Why No Contemporary Nureyevs?

So, I thought the documentary last night on PBS was rather so-so; it was okay I guess as far as PBS documentaries go 🙂 First 40 minutes dragged, but second half was far better, mainly because it was about his defection. I remember reading an interview with Baryshnikov years ago — I now have no idea where or when it was — but he was asked why he decided to defect and he basically said, “mmm, dunno, seemed like the thing to do?” I was so disappointed. I’m sure he just couldn’t talk about it, but how could you not have some kind of answer for something like that? Even if you just say, “I really don’t want to talk about it.” So I’m very happy that here they focused on Nureyev’s defection, even using his French friend who witnessed it to re-enact the whole thing.

I love how the filmmakers dwelt on the aftermath too — the KGB’s plan to try to break poor Rudik’s legs, their attempts to destroy his first performance in the West by screaming and shouting and throwing dangerous objects at him onstage. Wow. And how he had to go into hiding. And how the government wholly erased his presence in Russia, preventing information about him leaking into the country through the newspapers, destroying the careers of his friends and family. How some friends missed him dearly — one said he was “the bright spot” in her life, such a thing coming only once a lifetime, and even that if one is lucky. How others felt he was hugely dishonorable (for leaving the country that made him, as if it was the country and not he himself), an abandoner of his family and friends. The film doesn’t make it obvious, but he had to live with all of that. Some journalists have argued that the documentary only shows Nureyev in maturity, on his good days, neglecting to show the occasional nastier side of him. If you were constantly made to feel like a horrible person for turning your back on your country, your ill mother, wreaking destruction on your friends and family, all for wanting to live an honest life, you’d probably have some anger inside of you too.

Anyway, the first part is too slow I think mainly because there are too many interviews. It’s confusing who all of the people are, and many are not that animated (unlike most of the funny characters in the very good documentary Les Ballets Russes). Perhaps they could have filmed in more meaningful places, like with the French guy in the airport? Just having them sit there yapping away was a bit boring. I found his school chum entertaining though — the white-haired guy who talked about all the times Rudik would make him practice, would make him do the parts of the ballerina so he could practice lifts 🙂 For those who somehow can’t tell from his dancing alone, such anecdotes reveal that this was someone who ate, breathed, and slept his art.

By far the best parts of the film are all the footage of the great one in action — both that amateurly taken in his youth by his German friend, the ever intriguing Teja Krempke (could we please hear how he died — I know it was “under mysterious circumstances,” but where was he found, etc.?), and formal footage taken of his later performances with his “soul mate” Margot Fonteyn. For people who missed the film (it’ll be shown again late Saturday night), it’s definitely worth getting through the boring interview segments to get to that footage.

But watching him dance, I can’t help but get upset that there’s no one even remotely like him today. He danced with such fierce, inflamed passion, with such glorious recklessness, with such hunger — forget those insanely fast chaine turns and crazy high barrel turns that don’t look humanly possible — just look at the intensity in his eyes that permeates his entire body, even in those small pieces from Pierrot Lunaire and Giselle. I feel that there’s no one today who comes even close, who has the courage to do something novel like dance on demi-pointe like he did (and now everyone does). I think you have to have starved to have that kind of hunger. And today’s young ballet dancers — I feel like many of them don’t know the meaning of those words. And, forget art, their greatest ambitions are to construct the perfect MySpace page so they can engage in childish chatter with each other.


  1. The focus on technique, to the detriment of other aspects of dance, erases the possibility of the kind of dancer that Rudy was.

  2. it’s an even broader question, I think, and one that – for better or worse – has much to do with Nureyev’s personality. There wasn’t anyone “like” him when he was in his heyday,, and as much as I’ve enjoyed watching many other male dancers, I’ve never seen one who had (or seemed to have) half the fierceness and vitality. (and – dare I bring it up – sexiness, because seeing all that footage last night made me realize why he captivated me when I was about 12 or so… the same is true for many other women.)

  3. Am also wondering if I’m alone in wishing that this “documentary” hadn’t been so focused on Rudi’s gfs and bfs? That seemed kinda adolescent to me – when you’ve got the defection story and the KGB + public protest against his dancing in Paris (and ignoring all the hecklers), what’s the deal?

    I did love the stories about the flowers (hiding them under your skirts) and what R. did with all the onstage petals, though…

  4. i have a feeling that if you have “personality” like Rudi did…the ballet world today will probably not tolerate temper tantrums, skipping rehersals, etc…you’d be out quickly.. I have a feeling that these passionate moments probably translated to passionate dancing on stage.

  5. “i have a feeling that if you have “personality” like Rudi did…”

    I was thinking more of his intensity and passion for dance, not about acting diva-y. And when I was watching the show,, I was wondering why his teachers put up with the “temperamental” behavior in the first place. 😉

  6. passion for dance also reflected in his passion for costumes, rehearsal periods, partners…it all reflects on and off stage, i think

  7. Well, now that David has posted on the Winger (from Argentina 🙂 🙂 ), I am feeling badly for basically saying all current dancers suck. I didn’t mean that; certainly there are some excellent dancers out there today — and with the shape of David’s feet, he’s nearly taken the demi-pointe originated by Nureyev to the place that it almost looks en pointe — but still, you guys know what I mean. There’s just no one whose dancing comes from exactly the same place as N. No one who seems to have the same want. Maybe it IS the current emphasis on perfect technique. I’m reading Suzanne Farrell’s autobiography now (she’s got such a sweet voice) and she says Balanchine’s saying was “Now, don’t save” meaning don’t hold back, don’t wait, give it your all, take every risk in the book. Not that we want everyone getting injured, but maybe dancers are just scared of not doing something perfectly.

