Rudolf Nureyev The Life
By Julie Kavanagh (Fig Tree 787pp £25)
Julie Kavanagh is the ideal biographer for Rudolph Nureyev. She dispels the fog of glamour, showing the dancer and choreographer relentlessly, obsessively working. She explains clearly, but with a restraint bred of distaste, the backstage intrigues which dogged Nureyev's career and particularly his last years at the Paris Opera. She delves into his love life, but only to reveal an unpublicised story which helps us better understand his art. As in her previous biography of Frederick Ashton, she writes about dancing itself so vividly, without technical fuss, that the reader imagines actually seeing it.
With Ashton's life, Kavanagh had almost too much material to hand. Though born abroad, Ashton spent most of his working life in London, where he knew everyone, and each - plus many more - had their stories about 'Fred'; Kavanagh had to sift, suspect, and eliminate. Nureyev, curiously, for all his fame, was a more hidden figure; in this book she has had to add. Nureyev's autobiographical writings presented a somewhat misleading picture of his early life in the Russian provinces; Kavanagh has not so much disputed Nureyev's memories as put into his past people like his father and events like his early training, things he did not want to remember. The great love affair of his life, with the dancer Erik Bruhn, would have bored or at least puzzled the newshounds who speculated at endless, profitable length on when 'Rudy and Margot' (Fonteyn) had slept together; here, through tactful digging, Kavanagh has made clear what the two men loved in each other as artists, and why the love affair went wrong. There was, finally, a story to uncover about Nureyev's last years, when, ill with Aids, he reimagined the Russian tradition in dance; Kavanagh tries to make a fair assessment of both the strengths and the weaknesses of this death-dogged effort.
Probably the most complicated aspect of Nureyev's life was his Russianness. Born in 1938, he grew up in the remote district of Bashkir, a place which looked nothing like the 'Oriental' Russia of silks and swords which decorated the Ballets Russes; here was a sparse, hungry world even before Communist times; to this, Stalin added police and prison camps. Nureyev's parents had to navigate survival in this stricken realm; Nureyev squeezed as much as he could out of it, finding teachers, photographs, the odd moment on film which could provide an idea of what it would be like to be a dancer.
Yet, as Kavanagh makes clear, this rough provincial life was the Russia which he loved. Among the great Russian exiles of the twentieth century, Nureyev and the poet Joseph Brodsky had the least privileged childhoods - and became in exile the greatest avatars of ordinary, simple, spare Russian culture. When Nureyev defected to the West in 1961, the press often prompted him to wax eloquent on his new freedom, but the dancer seldom rose to the bait. Kavanagh shows us, year upon year, how Nureyev increasingly suffered from exile, from loss of contact with his maternal family, his teachers and friends still in the provinces; this longing in turn fuelled Nureyev's view of himself as the guardian of Russian dance.
If, in 1961, Nureyev could have put two names to the reason he wanted to defect, they would have been George Balanchine and Erik Bruhn. Balanchine's creation, the New York City Ballet, represented for Nureyev what dance should be about - formalism combined with innovation. It was a combination that was missing in the Maryinsky company in St Petersburg where he had begun to work in 1955. Once in the West, once an international star, Nureyev imagined he had only to announce he was available, but Balanchine did not make the call, for there were to be no stars in his company; Nureyev would perform many Balanchine roles, notably 'Apollo' and 'Prodigal Son', but without this spiritual father's blessing.
With Erik Bruhn matters were in a way simpler; once in Europe Nureyev soon started an affair with the man who embodied to him the very essence of the danseur noble. But of course it was never simple. Bruhn's restraint and faultless technique contrasted with Nureyev's wildness, which, like Maria Callas's singing, both courted and feared loss of control; the older and younger dancers formed one perfect whole. Except that each wanted to become the other, and this envy (which attends all love relations of opposite-equals) was made worse as the relentless expansion of the glamorous Nureyev's career overshadowed Erik Bruhn, and Bruhn struggled increasingly, and alone, with alcoholism. For all this, Kavanagh chronicles two people who were truly colleague-lovers. Balanchine's Apollo was, for instance, a shared touchstone. The ballet was first made in 1928 to music by Stravinsky, the work quickly becoming a classic and a test for all male dancers. Erik Bruhn owned this role in his time; he made it manly and stately, a refined god dancing; this Apollo was the adult on stage which the young Nureyev, looking at the photos from Russia, then seeing Bruhn perform, wanted himself to become.
But Nureyev did not become this Apollo. Instead he recovered Balanchine's original conception of the role as 'a wild, half-human youth who acquires nobility through art'. When Nureyev debuted in this role at Covent Garden in 1971, he emphasised the raw, rough energy, following Balanchine's prescription; he was, after all, dancing the story of his own life. Kavanagh uses kindred examples from the repertoire to explain how and why these two men remained in love even as both became more damaged human beings. (I found her account of the relations between Nureyev and Fonteyn less compelling; I wanted to know what difference dancing with Fonteyn made to Nureyev's own dancing - but perhaps there's no way of knowing because their partnership was shrink-wrapped in publicity.)
The last part of her biography ought to make painful reading, Nureyev performing crassly as often as brilliantly, the years of fighting ballet predators in Paris, the inroads of Aids. And yet somehow this is the most interesting part of her story; she shows how Nureyev as a choreographer sought to reanimate the Russian tradition, as in his version of Swan Lake, a classic liberated from cliché; Nureyev sought also to provide a different kind of career for his young dancers in Paris than the one which had both nourished and starved him. At the time of his death, the obituaries spoke of the tragedy of a young life cut short - the standard Aids obituary bloated to superstar status. The achievement of Julie Kavanagh's book is to provide another sort of memorial: the story of a fulfilled man.