PORTRAIT IN RETROSPECT
Rudolf Nureyev: the dancer and choreographer who left his country more than thirty years ago and who died tragically abroad. A name pronounced by some with delight, and by others with something approaching disgust. Throughout his life, .the waves of passion that he evoked never ceased crashing around him. His youthful escapades — frowned upon as hooliganism — were for the most part unconscious and were in later years regarded as evidence of his ultra-sophistication. But, then again, such behavior is always sure to raise eyebrows and provoke outrage. When all is said and done, one cannot deny that the young artist's "leap" to the West caused shock waves felt far away from the Kirov Theatre.
Nowadays, there's nothing new in an artist leaving Russia. However, in the Soviet Union of thirty years ago, his action had the effect of an exploding bomb. People just didn't know what to think. But then, in those days people never did, at least not without being told how he or she ought to think. In Nureyev's case, there was much official prompting, some of which — surprisingly enough—came from the West. The choreographer Serge Lifar, one of the most prominent names in French culture and himself a former еmigrè, predicted Nureyev's imminent downfall in the pages of Izvestiya. Of course, with the benefit of hindsight, perhaps there was something in what Lifar had to say. But, by then, there was no going back. And, Nureyev wasn't to be the only performing artist to take a step Westward.
Not that he was forgotten in Russia. People still continued to follow his development as an artist. From magazines, occasional Western radio broadcasts and chance encounters Russians learned of his performances and tours and partnerships, in addition to those ballets which were created especially for him. For a long time, this information was all we had to go on. Then, the film "I Am A Dancer" secretly appeared, followed by videotapes of his performances and of the productions he mounted. These recordings somewhat satisfied the demands of Russians who were still interested in how he was faring abroad.
Those who supported his brave step of taking fate into his own hands in the free world counted with relish the phenomenal number of ballets danced by him, his fantastic earnings and his new partnerships. They glossed over the physical and cultural decline —unavoidable when you're a star — which come from the pressures of everyday life in the West. For, contrary to popular opinion, life on stage in the West is no bed of roses. Meanwhile, as all this was taking place in Nureyev's life, the guardians of Soviet patriotic morals kept reminding us of the "inevitable deterioration" that always occurs whenever an artist forsakes his native land.
But, for the moment, let's return to St. Petersburg (or Leningrad, as it was then called) at the end of the 1950's and to the famed walls of the Vaganova Academy, simply referred to at that time as the Ballet School. Pale-faced teenagers tear along its legendary corridors. And, in the midst of it all, a shortish kid with high cheekbones. He shyly treads along those magical floorboards which for him — a provincial boy who by some miracle of fate had landed in the world's ballet capital - spoke volumes more than they did to anyone living in St. Petersburg. Soon, the young Tatar would be one of those legends who left their tracks upon these hallowed floors. The future was calling.
The teachers didn't treat the seventeen-year-old softly. In any event, he wasn't at the Ballet School for very long. And, it can also be said that this lack of solid grounding in the principles of classical Russian ballet were conspicuous when Nureyev began putting on his own productions. How he must have ranted and raved when, having won the recognition of the entire world, he was still unable to recreate the legacies of Russian ballet. Or, who knows, maybe he didn't express himself this way? In his youth, he always managed to conceal his inferiority complex — his amazing sense of intuition compensating for his lack of education. Perhaps it was inevitable that he clashed with the upholders of the St. Petersburg traditions? Thus, his scandalous reputation was born.
Not that he didn't have good reason for outbursts, both at the School and then, later on, at the Kirov. He always stood up for what he believed in. But his dancing technique, stage conduct and temper were clearly outside of the generally accepted norm. His actions provoked censure, cries of protest and chortles of laughter. On the other hand, both his unorthodox approach to work and, of course, his extraordinary talent made him the .darling of the crowds and the object of much imitation.
On the other hand, there was nothing too out of the ordinary in Nureyev's style: his exactness of foot positions, his high half-points and his sparseness of costume and make-up. These qualities were also characteristics of several of his equally-talented predecessors. The main difference was that Nureyev deliberately paid little attention to detail. He wanted to rise above the conservatism which was prevailing at that time in the world of ballet. And, you have to understand his detractors. In ballet, as in the Soviet Union in general, any dissidence was regarded as a criminal act. The Kirov stage, even in its pre-revolutionary days, had a long history of dissidence and insubordination — which in one instance led to the loss of another great dancer, Vaslav Nijinsky.
Rossi Street (as the Ballet School was also called) and Teatralnaya Square (where the Kirov theatre was located) had a long and proud history. This atmosphere was not lost on the former student from Ufa as he stood for the first time in the school's corridors wearing a cheap, brown "Moskvich" ski-jacket and expensive suede shoes, holding in his hands a travelling bag which contained his ballet slippers. I didn't notice him so much for his appearance as for his aloofness. Shabby clothes, very broken-in shoes and that little bag containing his ballet things. ("All that I have I carry with me," as Seneca put it.) He had that aura of someone who knew how to take care of himself. He stood there, lost in thought, as if trying to figure out the world. This is the person he remained all his life, even if his later protective shell of cynicism did diminish the aura's glow a bit. But, he never succeeded in completely extinguishing it.
Try as he might, Nureyev couldn't prevent his self-bravado and that practiced curl of the lip from dissolving into wonder at what St. Petersburg had to offer: the Hermitage, the Philharmonic Hall, the university auditoriums... The young student gobbled them up.
