Articles from Ballet2000

Nureyev, a myth forever

Nureyev twenty years on... and forever
The twentieth anniversary of the great dancer’s passing is being marked this year by events in Paris and all over the world. We would like to publish a memoir: not relating to the heyday of Rudolf Nureyev’s youth but to the last chapter of his life’s journey, the one that is imprinted on the memories of a large part of today’s public. For the occasion, we welcome back Valeria Crippa (now dance critic of Italian daily “Corriere della Sera”), who in a ‘previous life’ worked in close contact with Nureyev and, later, wrote a wonderful book about him

Twenty years on, the world remembers Rudolf Nureyev and asks itself what remains of his legacy. One tries to be as objective as possible and to observe the “phenomenon” with an impartial and critical eye, but the lens one is looking through is – as far as I am concerned – distorted. I confess a priori to being totally biased.
Memories of Nureyev intertwine with the amazement of having survived a hurricane. Imagine that you are a young huge opera fan, and that someone proposes you go and work for Maria Callas during her waning years. You would accept ecstatically, though with a sneaky feeling that you are about to walk straight into the lion’s den. It was with such feelings that in 1988 I embarked (from the editorial office of Ballet2000!) on the adventure of being Nureyev’s press officer in Italy. The job itself was more versatile than its title as I was responsible for tours and things like that (in the showbiz world one is a wildcard by definition). The adventure ended in 1992, on the day I failed to recognise his voice over the telephone and realised his body was ravaged by disease and that I did not wish to be a witness to the ongoing manoeuvres relating to his inheritance.
One needed to be quite resilient in order to work for Rudolf the divo in those difficult, waning years, knowing that simply to keep him on stage one was desperately fighting a lost battle, to be concealed so as not to give away the secret. The terrible character that made his dancers tremble had not mellowed; there was never one sole Rudolf: he could be vulnerable and uninhibited, generous and greedy, inaccessible and “easy-going”, volatile and scathing, but he was always terse and soundly professional when it came to communicating. The artist amplified the qualities of the man, his way of being both a peak and an abyss, incapable of being normal and of dealing with minor, everyday chores on his own. That accounts for his annoyance with the run-of-the-mill, with white-collar mentality and trade union rules applied to the dancing profession – these were intolerable to him, whether at the Paris Opéra or at La Scala.


There is no doubt that although those were his waning years, his planetary fame had not waned with them; the telephone in the Milan office of Luigi Pignotti (Nureyev’s agent and assistant in Italy) would ring: the Kennedys in the USA would be at the other end. Working in such an overexcited atmosphere was like being close to a sun that attracts and blinds you. To try to understand Rudolf meant asking oneself about the mystery of talent, a crucial question that is often neglected – also by those who work professionally in the dance world, at various levels. In other words, the very essence of the theatre, talent and its downside, honour and burden, that restlessness which caused him to be a gipsy at heart and to live like one, fleeing from himself. Whatever talent may be, to Nureyev it was a mission, a cross he bore unflinchingly on his shoulders until his dying day. As Edgar Morin wrote in his book The Stars, the latters participate in both human and divine arenas, similar to the Olympian pantheon of heroes, gods and goddesses insofar as they give rise to cults, at times to a religion of sorts. The fanaticism of this cult can be measured by the effects it has on Nureyev’s tomb, a mosaic designed like a Caucasian rug, whose segments are continually being stolen from the Orthodox cemetery at Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois, twenty-four kilometres south-west of Paris.
So what is it we miss most today about Nureyev? Not his ballets (the ones that have survived him – the opulent versions of the classics, not his original creations such as Manfred or Washington Square), nor his legendary biography, tested and glorified in documentaries, books, dossiers and now to be the subject of a “lieu de mémoire” that France, the country that adopted him as its own national glory, is about to devote to him. This permanent museum section, to be housed within the Centre National du Costume de Scène at Quartier Villars in Moulins, is to be inaugurated next October; it was commissioned by the French Ministry of Culture from the same artist who designed Nureyev’s tomb and the scenery for many of his ballets: Oscar-winning designer Ezio Frigerio, one of his most faithful friends.
No doubt what we miss about Nureyev is his courage and pride in asserting that ballet is “first-class” art. He would have laughed his head off and mocked the self-commiseration of those who in certain countries lament that dance is the “Cinderella” of the arts. He who had taken off his princely cloak to become Martha Graham’s Lucifer would have condemned the obtuse and pedantic way in which dance is still labelled and parcelled out, and hence segregated. But what we miss the most here in the West, focused as we are on our economic crisis, is Nureyev’s ability to think about the future, to believe and invest in himself and others, without fear of risking and failing, so he could excel within an increasingly brittle and uncertain cultural system.
Valeria Crippa

BALLET2000 n° 237, April 2013