Rudolf Nureyev, "The White Crow": 30 Interesting Facts About the Dancer.
Updated: Jul 22, 2019
The White Crow, a film directed by Ralph Fiennes, is being released this week in Australia and is an inspiration to further my knowledge of Rudolf Nureyev’s life. The movie is based on Julie Kavanagh’s book Rudolf Nureyev: The Life. (I didn’t know this when I borrowed the book from the library, basing much of my research for this post from it. It was a lovely book, written in a touching way. The last paragraph created a beautiful ending.)
(Spoiler alert: If you want to see the movie knowing nothing about Nureyev’s life, turn back now and come back afterward. I haven’t seen the movie yet, but being a biography, there’s going to be spoilers here.)
Rudolf Nureyev was born on a train between Lake Baikal and Irkutsk in Siberia on the 17th March 1938 and died in Paris on the 6th Jan, 1993 at the age of 54. He was a dancer, choreographer and ballet director.
He studied ballet in Ufa and then the Leningrad Choreographic School (The Kirov School), before becoming a soloist with the Kirov Ballet in 1958.
On 16th June 1961 when on tour in the west with the Kirov Ballet, Rudolf defected from the Soviet Union to Paris after he was ordered home due to his reckless interest in the west. He became an instant celebrity. Even those who knew nothing about dance recognised his name.
After Margot Fonteyn’s invitation to a Royal Academy of Dance Gala in London, he soon after became her regular partner. They formed a lifelong, soul friendship. His difference in schooling and youth helped to reinvigorate Margot’s technique and performances (she was 42 by this stage and Rudolf was 23). Margot being a “cool English rose” and Rudolf being a “hot-blooded Tartar” created a dynamic relationship and presence on stage. They danced together flawlessly, always flowing, perfectly synced in the time and shapes of their movements.
Rudolf helped to boost the prestige of the male dancer along with other dancers from that era such as Gene Kelly and Edward Villella (NYC Ballet). Nureyev helped to inspire a new generation of male dancers with his dramatic presence, charisma and grace on stage. A commentator from his London debut in 1961 said “it was as if a wild animal had been let loose in a drawing room” (Vartoogian). When teaching, he could make every boy feel like a prince.
Nureyev was a guest of many ballet companies including The Royal Ballet, The Australian Ballet, National Ballet of Canada, London Festival Ballet and The Royal Swedish Ballet. He directed the Paris Opera Ballet from 1983 to 1989. He choreographed his own versions of ballets such as Romeo and Juliet (1977) and The Nutcracker (1967) and introduced Russian repertory. Rudolf was one of the first major classical dancers to work regularly with modern choreographers such as Martha Graham.
Interesting facts, which may be new or known to readers, but I hope you enjoy.
1. After he began ballet lessons, he constantly daydreamed and became withdrawn at school. A classmate described him as being different “…like a white crow” (Kavanagh).
2. Even though both his parents were Tartars, his mother wanted a Russian education for her children. They spoke exclusively Russian (which Rudolf found out later, was not that accurate).
3. He was seven when his mother bought a single ticket to the ballet. The whole family was pushed into the theatre by the crowd. It was Bashkiria’s Swan Lake. The colour of the theatre was an exciting change to the world he knew of starving through winter, living in a small apartment with his parents and three sisters. He felt his calling: “I knew. That’s it, that’s my life, that will be my function. I wanted to be everything on stage” (Kavanagh).
4. His drive to dance came from feeling alienated and lost on stage: “Once on, I am lost…it’s like a sacrifice— and I give of myself completely. The moment I’m on stage, things become multiplied and magnified. It’s like having an atom reactor inside of me. There is a chain reaction and, suddenly, my whole body bursts into flames” (Vartoogian).
5. After seeking out his own introductions, he used an iron bed frame in a hotel room as a barre to audition successfully for Vaganova’s academy.
