After reading Otis Stuart's racy biography of dance legend Rudolf Nureyev, it is impossible to look at the legendary dancer in quite the same light. Perhaps his divine performance in the Third Act of "Swan Lake" was inspired by a quickie during intermission? Maybe the corps member in the third row was a victim of Nureyev's green-bean-hurling fit during rehearsal?
Rudolf the Rude. Rudolf the Reckless. Rudolf the Sexually Rampant. It is the murkier side of the great star's life which American dance critic Otis Stuart reveals in "Perpetual Motion: The Public and Private Lives of Rudolf Nureyev."
The book goes so far as to suggest that it was in fact Nureyev's sexual appetite, rather than any longing for artistic freedom, that triggered his defection to the West in June 1961 during a European tour. Stuart argues convincingly that the KGB set a trap for Nureyev, an enfant terrible from the day he set foot in ballet school in Leningrad. Nureyev's individuality and flamboyance became even more of a liability once he attained star status at the Kirov. Aware of Nureyev's homosexuality -- a criminal offense in Soviet days -- the KGB put him in a room with an attractive fellow dancer, Yury Solovyov, whose ballerina wife had been mysteriously left behind in Russia. As predicted, Nureyev propositioned Solovyov, who told the KGB, Stuart writes. Informed by the KGB that his mother had taken ill and he would have to go home, Nureyev sensed danger. And so he ran into the arms of the French police at the Paris airport.
The truth about Nureyev's defection may never be known. The dancer himself was reluctant to talk about it. What is certain is that had he not left Russia, the international dance scene would have been quite different.
Nureyev revolutionized the role of the male dancer in ballet. It was no longer just "tote that swan, lift that sylph," as Stuart puts it. While still at ballet school, he was lifting his legs higher and performing more daringly than was traditional. Once in the West, Nureyev could give free rein to both his talent and his temperament. And his performances were riveting. "He [came] onto the stage as if it is an arena," the French ballerina Violette Verdy remembered. "Is he going to be eaten by the lions or not? That is the feeling of danger we [got] from seeing him perform. He dances without a net."
In dance as in life, a large part of Nureyev's appeal was his sexuality. "Offstage, Nureyev was a legend for doing all night what most people take all night to do," writes Stuart, "while his sexualization of ballet is the gift he tattooed on the backside of the dance world." Stuart offers the recollection of the American ballerina Eleanor d'Antuono, who said that once during a moment from "Le Corsaire," Nureyev's sexual aura "actually took my breath away. For the first and only time in my professional career, I did not know where I was."
Offstage, Nureyev was a denizen of gay clubs, but he was also known to dash out for sex between ballet acts. Margot Fonteyn, Nureyev's most famous partner, was angry with him for days after he disappeared for an unusually long time during a performance; the police found him in a public lavatory having sex with a stranger.
Stuart presents these vignettes with relish. And although his narrative is written in a breathless, camp style which sometimes grates, it does keep the pages turning. The sparing reference to balletic technique means that the book will be accessible even to those who are not ballet experts.
But ballet fans who have for years longed to know whether Fonteyn and Nureyev were lovers will have their curiosity only partially satisfied. While Stuart himself does not provide an unequivocal answer, he cites the evidence of close friends of the pair who maintain that not only were they lovers, but that Fonteyn even miscarried Nureyev's child. At the least, Fonteyn and Nureyev had a love affair on stage. His fiery Tatar temperament was the perfect foil to the British prima ballerina's restraint. But the pair's overwhelming success eclipsed a generation of dancers at the Royal Ballet.
Nureyev did not necessarily take his good fortune with grace. Stuart makes the point that not only onstage did Nureyev encroach on ballerina territory; offstage he was a regular prima donna -- throwing tantrums as well as plates, pouring cocktails over people's heads and slapping faces. Rudi's rudeness made choreographer Sir Frederick Ashton so angry that he refused to create a role for Nureyev for five years.
The same attitude of defiance prevailed in Nureyev's 12-year battle with AIDS. Working almost to the very end, Nureyev presented his staging of "La Bayadere" for the Paris Opera Ballet shortly before his death. Earlier, he had turned that company upside down as its director, but from his stormy reign, a rejuvenated company emerged.
Born on a train, Nureyev indeed lived life in perpetual motion. Stuart's biography goes some way toward exploring the cogs which made the wheels turn.
"Perpetual Motion: The Public and Private Lives of Rudolf Nureyev," by Otis Stuart, Simon & Schuster, £17.99 ($28.60).