The bid  for freedom

                                            Rudolf Nureyev


Now and then in life to take a  decision like lightning, almost quicker than one can think. I have known this in dancing when something on the stage goes wrong. That is how it felt that hot morning in June 1961 on Le Bourget airfield, outside Paris, as I stood in the shadow of the great Tupolev aircraft which to fly me back to Moscow.


Its huge  wing loomed over me like the hand of the evil magician in Swan Lake. Should I surrender  and make the best of it? Or should I, like the heroin of the ballet, defy the command and make a dangerous — bid for freedom? During my stay in Paris I had felt the threat mounting. I was like a bird inside a net being drawn tighter and tighter. I knew this was a crisis.


For a bird must fly. I see nothing political in the necessity for a young artist to see the would: to compare, assimilate, to  enrich his art with new experiences, both for his own profit and that of his country. A bird must fly, see the neighbor`s garden and what lies beyond the hills, and then come home, enrich his people`s lives with tales of how others live and the broadened scope of his art. But because I had tried to do this, I was to be dispatched to Moscow and there judged. For my «irresponsible» way of life, as they had called it. For non-assimilation, dangerous individualism — how often I had already heard that refrain. How many times during my school years in Leningrad, and later during my dancer`s years at the Kirov, had it been said to me:


«Nureyev, your presence defiles the atmosphere here… you are black spot on the clean body of  our Company…» Only a couple of days before, C. Sergeyev, first dancer of the Kirov and actual ruler of the Company for the last 30 years, had urged  me not to mix so freely with my French friends or even to walk around and see things for myself. He had reminded me that it was not the individual who enriched the group but rather the «Kollective» which give strength  and existence to the individual. To stray from the herd was the surest way of getting nowhere…


My luck was in on that day. What day was it? It`s very  strange, but while I can remember the exact date I entered the Leningrad Ballet School, and while, without a second`s hesitation, I can name the hour I first appeared  on the Kirov stage, I always  have to check which day it was that my live took such a violent new turn at Le Bourget airport. Actually, in was the 17th of June. I`m very superstitious; I wish I had  checked on my horoscope that day. On that morning I had come back after a sleepless night to the Paris hotel where our  entire company was staying. I had just time to pack and  it mast have been about 7 o`clock. Our hotel was in the Place de la Republique  and the square was slowly waking up. Cafes were opening up; waiters in clean white jackets were dusting the small round marble tables and already pulling down the bright  striped canopies  to keep the terraces cool. A green truck was making its round, splashing the square with jets of cold water. It was the start of a beautiful transparent Parisian summer day. I loved in all, yet the idea of leafing it didn`t make me unhappy. After just over a month of performances in Paris we were to dance for a fortnight in London before returning home and the idea dancing in London for the first time pleased me immensely. In my personal hierarchy of capitals, I`ve always placed London very high — higher, as a matter of fact, than  Paris. Friends in Leningrad who had danced in London had all told me it was a city of great ballet lovers and I know of no greater joy than to dance before a public of real connoisseurs.


When I reached the Hotel Moderne the  familiar blue bus already parked in front of it. On that bus the entire Kirov Company (with the exception of myself, most of the time) had traveled all over Paris, traveled to work or to dine. Not that the 120 dancers who made up our company were told to do this. They simply did so out of habit, the habit of our country today to do everything together — a compulsion which will take generations to break down.


I had no time for breakfast. I rushed upstairs to pack and one hour later the Kirov Ballet Company, in its faithful bus, was on its way to the airport.


As I said, I wasn`t unhappy to  leave but I wanted to savor every last moment. At such times all the things you have loved in a town swim back into focus: I remembered  with affection the Parc de Saint-Cloud which I had liked much more than formal Versailles; the Louvre where I had spent almost all of my free time between classes, rehearsals and performances; the students` part of town: Saint-Michel and Saint-Germain des Pres where I had dined soften with my French friend; the streets at night and the dark river belong  to  you; the red and gold Paris Opera — so different in moon from the blue and silver Kirov, yet just as beautiful … I was thinking back on all the people I  had met, their different outlooks on life — the special atmosphere they created around them which had given me such pleasure to share … I was deep in my recollections of all these things when something strange happened on the bus.


I should explain that we never did anything by ourselves. At home, many of us still share a room with other people and so our lives are shaped into a consistent pattern of collective thinking, collective eating, collective travel: we simply never take individual action, never go anywhere alone, and collective tickets are issued for every undertaking. For workers, artists, scientists or whatsoever, there is always a man in charge who handles everything and stands between us and the world.