6. He started piano lessons during his time at the academy and liked to play a game with his classmate, Marina. He would hide the name of the composer on sheet music and make her guess the composer’s identity by looking at the notes.
7. He would stay up late rehearsing at the academy and then sleep in as long as possible. He would miss breakfast and then drink tea straight from the kettle nozzle before going to class.
8. Rudolf was born on a train and they continued to be an inspiration and fascination for him. When he was young, he liked to sit on a hill watching them almost every day. When Rudolf was an adult, he would sit at Leningrad Station before dancing new roles for the Kirov.
9. During his debut in Don Quixote, he refused to go onstage in baggy trousers and instead wanted to wear tights as in the west. Other male dancers later copied this.
10. Before his defection, Yuri Grigorovich choreographed The Legend of Love. The role of Ferkhad was originally planned for Rudolf, but he and Yuri fell out during rehearsals. When he saw it performed, Rudolf regretted his behavior and considered it to be the biggest lost opportunity of his career. Later, it helped to inspire his desire to choreograph. He still intended to dance in it when he returned from the tour of the West. In Paris, he spent almost his entire allowance at the Lycra factory. Amongst his purchases was a bolt of blue fabric for his Ferkhad costume. This and his purchase of a blonde wig for Giselle, should have been evidence enough that he didn’t plan to defect.
11. Rudolf liked to try out different techniques. He discovered that he could make his legs appear longer by using a high retiré position in pirouettes as he had seen in western pictures. He had no significant male role models and so he copied technique from ballerinas: high attitudes and soft arms. Russian males tended to be sturdy.
12. In Leningrad, he found a woman to teach him French, but every morning she wanted him to carry the bucket of dirt (no toilets). At the time, he felt this was beneath him. In the future he would suggest to young people that they have to be prepared to “carry the buckets of dirt” if they wanted to achieve or learn something.
13. Rudolf’s first visit to Margot’s gala was kept secret from the press, even The Royal Ballet members weren’t told.
14. There were 70,000 applicants for tickets to see Rudolf and Margot’s debut duet in Giselle in 1962. A few years later, people would line up for four days hoping to buy a ticket for Rudolf's performances.
15. Fredrick Ashton choreographed the ballet Marguerite and Armand (1963) in tribute to the great sense of romance Margot and Rudolf generated on stage. It was a retelling of Alexandre Dumas’, The Lady with the Camellias. During their lifetimes, no one else danced these roles.
16. He was a great believer in steak being the best thing to eat to dance well. He would sometimes test the temperature with his cheek. The first time Margot took him to meet her mother, he was served chicken. They heard him mutter “chicken dinner, chicken performance” (Kavanagh). Margot’s mother, Hilda Hookham, eventually mastered cooking steak to his liking.
17. After meeting his lover—Danish dancer Erik Bruhn—Rudolf would rehearse with him. They would spend hours studying the differences in their training. They would do the same things and compare, then try out each other’s way of doing things. Erik paid much attention to detail, while Rudolf was more lyrical. This may have inspired his dancing to become more theatrical.
18. Erik asked Rudolf to lead him in a barre class, but quit halfway through because—being Danish—he was accustomed to a short barre. He was also used to fast movements and concentrating on the feet, whereas Russian barre concentrates on deep knee bends.
19. When Rudolf was shown one of his costumes at the Chicago Opera Ballet, he threw it out the window. It was rescued from the river.
20. When asked two decades later about the fan mania of the 1965 season, Rudolf only remembered the photos from the time. The exits from the theatre were so rushed. He did remember one encounter. After Rudolf's New York debut in Giselle, a woman passed by his dressing room. They stared at each other without saying anything, then she went away. Her white hair was looped over her ears, Russian ballerina style. Rudolf recognised her from a photograph he saw years before as Olga Spessivtseva, a Mariinsky dancer. She was the only dancer at the company of whom Balanchine had spoken fondly and was known as the most exceptional interpreter of Giselle. She spent 22 years in an American mental institution before dancer Anton Dolin had her moved to home. He had brought her backstage that night to meet Margot.
