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[whitespace] Rudolf Nureyev Party, Boy: Ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev socialized with the best of them, from Jackie O. to Mick Jagger.

In 'Nureyev: His Life,' author Diane Solway calls Rudolf Nureyev ballet's first pop star

By Michelle Goldberg

HAD THE GREAT BALLET dancer Rudolf Nureyev's story been written in a novel, it would have seemed preposterously melodramatic. Nureyev played an (often-unwitting) role in so many major historical and cultural events of his time that his life had a Forrest Gump quality.

He was admired by Jackie Onassis, Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithful, Andy Warhol and Madonna. Soviet Prime Minister Leonid Brezhnev personally tried to thwart his career. "He was really a flash point of the Cold War. He's an icon of the sexual revolution; he's an icon on the '60s; he's representative of the whole popularization of high culture, of the cult of celebrity and of the AIDS epidemic," says Diane Solway, author of the new biography Nureyev: His Life.

The book is a bit too heavy on detail and dance trivia. Some of the dance-world politics could only interest a specialist, and Solway glosses over the very real question of Nureyev's anti-Semitism. (Whether it was true or not that Nureyev hated Jews, it was so widely believed that the New York Times even mentioned it in Nureyev's front-page obituary.) Despite these flaws, Solway's book is fascinating both as a portrait of the arrogant, lusty, obsessive dance genius and as a record of the times he exemplified.

Nureyev consorted with royalty and with gay hustlers. He was defiant of teachers, directors and choreographers, yet his discipline in the studio was unparalleled. Solway shows the contradictions in his character--between neediness and chilling indifference, between loyalty and promiscuity, between cruelty and generosity--most forcefully in her account of Nureyev's tumultuous affair with Erik Bruhn. Bruhn, a beautiful blond Danish ballet star 10 years older than Nureyev, was "the Apollo to his Dionysus," and he remained the love of Nureyev's life even after their relationship ended.

It's strange, considering how wildly famous Nureyev was just a few decades ago, how much he's been forgotten. Because dance is the most ephemeral of art forms, Nureyev couldn't have left a record the way that, say, Warhol did. Still, it's astounding for someone who wasn't alive when Nureyev was at his peak to realize just how big a star he was.

Thousands of screaming fans waited for him after his performances, sometimes chanting "We want Rudi, in the nudie!" He was simultaneously on the cover of Time and Newsweek. "He was ballet's first pop star," Solway says. "His was easily one of the dramatic lives of our century. And it wasn't simply the defection [from the Soviet Union in 1961] either--though the defection was way-over-the-top high drama. It was also just the character of Nureyev himself. Here's this person who grew up in extreme poverty during the war in the USSR and yet somehow had this incredible single-mindedness and drive and strength to be able to get himself out of this small town and to the West."

NUREYEV WAS BORN on the Trans-Siberian Express train in 1938 as his mother made the six-day trip from her Ural Village to join her husband, a soldier and devoted Communist, in Russia's Far East. Nureyev had to struggle against his father's wishes to dance, sneaking off to class.

He pushed his way into the Leningrad Choreographic Institute at the relatively old age of 17. He was often derided for his lack of technique (a criticism that followed him throughout his life) and for his coarse village manners, but he went on to become the star of the famed Kirov ballet, and with them he got his first taste of the West.

But the Communist Party and the KGB didn't trust Nureyev's political loyalty, and he angered them by associating too freely with Westerners while on tour. He was at the Paris airport with the Kirov, ready to fly with them to London, when he learned that he was being sent back to Russia.

The scene that follows in Solway's book (based on new information from declassified KGB reports) has the page-turning suspense of a thriller. Flanked by KGB agents, Nureyev made an urgent appeal for help to a Paris friend, Pierre Lacotte. Lacotte called another friend, Clara Saint, who rushed to the airport. Posing as an adoring girlfriend, she convinced the KGB agents to let her say goodbye to Nureyev.

While kissing his cheeks, she whispered plans into his ear. Then she rushed away and got the French airport police, telling them that a famous Russian dancer wanted to stay in France. The police agreed to protect Nureyev if he could get away from the KGB and into their custody. They accompanied Saint into the airport bar where the KGB was guarding Nureyev. She approached him one last time, whispering that he needed to get to the police across the room.

"Five minutes later," writes Solway, "Rudolf bolted from his chair to the bar, a distance of just a few yards. 'I want to stay in France,' he cried in English." The KGB agents lunged for him, but the police, as promised, protected him.

It was this spectacular event that first made Nureyev famous, but his continuing stardom owed much more to his passionate, virile dancing.

"He really brought sex to the stage," Solway explains. "Ballet dancers at that time were very male and sturdy--they were very deferential to their ballerinas. Along comes Nureyev, and he's got this incredible animal magnetism, this incredible charisma, incredible sexuality onstage. It just knocked people sideways and really kept them completely riveted. He was ballet's first pop star. ... He was hip, outrageous and flamboyant, and it gave people a sexual charge."

Nureyev died of AIDS at 54. Newsweek ran its second Nureyev cover with the headline "AIDS and the Arts: A Lost Generation." Once again, his life was the subject of controversy, as some gay activists denounced Nureyev for denying that he had AIDS to the press, thus failing to raise consciousness about the disease.

Eventually, though, his name faded--ask most people in their 20s who Nureyev was and you'll probably get blank stares. Still, the most famous ballet in the country right now is Matthew Bourne's Swan Lake, in which all the swans are played by men instead of women. "These creatures are bare-chested, barefooted, chunky and sexy," writes John Lahr in a review in The New Yorker. "There's nothing ethereal or romantic about [Adam] Cooper: he's all sweat and sex, a kind of Dude Swan."

Had Nureyev not made the dash across the Paris airport to bring animalism and lust to classical dance's pristine stages, the word's "sweat and sex" may never have appeared in the same sentence as "Tchaikovsky's Swan Lake."

Nureyev: His Life by Diane Solway; William Morrow & Co.; 512 pages; $27.50 cloth.

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From the November 12-18, 1998 issue of Metro.

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