The star who came in from the cold: A Tribute to Rudolf Nureyev

Rudolf Nureyev was “a Balletic missile…a wild animal let loose in the drawing-room”, wrote Nigel Gosling, the Observer newspaper’s ballet critic when “Rudik” hit London in the early 1960s. In the moments following yesterday’s curtain up on English National Ballet’s tribute to Margot Fonteyn’s most famous partner, spectators are taken back to 1963 and a video clip of Nureyev’s electrifying portrayal of the slave in Le Corsaire, one of his bravura roles.

Nureyev’s virtuoso portrayal of the muscular, half-naked slave still sizzles with his powerful feline eroticism. When he performed such solos, the applause lasted longer than the dance itself.

Taking the West by storm after his sensational defection from the Soviet Union in June 1961, Nureyev’s timing was perfect. The sixties were beginning to swing, and this intensely charismatic and handsome young man, with his exotic Russian accent and chiselled Tartar cheekbones, soon became a celebrity. Dancers of both sexes fell for him wherever he went.  Lynn Seymour, featured in the short film which follows the clip is still starry-eyed. “Dancing with Rudolf” she breathes, “was an extreme joy.”

The ballet world hailed him as the new Nijinsky and he inspired up and coming young dancers such as Anthony Dowell. During the 1970s he was English National Ballet’s treasure, and choreographed for them his own version of Romeo and Juliet, regularly performed by ENB to this day. And so it is fitting that Tamara Rojo should have chosen to remember him on the 20th anniversary of his untimely death aged 55.

Rojo’s aim in her selection of the tribute’s three pieces was to demonstrate Nureyev’s prodigious range as a dancer. Instead of selecting the classical roles for which he was best-loved, such as Albrecht , the Prince Siegfried, Armand or Romeo, she chose Petrushka the puppet, the antithesis of the classical prince, Maurice Bejart’s wistful traveller from Song of a Wayfarer  and Jean de Brienne, from Raymonda, one of Marius Petipa’s less-known ballets, which Nureyev brought with him from Russia and reputedly recreated from memory.

Petrushka, is one of the greatest masterpieces of the Ballet Russes. Premiered in 1911 to Stravinsky’s thrilling commissioned music, it was not only an attempt to create a truly St. Petersburg ballet, with authentic folk dances and traditions and a raw theme, but the angry young Fokine’s act of rebellion against an Imperial classical ballet which he saw as rigid and meaningless. Petrushka, the sad and abused puppet who dies of love for the impassive and wooden ballerina, dances with pigeon toes, jerky gestures and slumped posture. Black and white photographs of Nureyev in the role created for Nijinsky express Petrushka’s agonising pathos. Yesterday the young Junior Soloist, Anton Lukovkin, who was born in St. Petersburg, danced Petrushka as though his soul depended on it. For me it was the performance of the night.

Ironically, the third piece, Act III of Raymonda, was a fine example of exactly the kind of ballet Fokine rebelled against. Ranks of smiling dancers in cream and gold Hungarian national costume with nodding plumed hats, crisply performed sedate, stylised national dances. Twinkling ballerinas and dancers in sequin spangled tutus and doublets executed the fiendishly tricky steps which Petipa arranged in various formations for the assorted fairies and princesses that populate his ballets. Here we saw the virtuoso leaps and spins that made Nureyev’s reputation, but it was the Georgian, Elena Glurdijdze, a fabulously imperious and glamorous Raymonda, who commanded the stage.

Least typical of the bravura style was the Wayfarer, set to Mahler’s music and sung by Nicholas Lester. Bejart choreographed half of this male pas de deux on Nureyev. A lyrical contemporary piece, it explores a wandering man’s life journey in the company of his alter ego. The choreography includes the sinuous torso movements so typical of Nureyev and wonderful controlled extensions. Francisco Bosch and Fabian Reimair danced it with great feeling. It was a reminder that for all his money and fame, Nureyev grew up as a refugee in Stalinist Russia; a poor Muslim/Tartar boy who was born on the Trans-Siberian express. His Arabic-speaking mother named him after the movie-star Rudolph Valentino which sealed his fate. His defection may have changed ballet forever, but it also signed his death warrant in the Soviet Union and condemned him to a life in exile.

Fiona Fraser