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Rudolf Nureyev

(1938—1993) dancer and choreographer


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(b on a train journey between Lake Baikal and Irkutsk in Siberia, 17 Mar. 1938; d Paris, 6 Jan. 1993)

Russian dancer, choreographer, and ballet director. One of the true superstars of 20th-century dance, with a fame so international that many of those who knew nothing about dance had heard his name. His early training was in folk dance and ballet in Ufa; he began studying at the Leningrad Ballet School (the Kirov school) when he was 17. There he trained under A. Pushkin for the next three years. He joined the Kirov Ballet as a soloist in 1958 but his stay there was short-lived. On 16 June 1961, while the Kirov was on its debut visit to Paris, he was involved in a dramatic stand-off at Le Bourget Airport between his KGB minders and French police during which he appealed for political asylum. From then on his home was in the West and an exceptional career was launched. As the first dancer to defect from the Soviet Union he was an immediate celebrity, making front-page news around the world. His first performances were with the Grand Ballet du Marquis de Cuevas. At Fonteyn's invitation, he danced at a Royal Academy of Dancing gala in London, and shortly thereafter he became Fonteyn's principal partner. He was a regular guest artist with the Royal Ballet (1962–77) but made numerous appearances with companies all over the world. His stage charisma, a combination of animal grace, technical power, and sexuality, electrified audiences and inspired a new generation of male dancers. His partnership with the much-older Fonteyn was legendary: she the cool English rose, he the hot-blooded Tartar who seemed to melt her former reserve. His repertoire was enormous, including all the classics and the modern standards, and he created roles in numerous works, including Ashton's Marguerite and Armand (1963) and Jazz Calendar (1968), MacMillan's Romeo and Juliet (1965, inheriting the role from Christopher Gable, on whom it was made) and Sideshow (1972), Petit's Paradise Lost (1967), L'estasi (1968), and Pelléas et Mélisande (1969), van Dantzig's The Ropes of Time (1970), Blown in a Gentle Wind (1975), and Ulysses (1979), Béjart's Song of a Wayfarer (1971), Tetley's Laborintus (1972) and Tristan (1974), Graham's Lucifer (1975) and The Scarlet Letter (1975), Balanchine's Le Bourgeois gentilhomme (1979), Taylor's Big Bertha (television production, 1970), and Flindt's The Overcoat (1989) and Death in Venice (1991). He also staged works for various companies, including the Vienna State Opera Ballet, Australian Ballet, London Festival Ballet, Ballet of La Scala, Milan, National Ballet of Canada, Royal Swedish Ballet, Dutch National Ballet, and Ballet of the 20th Century, and toured extensively with several of them. He was the first major ballet star to work regularly with leading modern dance choreographers and he performed with both the Martha Graham and Paul Taylor companies. In 1989, at the age of 51, he made a historic return visit to the Kirov, performing at the Mariinsky Theatre. He appeared in many films, including An Evening with the Royal Ballet (1963), Romeo and Juliet (1966), Le Jeune Homme et la mort (1966), I am a Dancer (1972), and Don Quixote (1972). He played the title role in Ken Russell's 1977 film Valentino. He also made numerous television appearances, which additionally helped to popularize dance. He was director, principal dancer, and choreographer of Nureyev and Friends, which ran on Broadway (1974–5). He starred as the King of Siam in the US tour of The King and I in 1989. He was artistic director of the Paris Opera Ballet from 1983 to 1989. He gave the company a new profile by promoting junior dancers (including Sylvie Guillem), acquiring ballets by Cunningham, Robbins, and Paul Taylor, and commissioning original works from Maguy Marin, William Forsythe, and Karole Armitage. In the last years of his life he took up conducting. He died of an Aids-related illness at the age of 54. A list of his works as choreographer includes Tancredi (mus. Henze, Vienna State Opera Ballet, 1966), Romeo and Juliet (mus. Prokofiev, London Festival Ballet, 1977), Manfred (mus. Tchaikovsky, Paris Opera Ballet, 1979), The Tempest (mus. Tchaikovsky, Royal Ballet, 1982), Bach Suite (mus. Bach, Paris Opera Ballet, 1984), Washington Square (mus. Ives, Paris Opera Ballet, 1985), and Cendrillon (mus. Prokofiev, Paris Opera Ballet, 1986). His stagings of the classics include La Bayadère (Kingdom of the Shades scene, Royal Ballet, 1963), Raymonda (Royal Ballet Touring Company, 1964; American Ballet Theatre, 1975), Swan Lake (Vienna, 1964), Don Quixote (Vienna, 1966), Sleeping Beauty (National Ballet of Canada, 1972; London Festival Ballet, 1975), Nutcracker (Royal Swedish Ballet, 1967, also Royal Ballet 1968), and La Bayadère (mus. Minkus, Paris Opera Ballet, 1992). Author of Nureyev, an Autobiography with Pictures (London, 1962).

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Subjects: Dance.


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