21. Outside the theatre after a performance in 1967, a man invited Margot and Rudolf to a “freak-out”. They took up his invitation, accompanied by Rudolf’s new friend, Robert Hutchison. Just after arriving at the party and declining the offer of marijuana, there was a police raid. They were arrested, which of course made the press. The evening of their release, thousands of hippies staged a love-in at the opera house to pay tribute to the new supporters of freedom.
22. In 1970 Rudolf told a reporter that he dances best on a second wind, therefore he dances the whole ballet beforehand, exhausting himself. “Then, when the body is under great stress it will move despite any mental block” (Kavanagh).
23. Stephen Baynes describes Nureyev’s visit to The Australian Ballet during the 1972 Festival of Arts: “So Nureyev was walking around the school- and Lucette Aldous and Robert Helpmann…I was lucky enough to extra in those performances. So they’re very special memories. It just built on the excitement of the art form. It had a lot of glamour and that was very exciting. These wonderful people, you looked up to them and thought how fabulous they were. It was inspiring. You wanted to desperately get into the company and be doing what they did” (Potter).
24. By the end of the 1970s, Rudolf was dancing with a permanent tear in his leg muscle, had heel spurs and destroyed Achilles tendons. He was an anxious person and therefore suffered compacted muscles. He hired a personal masseur prior to a tour of Canada. The masseur doubled as a body guard due to his strong hands and arms.
25. With the growing interest in male roles, ballets such as Swan Lake were changed to include more male dances. Not everyone regarded this positively. A choreographer at the Edinburgh International Festival in 1995 commented “Odette, I know you’re very upset right now, but would you mind standing over there while I do these seventeen meaningless pirouettes?” (Anderson)
26. As with many dancers, dance was spiritual to Rudolf. He commented that “the stage is a cathedral”. Violette Verdy once said that “dance is Rudolf’s great purifying, sacred touchstone. That is his faith” (Kavanagh).
27. While directing at The Paris Opera, Rudolf collected Parisian antiques. He began to think of dance as a payment, picturing the things he wanted to buy while he was dancing. Rudolf was proud of his 19th century Russian furniture. He hoped to receive his mother one day in the room containing his Karelian birch pieces. This never happened. The last time he saw her was his first trip back to Russian after she had a stroke.
28. In his last years, Rudolf pursued his love of music by becoming a conductor. Prior to this, he would sit on the beach listening to symphonies on his Walkman, following the score on sheet music. He enjoyed playing Bach on the piano and once commented “You can play him at any tempo and his music does not disintegrate, no matter what speed and how badly you play” (Kavanagh).
29. Living over ten years after an AIDS diagnosis in the early 1980s, his friends described Rudolf as being afraid of death. He greatly loved life, what he found in it and what it gave to him. Despite his shyness off stage, he was an inquisitive person. At one stage he said “life stirs my mind, it stirs my blood inside” (Kavanagh).
30. Rudolf lost his ability to speak for a period of time before his death. His last words were “Moby Dick”, as the 1956 movie was playing in the room. He asked to be buried at the Russian Cemetery in Saint-Genevieve-des-Bois near Paris.
"You live as long as you dance" - Rudolf Nureyev
Anderson, Z. 2015. The Ballet Lover’s Companion, Yale University Press.
Au, S. 2012. Ballet and Modern Dance, 3rd Edition, Thames Hudson.
Craine, D & Mackrell, Judith. 2000. The Oxford Dictionary of Dance, Oxford University Press.
Haskell, A. 1956. Ballet Decade, A & C Black Ltd. (1st 10 Issues of The Ballet Annual)
Kavanagh, J. 2007. Rudolf Nureyev: The Life, Fig Tree.
Potter, M. 1997. A Passion for Dance, Library of Australia.
Vartoogian, J & L, Garvey, C. C. 1997. The Living World of Dance, Saraband Inc.