Nureyev: His Life

November 1998

Rudolf Nureyev. Surely, even now, the most famous dancer ever to have lived. Mention ballet in one of London's black taxis, and Rudolf Nureyev is still the name most likely to crop up. Everyone knows something about the exotic Russian who 'leapt to freedom' at Le Bourget airport in 1961 and catapulted ballet from the obscurity of the arts pages into the headlines.

He was the most talked about, most debated and most written about dancer in the world, and this latest contribution to the subject, Nureyev: His Life, proves that he still is. In a book the size of a small handbag, Diane Solway lays out the results of her years of in-depth research and provides us with what must now be the definitive chronicle of his life.

Opening with a prologue (which is in reality an epilogue, cataloguing as it does the posthumous sale of his effects) Solway sets out, for those readers unaware of the legend, the tone of his life, and just how very, very famous he had become. She then goes back in time, some fifty-five years, to his birth on the Trans-Siberian Express train carrying his mother and sisters to a new life in Vladivostock. Throughout the book, this 'birth-on-the-move' is revisited, recast as a kind of leitmotif for his existence, bestowing on Nureyev's life the order and pattern that is found in art, but never in reality.

Solway has interviewed over 200 people in ten countries, and seems intent on including all the information, relevant or not. The early chapters, concentrating on Nureyev's childhood, are studded with dim recollections about a life lived half a century ago in a world which would seem distant at the best of times; lived, as it was, behind the Iron Curtain, it seems like another universe. The reminiscences of his classmates are sometimes telling snippets about a child who, with the benefit of hindsight, can be claimed to have shown vestiges of future greatness. Too often though, they are diversions which reveal nothing about the artist and what it was that separated him from the rest. Solway tends to pile on the facts without giving us more insight.

But what does emerge from these opening chapters, and is reaffirmed throughout, is the value of this book as a social history, an interesting and unusual perspective on the landmarks of the 20th century. Nureyev was born into a world where East and West were on opposite sides of an ideological divide. With his defection, the stuff of movies and a story grippingly told, Nureyev crossed that divide and unwittingly played a part in breaking it down, cast, in the words of Arlene Croce, as 'Gorbachev's advance man'. Watching him live his life, one watches times changing. In 1970, at the height of his fame, he hoped to reproduce Jeux on film as Nijinsky originally conceived it; a ballet about homosexual love. The idea was vetoed by the film's producers, who were 'worried about showing a ballet about three men'. In 1984 he was diagnosed with AIDS, a disease almost totally unknown to the wider public, yet now so much a part of our lives. It's hard to believe that only fourteen years ago, we had innocence left to lose.

It is particularly interesting to see his impact on dance in the western world assessed. Received wisdom about his contribution to British ballet and the supremacy of his technique are both brought into question. But it is on the subject of dancing that I had the most complaints. There are strange inconsistencies which seem to stem from Solway's determination to include everyone's contributions, even when they are at odds. Suddenly, for instance, we're told Nureyev is lacking in stamina, whereas he is more routinely described as inexhaustible. More worryingly, there is an inexactness which makes me question whether writing about dance can ever really convey the way it feels. Solway's accounts of movement and her explanation of the Vaganova teaching method seem to me, as a dancer, way off the mark, and I wonder whether my own descriptions similarly fail to make the pointe, as it were.

The latter part of the book paints a painful and disturbing portrait of an artist dying on his feet as Nureyev, now into his fifties and seriously ill, continues to perform. The same critics who twenty years earlier had raved about 'the world's greatest dancer' were now calling for him to stop. Croce spoke for many of them when she wrote 'for some time, his appearances have belonged to the history of his career rather than the history of his art'.

The same could be said of Solway's book. It affords us a detailed overview of Nureyev's career, but for all its bulk, tells us little more about his artistry than a single perceptive comment might. We know that he went from unpolished protégé, to international superstar, to tragic has-been. Yet nowhere do we find out how. In 1962, after Fonteyn and Nureyev danced Corsaire, 'reporters scrambled to reveal the magic of their rapport'. It remains a mystery. But perhaps it was never Solway's intention to unravel Nureyev's alchemy. Her achievement is to hold together all the disparate elements which make up a life and fashion them into a coherent whole. It was a unique and wonderful life. For all the niggles about its telling, it can't help but make a wonderful story.