The Russian-born dancer and choreographer Rudolph Nureyev (born 1938) captured international acclaim as the greatest male ballet dancer of the 1960s and 1970s. His virtuosity, versatility, and charismatic energy were expressed in countless classical and contemporary roles, on both stage and screen.
Rudolph Hametovich Nureyev, born on a train journey between Lake Baikal and Irkutsk in Russia, was the youngest child of poor parents of Asiatic Mongol stock. Despite early discouragement from his parents, Nureyev began his dancing career with amateur folk dance groups and the Ufa Opera Ballet. At the age of 17 he entered the Leningrad Ballet School to study with the outstanding teacher Alexander Pushkin. After three years of training he joined the Kirov Ballet as a soloist, dancing fulllength roles in Don Quixote, Gayane, Giselle, La Bayadere, The Nut-cracker, Swan Lake, and The Sleeping Beauty.
His offstage reputation was equally sensational, bringing him constant trouble with both the Kirov management and the Russian political authorities. In the Kirov's first-ever appearance in Paris in 1961 Nureyev was an outstanding success, yet his defiance of company regulations provoked a command return to Moscow. On June 17, 1961, Nureyev cut his ties with the Soviet Union, seeking political asylum at Le Bourget Airport in Paris.
Within five days, Nureyev embarked on a six-month season with the international Grand Ballet du Marquis de Cuevas, dancing the Prince and the Blue Bird in The Sleeping Beauty. As partner to Rosella Hightower, he made his London debut in October 1961 at the Royal Academy of Dancing, where he met the ballerina Margot Fonteyn, who subsequently became his principal partner for many years. He became a regular guest artist with the Royal Ballet from 1962 to the mid-1970s, in addition to performing with Ruth Page's Chicago Opera Ballet, American Ballet Theatre, and on U.S. and French television.
With an inexhaustible stamina, Nureyev continued to perform at a non-stop pace, acquiring over 90 roles and appearances with over 30 major ballet and modern dance companies. Frederick Ashton, the British choreographer, was the first to create a role specifically for Nureyev in Marguerite and Armand in March 1963. Nureyev's own first production was the last act of "La Bayadere" for the Royal Ballet in November 1963, and his first reconstruction the 19th-century three-act classic Raymonda for the Royal Ballet in June 1964. His fascination with modern dance, which led to performances with American choreographers Martha Graham, Murray Louis, and Paul Taylor, began with Rudi Van Dantzig's Monument for a Dead Boy with the Dutch National Ballet in December 1968. He penetrated the film medium in 1972 with his directing debut of his own production of Don Quixote in Melbourne, Australia, and the creation of the film I Am A Dancer. The film Rudolph Valentino, directed by Ken Russell in 1976, gave Nureyev his debut as a film actor.
Self-reliance and a compulsive drive directed his energy into a performing schedule around the world that only Anna Pavlova could equal. His guest performances were slightly curtailed with his assumption of a three-year directorship of the Paris Opera Ballet in 1983. A mercurial character, shrewd, cunning, charming, and passionate, Nureyev demonstrated a commitment and a savage power equaled by no other dancer in his day. His last stage appearance was for a curtain call at the Palace Garner after the production of his dance La Bayadere had been performed. He succumbed to AIDS in Paris, January 6, 1993. He was 54 years old. "Any time you dance," Nureyev once said in an interview in Entertainment Weekly, "what you do must be sprayed with your blood."
Further Reading on Rudolph Nureyev
Nureyev, An Autobiography, edited by A. Bland (London, 1962), was authored by the dancer himself; The Nureyev Image by Alexander Bland (1976) offers a comprehensive story, as well as photographs; John Percival's Rudolph Nureyev, Aspects of the Dancer (1975) is the product of intensive research and interviews with co-workers.