A Tribute to Rudolf Nureyev, an insight

There can’t be many people that can claim to have been born at sixty miles per hour, but Rudolf Nureyev, born on the east bound Trans-Siberian train seventy-five years ago, could. His arrival must have been a shock, as he was a touch premature, but that was nothing compared to the life that would soon follow.

No one could have predicted that the boy who had to wear his older sisters’ cut down clothes and who fainted from hunger at school, would make front-page headlines around the world, or that twenty-five years after his death, tribute productions would be performed in his honour.


When Nureyev defected to the West at Le Bourget airport in Paris, he left behind not only his life and family in the Soviet Union, but also the Imperial ballets that had shaped his youth.

With little communication allowed across the border, ballets had to be recreated from memory in order to make it to the West. Nureyev desperately wanted to stage Raymonda. Unable to recall it all, he needed a little help from an old teacher. Aleksandr Pushkin’s notations were literally smuggled out of St Petersburg by a fellow dancer, hidden away in a thermos flask.

Raymonda tells the tale of a countess, whose suitor, Jean de Brienne, is more interested in going on crusades than wooing her. As he attempts to capture Palestine, a Saracen knight weasels his way in and tries to kidnap her. Thankfully, Jean sees the error of his ways and returns just in time to rescue his beloved. By Act III, all is forgiven and the happy couple are celebrating their wedding. In this final act, all pretence of storyline jetes out the window, leaving behind some fantastic Hungarian dances and solo variations.

While Nureyev danced the bravura role of Jean many times in his production, it was in quite a different ballet that his fascination was held.

Petrushka is the story of three puppets owned by a Charlatan – the Moor, the Ballerina, and our hero – Petrushka. During the Shrovetide fair, the Charlatan gathers a crowd of revellers towards his travelling theatre. The curtains are drawn back, revealing the puppets which jump to life and dance at his command. But as soon as they are placed back in their cubicles, away from the public eye, we are allowed a glimpse into the secret world of the puppets.

Petrushka yearns desperately for the ballerina who is tucked away next door. He desires her almost as much as he fears the Charlatan, whose painting watches over him with a Big Brother stare, monitoring him with unwavering eyes.

The Ballerina however, tottering about as she is stuck en pointe, has eyes only for the glamorous Moor. She finds his attempts to worship an indestructible coconut charming and poor Petrushka is driven to despair when he sees the two of them together. The Moor, unwilling to have a rival, chases after Petrushka, his scimitar in hand, out of the theatre and into the crowd where, amongst the horrified throng, he kills him.
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The role had been created on Vaslav Nijinsky, and in a tribute performance to him, it was Nureyev who danced the part. It seems appropriate for Nureyev to have made Nijinsky’s role his own. It was Nijinsky who transformed the perception of the male dancer beyond that of an easel to display ballerinas, but Nureyev who pushed the idea further, placing the male dancer in even more prominence. His reworking of the classics enhanced the male roles, adding in new material for the previously prop-like princes.

This emphasis on the danseur climaxed with Béjart’s Songs of the Wayfarer, created for Nureyev in 1971. Set on Mahler’s song cycle about a Wayfarer who has lost his sweetheart to another man, it features two male dancers on a stark set: the Wayfarer and his Destiny. Béjart thought the image of the Wayfarer, moving around from town to town and never able to settle echoed Nureyev’s own life – who travelled all around the world but could not return to his homeland.

The pair echo each other’s steps, first one taking the lead, then the other. Destiny offers his hand out, but the Wayfarer does not want to follow him. There is still much to be seen and explored. As the Wayfarer makes to leave, Destiny stills him with a raised hand, until finally, after much struggle and emotional torment, the Wayfarer takes his hand and is lead off stage. We are left with the image of the Wayfarer looking back over his shoulder, and reaching out into the audience, imploring us to help him, but nothing can be done – he is lost to fate.

Nureyev performed the piece all over the world, even after his very public spat with its creator in the 1980s. In 1990, when he was invited back to the Paris Opera Ballet once more, after stepping down from his role as Director, it was Songs of the Wayfarer that he chose to perform.

Nureyev’s international tours were like that of a rockstar. He never allowed himself to stop moving or pushing himself forward. Perhaps it is no surprise, that a man who was born on route, was never able to settle. What he left behind however, was a trail of extraordinary achievements and outstanding work.

English National Ballet’s A Tribute to Rudolf Nureyev can only touch on his greatness. But with works that span his career, from his own choreography, to that created for him, and the role he could not help but return to, manages to give a flavour of what made the man who couldn’t stop moving, into the immovable legend we now know.

Maxine Smiles