So why our manager, V. Bogdanov, suddenly distributing individual airplane tickets for London? And why was the first one allotted to me? For the moment I failed to gasp its significance and paid no special attention to it. We arrived Le Bourget, passed through the Customs and were preparing to move out to the plane when suddenly Bogdanov started to collect the tickets back from as with no  explanation. It seemed a pointless operation, not to say childish. Suddenly, in a flash of intuition. I realized that this concerned me and that something terrible was going to happen. All these elaborate maneuvers had simply been to prove too me that I gad a ticket for London. Why should I be offered this proof if I really were going? All this ridiculous mise en scene  had merely been to lull me into a sense of false security.


Naturally it had precisely the opposite effect. I had no doubts any longer. I was not going to travel wish the rest of the company and some move was impending to stop it. But what? I moved over to the bar to have a last drink with the few friends I had asked to see me off, among whom were the Kirov Paris `impresario, George Soria, and a dancer from the Paris Opera with whom I had spent much of my free time. And why had shown me much of Paris. Another person who had been my close companion was Clara, a beautiful Chilean girl, whom I had asked not to come to the airport. It was with her that I had spent the whole of the previous night walking through Paris. We had parted in the happy knowledge that it was not to be for long as I knew she was taking the next plane after mine for London. There were also journalists waiting for us the bar and one newspaper critic whose articles on the Kirov and on myself had been among that he had come  specially to see me. Also  later —  or rather,  too late — I learned that he had kept a motorcycle with the engine running, waiting in front of the exit, ready to take me off after witnessing the ensuing scene. But at this point as the company started to move off. Sergeyev came over to me at  the bar and told me with a smile:    


«Rudi, you won`t be coming wish as now. You`ll join us in London in a couple of days.» At this my heart sank. He went on: «We`ve just  received a wire from Moscow saying that you are to dance in the Kremlin tomorrow. So we`ll be leaving you now and you`ll take the Tupolev which leaves in two hours` time.» I felt the blood drain from my face. Dance in the Kremlin indeed. That was a likely story. This, I knew, was the final coup of a three-year campaign against me. I had seen it coming all too clearly. I knew exactly where I stood and also what this immediate recall to Moscow would entail: no foreign travel ever again and the position of the star dancer to which I was entitled in a couple of years would be forever  denied me. I would be consigned to  complete obscurity. I felt I would rather kill myself.


I said to Sergeyev that in that case I would go and say goodbye to the dancer. I walked over towards them and told them of the decision to pack me off back to Moscow. It was a surprise to everyone but they all understood what it implied. Most of the ballerinas — even these who had always been openly against me — started to cry. I know theatre people are easily moved, but all the same I was surprised that they displayed so much warmth and emotion. They all begged me to go back without any fuss. Promising that the first they would do upon their arrival in London would be to go to the Soviet Embassy en masse. They would explain my attitude,  convince them that there was nothing political in my way of live, that I was simply an artist whose talent thrives on an individual live of my own. That I needed to be left alone and understood… «They will understand,  you`ll see, and fly you straight back to London.  Go to Moscow. Do`t do anything foolish… You`ll commit yourself forever id you do.» But I  knew better. I knew that even the entire Kirov Company raised their voices on my behalf it would be like a cry in the wilderness and would pass completely unheard.


I thought to myself. This is the end. A friend to whom I had often said how happy I would be to stay longer in Europe on my own, was   shaking me by the arm and begging me to stay calm, to go back to Moscow, assuring me that after a little time I would be back at the Kirov as if nothing had happened. I was aware of faces: another friend, looking pale and worried, was walking round and round me in agitation. A dancer who was not a friend stood watching, motionless. But no one was taking any action and no one could lift a finger to help me.  Minutes dragged by; time was running out before I must board the plane. I felt in a daze but I asked someone to ring Clara and say «goodbye», feeling I would never have the chance to see her again.


Meanwhile, the two Russian policemen who had been acting as bodyguards on our trip and who were now supposed to take me back to Moscow,  were talking with Sergeyev at the Customs gate. Suddenly I saw one of them dash to the main exit of the airport and stand there blocking the way. I knew that man only too well. Although I knew for sure that not another single dancer in our company was followed or reported on during our whole Paris season, he had spied on every gesture of mine. Wherever I had gone I had always found him in my way. Now he was once more in my way, and probably convinced to talk to Sergeyev — what an improbable moment it seemed for a policeman to be holding a cup of coffee — I slipped behind a column. And it was while huddling there, feeling wretched and humiliated, that I saw Clara arrive. She had taken barely 25 minutes to drive from her Quai d`Orsay apartment to Le Bourget. I cried out to her that I`d taken my decision. That was all she needed to hear. She rushed to the two Inspectors  on duty at the airport and told them that «there is a Russian dancer downstairs who wants to stay in France». The Inspectors, as they explained it to me later, told her they had no right to kidnap me, but they were empowered to help me and then protect me if I was fully aware of the implications of my decision, and had taken it entirely by my own volition. Sergeyev had now left for London wish the rest of the  company, leaving the second policeman alone. When he saw Clara coming back walking between the two French Inspectors he snapped into action and made a rapid search of the hall. He found me behind my column and tried to grab me and carry me off to a small room where I am sure the Russian pilots were waiting for take-off time for their Tupolev. I really don`t know what would have happened if he had managed to get me into that room, but I managed to elude him and as the hall was very crowded at that time he seemed to be afraid of making a public scandal. I took advantage of this to walk back to the bar so that Clara would be able tosspot me clearly. Suddenly I saw Clara at the other end of the bar — I remember, strangely enough, that in is called «The Winged Bar» — and I flew to her. Clara calmly suggested we had a last cup of coffee before I left. I looked at her and than at the two French inspectors standing nearby. Everything seemed to become blurred; I felt the urge to run — yet for a second which seemed to last an eternity my muscles were so heavy they might have been made of lead. I thought I would never be able to move. And then I made it — in the longest, most breath-taking leap of my whole career I landed squarely in the arms of the two inspectors. «I want to stay,» I gasped. «I want to stay!»


