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Rudolf Nureyev, dancer extraordinary, director unexpected with influence unfathomable, has been dead these ten years now. He died of AIDS at the age of 54 on January 6, 1993. I remember it very clearly. I heard of Nureyev's death-it was not unexpected-on a cruise ship in the Caribbean, when I got a message that my newspaper needed me immediately. I instinctively knew what it was. I called, and, fighting back sentimental tears that Rudolf himself would have mocked ("making more money out of me, dear"), I dictated his obituary off the top of my head. The facts of a person's life are easily obtained; its significance is another matter.

I was not able to get to Paris for Nureyev's funeral, so in a way that shipboard phone call for me put a full stop on the story-or at least on its first chapters, for it still generates epilogues. But I also remember how that story started for me, with my first glimpse of Nureyev as a dancer.

In this tenth-anniversary year, the ballet world has mourned Nureyev: There have been special performances in Paris, Milan, Vienna, and London, the Western centers where his influence on dance was most apparent. There were no commemorations in the United States, because here he appeared only as a performer; it was in Europe that his presence was most deeply felt. In London, at the Royal Opera House, Monica Mason, director of The Royal Ballet and a friend of Nureyev's, and Sylvie Guillem, a protegee of Nureyev and the company's reigning ballerina in all but name, arranged special performances to celebrate the man and his impact on The Royal Ballet.

The tribute opened with a performance, neither particularly well staged nor danced, of George Balanchine's Apollo, one of Nureyev's favorite roles; it proceeded with what might be called "Nureyeviana" (such excerpts as the trio from Kenneth MacMillan's Images of Love, which Nureyev created, along with Lynn Seymour and Christopher Gable), and ended with Nureyev's own staging of the last act of Raymonda. One outstanding moment came from Carlos Acosta, dancing the solo from the Le Corsaire pas de deux, which Nureyev first introduced to the West.

I said it opened with Apollo, but that wasn't quite true. Before each performance there was a rendition by Irek Mukhamedov of Scriabin's Poeme tragique. This was the work, specially choreographed by Ashton for a Royal Academy of Dancing gala in 1961, that introduced Nureyev to the British public, and me. The original choreography has been long lost, and Mukhamedov, who was only 1 year old on that occasion, never even saw Nureyev dance. Yet it was an appropriate hommage from one great dancer to another, and I thought it did have something of the original feral spirit. And I seem to remember it well: a run, a startled face, a red cloak. But how was it really? I can recall the news of his death as if it were yesterday, but how about that London beginning?

So I looked at what I wrote at the time, more than forty years ago. Here, in part but unedited, it is:

"Nureyev was indiscriminately cheered within an inch of his life. For all that, he seems a remarkable dancer. He appeared in two numbers. (The second was the Black Swan pas de deux, in which he partnered Rosella Hightower.) The first had been newly choreographed by Ashton and looked for the most part like little more than a pinchbeck parody of a Soviet-style solo. Set to Scriabin's Pomme tragique (apparently Nureyev's own choice), this mixture of sobs and spins, a technical display with an unrelated obbligato of anguished hair-tearing, had a startling undertone of symbolism. At the rise of the curtain, Nureyev was discovered against the backcloth, draped in an enfolding red cloak. He struggled off with the cloak, threw it down, hurtled towards the footlights (westward), stopped, and then gazed at the audience with the agony of a stricken faun. It was a moment of deplorable taste and thrilling theater. The face of pain crumpled into tragedy, the tense body held in an animal pose of fright, which too obviously seemed to express his personal plight. But nothing else he did so manifestly showed his potential capabilities as this blatant, piercing moment of communication.

"Technically, Nureyev is excellent, though by the standards of his peers (say Soloviev or Bruhn), he is somewhat untidy around the feet. He has a great deal of nervous energy, as opposed to stamina, and his dancing sputters rather than burns. His arms lack masculinity, being softly graceful, but--and this is important--more in the way of an immature boy than an effeminate man. The result is oddly sexless, which is perhaps where the oft-made comparison with Nijinsky has arisen. Of all the dancers docketed as 'the new Nijinsky,' Nureyev is the first in my experience to resemble remotely any of the famous descriptions of him.

"He dances with some arrogance, and often a certain sardonic half-smile flickers over his face. His personality seems elusive and changes quickly--now he is the favorite child showing off in front of the neighbors, now the Tatar warrior come down from the hills, now the great romantic hero swooping up hearts like a Valentino eagle .... He should be invited to make his career with The Royal Ballet."

He was--for a time.

Senior Consulting Editor Clive Barnes, who covers dance and theater for the New York Post, has contributed to DANCE MAGAZINE since 1956.
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Title Annotation:About Russian dancer Rudolf Nureyev
Author:Barnes, Clive
Publication:Dance Magazine
Geographic Code:4EUUK
Date:Aug 1, 2003
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