Wednesday, December 23, 1998

Flamboyant Rudolf Nureyev transformed ballet in our time.

Posted By on Wed, Dec 23, 1998 at 12:00 AM

Scholarly, penetrating and meticulously researched, this biography unveils Rudolf Nureyev's life in all its Technicolor glory. Diane Solway also taps into recently declassified Soviet archives, which shed light on the dancer's early years in the former Soviet Union. While other Nureyev bios, most notably Otis Stuart's Perpetual Motion, are rife with sketchy anecdotes, Solway's chunky volume is almost airtight in its accuracy and detail. But that is also the book's chief flaw; the reader gets heavy-lidded reading all the footnotes peppering the pages. Still, Nureyev: His Life remains lively, chiefly because of its dynamic subject.

Defiant and egotistical, Nureyev also could be downright rude and cheap. Though he could easily afford it — he was ballet's richest star — Nureyev expected others to pick up the bill in a restaurant and cater to his every whim. Yet Solway is quick to point out that Nureyev wasn't always selfish. While his most celebrated partner, Margot Fonteyn, lay dying of ovarian cancer, her finances depleted, Nureyev visited her often and anonymously paid her medical bills.

It's impossible to speak of Nureyev without mentioning his sex life, which was a very crowded one. Without being lurid, Solway mentions some of his paramours, from ballerina Maria Tallchief to the great love of his life, the Danish dancer Erik Bruhn. There were also countless call boys. Nureyev sometimes gave in to women's advances, but he was primarily and proudly gay.

Solway pretty much scotches the speculation that Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn had an affair, and explains why his relationship with Bruhn was bound to unravel. The Apollonian Bruhn, reserved and monogamous, clashed with the Dionysian Nureyev, fiery and promiscuous.

Solway is acutely aware of Nureyev's contribution to ballet. Smashing to bits Balanchine's dictum that "ballet is woman," Nureyev asserted the importance of the male dancer, reveling in virile flamboyance. Before Nureyev, the male was deferential to the ballerina.

Young, vibrant and exuding animal sexuality, the shaggy-haired Nureyev was also a pop idol in the '60s. Young women screamed for him after performances. Fans as diverse as Jackie Kennedy and Mick Jagger followed him. No other dancer worked with as many choreographers, from Frederick Ashton to Paul Taylor.

Nureyev may not have been as elegant a dancer as Bruhn nor did he have the elevation of Edward Villella, but he generated wild excitement in his prime. He worked hard on his technique, his airborne double corkscrew turns being particularly thrilling, but his landings were seldom clean. Still, he popularized ballet exponentially. As Solway points out, the number of dance companies burgeoned after Nureyev came on the scene. After his much-publicized defection in 1961, he also made it easier for others to leave Russia, including Natalia Makarova and Mikhail Baryshnikov.

A dancer's body rarely lasts beyond the age of 40, but Nureyev refused to retire, even though his elasticity had deteriorated. The glowing reviews of the 1960s and '70s turned into pans in the '80s. Few knew that he was also battling AIDS, the disease that would claim his life in 1993 at 54. Still, Nureyev, his body ravaged, took to the stage.

He was fond of quoting Fonteyn's doughty axiom: "If you can stand, you can dance." For so many years, he did just that — spectacularly.

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