Kavanagh on Nureyev: Part I A (i) (a)…

This book (the latest biography of the greatest dancer EVER imho), which officially went on sale yesterday in bookstores everywhere, is so huge it’s almost overwhelming just to look at. I think it makes more sense for me to give my thoughts on the book in segments, so that I don’t end up with a 100,000- word-long review!

In the first couple chapters Kavanagh paints a fairly well-rounded portrait of Rudik’s parents and upbringing. (I hope I don’t sound pretentious, by the way, calling him that — I just think Rudik is so much cuter than Rudolf and more original and “Russian-sounding” than Rudi 🙂 ) He grew up in abject poverty in a provincial state in northern Russia called Ufa, far removed from any city with its attendant vibrant cultural life. His family is Tatar, which is an oppressed ethnic minority in Russia, and he was raised Muslim and Tatar-speaking; didn’t learn Russian until later in school. (I actually hadn’t known Tatar was a language). He had three siblings — all sisters — and his mother, Farida, who had wanted to become a school-teacher but whose hopes for an education were dashed by pregnancy after pregnancy after pregnancy, took care of the children while his father, Hamet, served in the Red Army, his status forever in frightening limbo by Stalin’s erratic demotion / murder sprees.

Rudik was actually born on a train, when Farida went to visit Hamet at his bunk, which is how Kavanagh sweetly starts off her book. Much of his childhood was filled with such train rides, and the family at one point lived near train tracks. Rudik thus retained a life-long fascination with the locomotives, and when he was older and a professional dancer, part of his performance preparation consisted of leaving the studio and sitting outside near train tracks, listening for the sounds of the engines to get their rhythm into his body.

Hamet didn’t return home permanently until Rudik was well into boyhood, and by then, Rudik had been surrounded by so many women, he didn’t know how to react to the presence of a male; he seems to have been a bit afraid of his father. Hamet, well-liked by his comrades, was a real “mensch” type, and freaking out a bit over his son’s effeminacy, tried to make the proverbial man out of him by taking him on hunting trips, etc. Sensitive and quiet by nature, Rudik didn’t fare so well, needless to say, beginning a lifelong struggle with his father, exacerbated of course by his desire to become a dancer. Rudik had the best relationship with his older sister Rosa, the most intellectual and artistic one in the family who took dance and piano lessons and would teach her younger brother what she had learned in her ballet history lectures and bring him home costumes which he would (in his words) “gaze at so intensely that I could feel myself actually inside them. I would fondle them for hours, smooth them and smell them. There is no other word to describe it — I was like a dope addict.”

Rudik was introduced to ballet when he was seven years old and Farida bought a single ticket to a performance in Ufa, and managed to sneak all of her children into the theater with her. He knew then and there what he wanted to do with his life, and he never looked back. But even before that he had shown he was a natural dancer. Starting in kindergarden, as with all Russian children, he took national folk-dancing in school, exhibiting such talent and charisma, he was often chosen as a soloist in his school’s performances which they took on the road, performing in hospitals housing men recovering from war wounds. Kavanagh quotes from the (very well-written and gorgeously descriptive) novel, Dancer, by Colum McCann, which is based on the life of Nureyev. “In the spaces between the beds the children performed . . . Just when we thought they were finished, a small blond boy stepped out of the line. He was about five or six. He extended his leg, placed his hands firmly on his hips and hitched his thumbs at his back . .. the soldiers in their beds propped themselves up. . . Those by the windows shaded their eyes to watch. The boy went to the floor for a squatting dance. When he finished the ward was full of applause…” That’s one of my favorite passages from McCann too and I really love that Kavanagh quotes from a novel.

Because of his family’s poverty, Rudik got a late start on ballet, preventing him from ever acquiring full hip turnout (which must be attained before puberty, when hip ligaments and tendons are still flexible) thus making it all but impossible for him ever to develop wholly proper ballet technique. Poor and poorly clothed (in too-short pants, lacking shoes, etc.), Rudik was often made fun of by his classmates, and he struggled not to let their taunting get to him. When he later began ballet school in Leningrad, he was older than most of the students by several years. In response to their condescending stares, he, rather (in)famously, announced he would outdo them all. Talk about haughty, Shane Sparks (who told Danny Tidwell he was “arrogant”) 🙂 And of course, through eating, breathing, and sleeping ballet basically for the rest of his life, he did outdo them all.

Kavanagh has done an amazing job of gleaning so much information (the book took 10 years to complete), but she includes so much detail that it kind of weighs the narrative down. She also doesn’t footnote, which, I don’t know if it’s the lawyer in me or the former History grad student or what, but it’s driving me nuts. For example, she asserts that Nureyev had a “lifelong willingness to let women martyr themselves for him” (pg. 21) that he derived from his father, then quotes — I guess either Nureyev or Hamet (?) saying, “‘At home she must work harder than her husband and when he is relaxing she must still carry on.'” Where is this from? What’s the context? Who is speaking? I need sources!!!

She also assigns motives to and makes judgments about her subject that to me are a bit ill founded. For example, she argues that Nureyev fabricated that his father had beaten his mother and him, and her basis for claiming that this is a lie is that the other family members denied it — as if a family’s denying allegations of abuse in order to protect one of its own has never been known to happen before. She claims that Nureyev lied because he was angry at his father for his refusal to tolerate his dancing: “There was only one real reason for his contempt: Hamet refused to tolerate his dancing.” (pg. 22). It just doesn’t strike me as all that mind-boggling that someone who’d spent a large part of his life in the military and looked down on his son for his supposed lack of masculinity could be physically rough. Plus, if dancing is your identity, your being, your life, and a parent refuses to acknowledge you, then that’s a pretty profound reason to harbor some hostility.

Okay, that’s all for now; more to come as I read further. Here is Joan Acocella’s review. Here is Gia Kourlas’s interview with Kavanagh. And here is a quoted excerpt of a review from John Carey that I found on James Wolcott’s blog. Reading the excerpt prompted me to Google Carey. And look at this book I found! I wonder what he’d have to say about the Ballet versus “So You Think You Can Dance” debate?! Hmmm, this may have to be next on my reading list…


  1. As if the book itself were not eventful enough, last night’s party for Julie K at Tina & Harry’s was abrim with drama, intrigue, more drama, and free drinks that the guests didn’t dare spill, for fear ninja waiters would drop from the ceiling. They run a tight ship over there at Sutton Place.

  2. Oh wow, hi Mr. Wolcott! Oh my gosh, thanks so much for commenting on my blog!! Her party sounds fabulously dramatic — oh how I wish I would have been there!

  3. Well, most of the drama is probably just PROJECTION on my part–I have a blog post up about it. But I wish you could have been there too–as Elle Woods would say, it would have made everything so much funner!

  4. Eep! That quote about abuse – and Kavanagh’s insistence that it’s not true – strikes me as naïve at best. Beating/abuse seems to be something that has deep, deep roots in Russian culture, as I found out when I started reading this collection of Russian folk and fairy tales. Wife-beating is accepted as an everyday activity, and there are a lot of stories that have domestic abuse as a major part of the plotline. (with absolutely no observations on it being wrong or even questionable!)

    I’ve also run across casual references to domestic abuse in 19th-c. Russian novels and short stories, although I’m blanking out completely on where… But I’m thinking Gogol, Tolstoy and Chekhov for starters.

    Either way, there’s no reason for RN to have been lying about the abuse, and to my mind it makes sense re. some of behavior later on in life. Poor guy – and his poor mom.

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