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The Lebrecht Weekly


Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]

How Nureyev played the fame game

By Norman Lebrecht / September 26, 2007

Everything he did was designed for the public eye. Whether he was dancing, defecting, duetting with Margot Fonteyn, conducting orchestras when he could dance no more, cruising the boy bars and bath houses or dying of Aids, Rudolf Nureyev understood as no performing artist had done before him the indivisibility of private and public persona and the ways in which one could be made to serve the other.

He was not the sole inventor of the cult of celebrity, living as he did in an epoch of Kennedys and Beatles, but he added to the infant glamour industry the element of being famous for being famous. No more than five or six million spectators ever saw Nureyev dance, yet one third of the world’s population knew his name, recognised his face and identified intimately with some aspect of his story or his myth.

Freedom lovers applauded his flight from Soviet repression; women marvelled at the way his magic touch restored Covent Garden’s middle-aged Margot to the first flush of love; gay men were awestruck by his feral intensity on stage, by rumours of his physical dimensions and by the recklessness of his erotic life; politicians changed their attitudes to Aids in face of his dignified death.

Fourteen years later, with the publication of an exhaustive biography, Nureyev commands more media space than any dancer has done at any time since his retirement or may ever do again. Put simply: he is the only ballet dancer most people have heard of.

Much of this has to do with timing. Nureyev burst onto the world’s front pages by running away from KGB heavies in a busy Paris airport lounge on June 17, 1961, becoming an instant symbol of the fluctuating Cold War. Two months later to the day, the Berlin Wall went up, cutting him off from Teja Kremke, an East German soul-mate who had planned to join him and whose life was comprehensively ruined in the following years by Stasi persecution.

These events are touchingly detailed in Julie Kavanagh’s impressive new Penguin biography and in the accompanying BBC2 series. What effect did they have on Nureyev’s agitated mind, tailed as he was by Soviet goons and hounded by threats to his family back in Ufa? I suspect that the fear implanted in Nureyev the idea that the only way he could escape retribution was by keeping himself perpetually in the limelight, universally observed, too visible to be hurt.

A further accident of timing assisted his cause. His escape came at the dawning of the age of Aquarius when sexual attitudes loosened up across the west and sexual prejudices declined. Nureyev was sex on legs. ‘He slowly raised his arms,’ wrote the photographer Richard Avedon, ‘and as his arms went up, so did his penis. It was as if he was dancing with every part of himself. His whole body was responding to a kind of wonder at himself.’

No performer expressed so effortlessly the narcissism of the Me Generation. Nureyev evokes the spirit of the age, more than Mick Jagger, more than Hair, more than anything of Hollywood manufacture. He was the personification of personal liberation, carried to every physical extreme.

Balletically he elevated Covent Garden from a straitlaced company, over-reliant on the fading Fonteyn, to a powerhouse of erotic voltage and technical experiment. A repository of Russian traditions with an elephantine memory for steps, Nureyev reached out to choreographers in Amsterdam and New York, acting as the single most important bridge between classical and modern dance.

When he passed 40 and his legs faltered, he tried his hand at choreography and company management – notably at the Paris Opera Ballet in the 1980s – but, though he left an abiding influence on Sylvie Guillem, the backroom role did not satisfy his craving for visibility, his celebrity addiction.

Herbert von Karajan and Leonard Bernstein suggested that he was a good enough time keeper to become a symphonic conductor. So he took up the baton with gusto and had himself filmed with orchestras, like his mentors, by way of leaving a legacy. But the sound of music was never enough to satisfy Nureyev. He needed to dance, to touch, to be seen. Even after the collapse of Soviet power, he could not shake off the daily fear that fed his need for publicity.

To see him now in filmed interviews is to appreciate that every word and drooped eyebrow was slyly chosen to bolster his all-purpose brand. He was, at once, the wild Tatar boy and the silken Parisian aesthete, the lonely lad and the promiscuous lover, the supreme ego and the shy, grateful colleague who supported Fonteyn financially in her dotage. He was, or tried to be, all things to all men and women.

In doing so, he created a template for modern celebrity, a mould in which image is all and achievement immaterial, in which art is a vehicle for personal aggrandisement and fame is available in 15-minute slots to the quick and the brash, the illiterate cooks and the nightclub trash. Nureyev, a genius of dance with a ferocious work ethic, changed - for reasons he never intended - the way we live today.

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Visit every week to read Norman Lebrecht's latest column. [Index]


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