His leisurely promenades through the School's corridors and the streets of St. Petersburg contrasted with incident after incident of extraordinary dancing revealed during ballet class, as Nureyev astonished everyone with what he was capable of. His cascade of leaps, rotations, battements and passes completely overwhelmed us. And not just us, his fellows pupils were also impressed. Our class teacher, Valentin Ivanovich Shelkov, retreated into a state of confusion. He was at a complete loss as to what to make of it all. He soon decided to wash his hands of this bold young student and granted him permission'to be transferred to the most advanced class, taught by Alexander Pushkin.
(Alexander Ivanovich Pushkin was an important figure in St. Petersburg's ballet life. As a soloist in the company, he had occupied only a very modest role in the theatre. But, his dancing was always polished and methodically irreproachable. This highly-developed ballet technique assisted him along the pedagogical road that he was to follow. He continued teaching until he was an old man with a paunch — something he tried in vain to conceal under his trademark woollen waistcoat.
Fortunately, all of the Kirov's rehearsals at that time were held at the Ballet School building over on Rossi Street. The young students eagerly crowded around the doors and keyholes of the rehearsal halls and, consciously or unconsciously, remembered what they had seen.
Nureyev was lucky. Within these walls he found not only a school for ballet but also a teacher with whom he immediately hit it off. Pushkin's teaching methods were straightforward and unostentatious. Courteous and elegant in both dress and manner, he'd never allow himself to get bogged down in details. The work that went on in his classroom was built on the laws of logic and traditions, handed down through generations from Johannson, Legat, Fokine and Pono-maryev. He would demonstrate what was required, lightly emphasizing the exactness of movement and only varying his voice to underline the point in question. His teaching technique penetrated into one's consciousness and remained there forever — a rare pedagogical gift. In the classroom, he was attentive and sympathetic to all, addressing leading dancer and novice alike with the same regal simplicity.
On contact with Pushkin you immediately felt calmer and somehow enriched. It was impossible to offend him or make him lose control of himself. Not that anyone had the right to do so or even dared. Except for one person, that is: the student he loved above all others and the one who brought disorder to Pushkin's house (which Nureyev now called home).
Not only in the classroom, but here in the comfort of Pushkin's flat, the problems of ballet were discussed and the obsessive passions of the young student who wanted to know everything were appeased. Here, in the calm of domestic life, Pushkin and Nureyev would play music, leaf through books and try on new clothes. Xenia Josifovna Jurgenson, Pushkin's wife and former star in the Kirov's corps de-ballet, would demonstrate choreography from old performances, her husband correcting her whenever she couldn't remember a long-forgotten step. Here, in Pushkin's household, Nureyev found-not only the traditions of St. Petersburg but also a home environment and ballet university all rolled into one.
A succession of highly-acclaimed performances at the School, and then at the Kirov, gave Nureyev the experience he needed — in addition to bringing him scores of fans. From the Kirov theatre and Leningrad, his reputation spread across the entire countryand abroad, notwithstanding his notoriously unpleasant character and wayward behavior. At the All-Union Festival of Ballet Schools in Moscow in 1958, he outshone all the others and immediately became the capital's darling.
It was here that Nureyev once went too far in his efforts to show off in front of the legendary Vakhtang Chaboukiani. The ageing dancer, to whom the dynamic young performer was beginning to be compared, brushed Nureyev aside with a scornful laugh and the conclusion: "Too big for his boots!"
Dancing classical ballets, Nureyev found a modern ring in the old productions, which made him a real find for the up-and-coming choreographers of the day. However, most of the already-established choreographers still passed him over. Only one reform-minded innovator was prepared to introduce fresh blood into his creations.
Like in his earlier "Stone Flower", everyone anticipated that Yuri Grigorovich, as he embarked upon his second ballet "The Legend of Love", would be working with a group of tried and tested dancers: Alia Osipenko, Irina Kolpakova, Emma Minchonok, Anatoly Gridin and Alexander Gribov. But, the choreographer put off working with them, preferring instead to give this time the younger dancers a shot. He first asked one, then another "guinea pig" to audition for a part in his future masterpiece. From the days of "Giselle", the degree of performer participation in the creation of a ballet had always been a guarantee of success, for choreographer and dancer alike. Admittedly, however, such partnerships tended only to be made in heaven and were thus the exception rather than the rule.
So you can imagine Grigorovich's delight when one of his guinea pigs — Rudolf Nureyev — started coming up with his own ideas. Both were literally walking on air, unable to hide their mutual pleasure. And, their dancing innovations were the subject of heated conversation long before the first full rehearsal.
It seemed the ideal partnership. The young artist worked studiously on sharpening his steps while the reform-minded choreographer fitted them into his own compositions. I couldn't help spotting elements of my schoolmate's classroom exercises that had somehow found their way into a work. For example, Rudik would deliberately complete the trajectory of his leaps with a jetè- en avant, then swinging around en face — a movement that can be found in Ferhad's variation. But, they say that even Petipa wasn't against plagiarizing. I also remember that Nureyev attached more importance than others to a particular solo adagio, perfecting both the elementary and the more difficult steps (which he derived from the ballerina's steps). With Nureyev to work with, the choreographer would introduce at the first chance he had a new solo male adagio into the duets and trios. Yet, the choreographic innovations were introduced with such subtlety as to seem completely natural.
But an unexpected and sharp severance of relations put an end to this dream partnership. And as so often happens, it was nothing more than a storm in a tea cup. Nureyev arrived late for the stage rehearsal — he had been practicing elsewhere — and this tardiness was all it took for a spark to flare up into a flame of mutual estrangement.
It is article from the book "
Three years at the