  8. I think you make some good points about the insistence on perfect technique and PC behavior not allowing room for a dancer like Nureyev in the ballet world today, and also that his kind of passion arises from hunger – physical and emotional.

    Tonya, I didn’t think your post implied that today’s dancers suck – we all know that there are some incredible dancers on the stage today – just none with the animal passion and danger that Nureyev possessed (I was lucky enough to see him & Fonteyn a couple of times in the late sixties/early 70’s). The dancer who reminds me most of him today is Carlos Acosta. He has something of that same panther like quality and dangerous, sexy edge to his dancing.

  9. I wonder if some of Rudi’s “passion” is simply part of the dramatic Russian personality. It seems many Russian dancers and figure skaters have this out-size (to American eyes) personality that make them so fun to watch. Of course in addition to his particular background of poverty and “hunger” for more than he could experience in his home country. He was and is an original. I also was lucky enough to see he and Fonteyn dance in the late 60s and have an autographed program from that performance that my son had framed for me for Mother’s Day a few years ago. It’s on the wall by my computer – I could look at that face for hours.

  10. Thanks for that, Susan — I LOVE your wording — “animal passion and danger” — exactly! Why is that though — why does no one today have that? I’m dying to know! Because I feel it’s more than just an upstart personality responsible for that. Hallberg works tremendously hard; that is obvious from just watching him. And it’s a huge part of what makes me love him so much. All of that intense effort. And my other favorite, Marcelo, just has something altogether different — he’s like an old-Hollywood movie star on a ballet stage — that and his large bone structure just give him a quality I’ve never seen before in ballet that sets him far apart from the rest. But there’s still something they don’t have that Nureyev did. Okay, I will definitely see Carlos Acosta dance someday! (I’ve never seen him!)

    Barbara — interesting about the Russian thing. I wonder if it’s specifically in the Russian dance training or if it’s something in Russian life in general that gives them that thirst. Of the Russians I’ve known (not just in person, but in books too 🙂 ) it seems they have been so deprived they just want the world.

    Oh and e2c, I was going to say, I think that Kavanagh book has a lot of sex in it, and she was a consultant for this film project. I’m going to read it, and I’ll definitely report back. I mean, audiences in general seem to go for that sort of thing, for better of for worse — usually for worse! But in this case, I think his homosexuality was important since it shed light on a huge reason he must have wanted to defect. I did find the marriage proposal to that one woman a bit confusing. At one point she says he proposes, then later we see someone else saying they asked him why he wouldn’t marry her and he responded that he’d never be able to leave Russia if he did (“it wouldn’t be good for his bio” or something like that, he said). So, did he or didn’t he actually propose? Maybe as a joke? I thought that was perhaps more telling of the women around him and what they wanted from him!

  11. I think where I was going with my comment is the feeling that Russian emotions seem so very close to the surface. They seem to FEEL things so intensely. Just listen to the Russian composers – so lushly romantic. Not meaning to generalize to an entire nationality. Like I said before, Rudi was an original. In the PBS documentary I wish there had been more footage of him speaking on camera – that face, so expressive and he was so articulate…..ahhh, love him. I also can’t think of anyone dancing today that displays that kind of magnetism. I wonder about the current Russian dancers that we don’t often see here in the West. Are there any Nureyev’s there?

  12. Barbara, I think you’re right about Russians being more demonstrative and passionate in public than we (USers and Canadians) are.

    Tonya, to the best of my understanding, Nureyev was bi, even though he favored relationships with men. And I also don’t think that gay men getting married to women is news, exactly – maybe he wanted a “beard,” maybe he really wanted to be married to that woman, maybe he was attracted to her – or all three. Who can say, now that he’s dead?

    It looks like Kavanagh might be hammering a bit too hard on the “gay” thing, if those quotes Segal used are anything to go by. And there’s such a thing as being too revealing, I think – I honestly don’t need (or want) to know exactly what he (or anyone else) did with whom, and when, and etc. etc. etc. I’m not trying to shy away from the fact that he was gay/bi, but the way in which Segal used those quotes was really unpleasant. (let alone the whole “Nureyevna” thing – eep!)

  13. Oh that Nureyevna thing really completely disgusted me. I don’t know if he tries to be provocative or if he actually believes what he’s saying, but the whole thing was so completely ridiculous. He did that before with that “Five Things I Hate About Ballet” article last year. Everyone was so upset by it and I really think his main intention was just to rile people up. That’s why I’m trying not to pre-judge her book by his stupid article!

  14. My impression is that he believes it, in this case, at least. And that he used the quotes from former sexual partners to bolster what he was saying, which (to me) seemed extremely vindictive. I can’t help but wonder if Segal maybe had a run-in (like not getting an interview with RN, maybe?). The animosity seems so incredibly personal.

    Also, i didn’t intend to come across oddly (maybe “condescendingly”?) above, re. gay men marrying for whatever reasons. I’ve had some gay friends who would have made terrific life partners, in every way but the romantic/sexual aspect of the relationship. (am sure I’ve got plenty of company there, too!)

  15. I thought the same thing (about Segal having some kind of personal issue with N)! It would make sense. That article was just so needlessly acerbic. It’s one thing to be critical, another to launch personalized insults and ad hominem attacks at your subject. And even if he said he didn’t have a problem with gay men, it still had the ring of underlying homophobia — the whole ‘I don’t have a problem with gays per se, just how they act like women’ thing. Please.

    And don’t worry, you didn’t come across as odd or condescending! At least not to me!

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