Bayadère.

At the hour of his death, his biographer is, as throughout, graceful. In Julie Kavanagh, the last of his partners, Nureyev was again lucky: No one who writes about him will be able to do without this book. It’s definitive.

 

Nancy Dalva is senior writer at 2wice.

Rapacious Rudy, Divine Dancer and Lifelong Émigré