I was now in their care. But I was still fearful. For so long I had to be mistrustful that my first thought  was that the French Government would  merely  make a gesture of protecting me, make a loud publicity about my decision to stay and than turn me over to the Soviet authorities. Instead of that, I found those two Inspectors, and in fact the French police as a whole, to be polite, correct and honorable men.


The Inspectors explained that I would have to sign a request form for an official `sanctuary permit` but before that could be done, according to the rules.  I must  spent five minutes alone in a room to  reflect, away from all pressure, on the decision I was about to take.  The room, they told me, had two doors. Should I decide to go back to Russia, one door would lead me discreetly back into the hall from whence I could board the Tupolev. Should I decide to stay in France, the other door led into their own private office. As I was being let into the room a Soviet Embassy secretary, Mikhail Klemenov,  tried to rush into the room with me. «Nureyev is a Soviet citizen,» I heard him say to the Inspectors, «you must hand him over to me.» «This is France,  Monsieur, and Monsieur  Nureyev has placed himself under our protection,» came the reply. «Then give me the chance to speak wish him in that room,» Klemenov insisted. «Monsieur Nureyev  doesn`t want to speak to anyone at the moment,» he was told.  By now I was locked in, safely alone, inside that small room. I could hear Klemenov`s voice, now raised to a shout: «You`ve arrested him; this is absolutely illegal…»


Then there was silence. I was alone. Four white walls and two doors. Two exits to two different lives. For me this was already a return to dignity —  the right to choose, the right I cherish mast of all, that of self-determination. Naturally my thoughts turned to my relatives — to my teacher Pushkin, a kind of second father to me…  Tamara, the girl I liked, perhaps love. I felt really I didn`t know any more… the Kirov, to me the first  ballet company in the world, all       that I had held most dear and had made me into what I am. Yet at the same time, the life of daily, niggling persecution, insinuations, petty denunciations. The kind of life which, as I well knew, had caused some young artist of my own generation to put an and to in on by jumping in the river rather than carry on a hopeless fight. On the other hand, what lay in store for me on  other side of the fence, here in Europe? I would be alone, but not un the way I had always longed for; this would be utter solitude. The new freedom wore an austere look. Yet I knew it was the only choice because it alone offered the hope of being at last able to really do something, to learn, to see, to grow. There was  a hope of this, and that was enough. As the Russian saying goes: a young man lives o hope alone. I made my way into the Inspectors` office. My new life had begun.


Clara left. I told her that I must drive with two Inspectors to the Paris Prefecture of Police and that I would call her from there to decide what to do next…  where to go.


On the airfield a car drew up to a small door known only to the pilots. Soon, with the two Inspectors. I found myself taking the same road I had driven along a couple of hours before. Yet I wasn`t the same man. This was freedom, yet ironically, freedom was taking on the form of ins exact opposite.  Once again, policemen were on either side of me, but French this time. I was entering on a new life almost naked as when I was born. All my luggage had gone on to London in the plane. Lost in these suitcases were my dearest worldly possessions: a collection of ballet shoes and leotards I had bought everywhere I had danced in Russia, of course, but also in Germany, Austria, Bulgaria and Egypt. These I could never replace. Lost, too, was a wig I had had made to order in Paris to wear as Albrecht in Giselle. That wig was so blond and curly and  romantic I had jokingly called in «Marilyn Monroeу». And most of all I regretted   my very first                    

Purchase in Paris — a beautiful electric train, symbol of the fascination I have felt ever since I was a baby for railways, train, and smoky stations, and the beckoning promise I have always felt them to hold  of distant horizons and mysteries elsewhere.


It is article from the book " Three years at the Kirov theatre ". The author of a site thanks L.P.Myasnikova and T.I.Zakrzhevskaja for this gift.                                                                                                                                                                                      

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