The Life

by Julie Kavanagh

Pantheon, 782 pp., $37.50

Superlatives and extremes have barely enough power when describing the life of Rudolf Nureyev. He studied ballet with the best teachers at the most influential school, the Vaganova Academy, in a country ruled by one of history's cruelest regimes. To escape it, he chose defection, a life-altering decision that ruined the lives of his loved ones in Russia. He was one of the 20th century's sexiest men, with an insatiable appetite for life and love. And his unchecked, often offensive personality made him a polarizing public figure.

While all of this leads to dramatic, titillating stories, what really matters is that Nureyev was among the greatest ballet dancers of all time. When he came to the West, he voraciously absorbed as many different styles of dance as he could--and in so doing, had a lasting, worldwide effect on ballet. It is this artistic give-and-take that his authorized biographer, Julie Kavanagh, emphasizes with diligent, fascinating detail here--though, it should be said, there is also plenty of the juicy stuff, too.

Almost immediately after his 1961 defection in Paris, Nureyev did what he couldn't do at home: He sought out the great dance artists of the day. A half-century ago, ballet was an art in which national styles were distinct, and traditions mattered deeply. (Which is still true, but less so today.) A good parallel is with wine: While the French and Americans both make Chardonnay, the differences are immediately recognizable; likewise, while Russian and British dancers both do pirouettes, they do them very differently.

Nureyev was hungry for a taste of what dancers and dancemakers around the world were creating. Kavanagh makes the case that he craved the extra training and exposure more than other dancers because he came to ballet later than most. His early desire to catch up evolved into a lifelong obsession with exploring dance to the fullest extent before the clock could run out--a sense of urgency that also gave him a free pass for bad behavior. Upon his arrival there were two people he most wanted to learn from: Erik Bruhn, star of the Royal Danish Ballet, and George Balanchine, a fellow Russian heading the New York City Ballet. With Bruhn, a paragon of the Danish style as created by August Bournonville, Nureyev danced, absorbed, and fell deeply in love. Balanchine was a tougher case. At the New York City Ballet, where the main attraction has always been the choreography, there was no room for self-serving stars. As Balanchine firmly, and famously, told Nureyev in 1962: "When you are tired of playing at being a prince, come to me."

If the rejection stung, it was more than compensated for in the wild success that Nureyev was already enjoying with Britain's Royal Ballet. It was there that he became the partner of Margot Fonteyn, the aging prima ballerina whose career he invigorated and extended. From their first Giselle in 1962, they brought an unmatched level of celebrity and sex appeal to ballet.

With prose that sweeps along as smoothly as fiction, Kavanagh describes a number of important ways that Nureyev changed ballet as he set about working with everyone he could. In the 1960s, the British versions of Petipa ballets Swan Lake, Giselle, Sleeping Beauty relied heavily on mime, which was felt to be in keeping with the Russian originals. But off in their own corner, the Russians had eliminated much of that. To Nureyev, such gestures looked old-fashioned, and he reduced the onstage storytelling whenever possible. Says Kavanagh, these were works he felt should be preserved but not embalmed, dancers techniques and physiques having changed so dramatically over the century. He also wanted, and often created for himself, greater prominence for the male lead in the classic ballets. His interpretation of Albrecht, the nobleman who masquerades as a peasant and seduces the innocent Giselle, was of an immature and impulsive youth, a characterization that differed from the standard worldly aristocrat dallying with a pretty country girl.

While Nureyev had an outsized ego, Kavanagh goes out of her way to show that his earnest desire to learn made him easy to work with, even when he crossed over into modern dance to work with such choreographers as Martha Graham: Each was as solipsistic as the other--enraptured selfishness Graham's manager called it--and both had dedicated themselves totally and mercilessly to their art.

Along with the extreme dedication to art, however, came some complex, deeply unattractive personality traits. Nureyev was dogged in asking people for introductions and in pulling strings, and Kavanagh does not shy from showing that he used people, and discarded them easily. This is somewhat mitigated by his generosity in teaching and encouraging younger dancers: He plucked dancers from the corps (though not always for artistic reasons) and eagerly helped others, including Fonteyn, with technique. And while Nureyev was gifted at sharing information and reinventing ballets, he wasn't a stellar administrator, as evidenced by his tumultuous (though often productive) time as director of the Paris Opera Ballet. Although he spent millions on multiple residences--in London, New York, Paris, St. Barts, and Virginia--he didn't pay his contractors regularly and wouldn't hire a nurse when he was dying of AIDS.

Julie Kavanagh, former dance critic of the Spectator and editor of the London editions of Vanity Fair and the New Yorker, has done supremely well here. Her exemplary research gives an already-fascinating story great depth and richness; and while there are gossipy, explicit passages, such things are unavoidable in writing about a man whose fame was so closely linked to his sexuality. The 32 pages of photographs are a reminder of how it was that the world, not just the ballet world, could be so charmed by this risky, raw, uncompromising artist.

Pia Catton is the cultural editor of the New York Sun.

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