This exhibition covering 1,500 square meters present photographs and costumes belonging to Rudolf Nureyev, to illustrate the principle stages of a life entirely devoted to dance.
“You live because you dance; you live as long as you dance”.
This was Nureyev’s motto, repeated endlessly from the beginning to the end of his meteoric passage around the world as dancer, choreographer, ballet master and company director. The legendary life of this vagabond soul began with his birth in a train near Lake Baikal on March 17, 1938. Poverty and solitude were his childhood lot in Ufa, the capital of the remote soviet republic of Bashkir, until the discovery of dance gave meaning to his existence and filled him with a burning passion which nothing and no one could resist.
At 17, through dint of will, he entered the most famous dance school in the world – The Kirov School in Leningrad. As a young dancer with the Kirov Ballet, Nureyev, already known in his own country, the USSR, became a celebrity at 23 when he “leapt” to liberty in Paris on June 16, 1963. After that, things went very quickly, and in only a few months, this eternal traveller without a country became associated with people representing his ideals: an example, Erik Bruhn; a dance partner, Margot Fonteyn, with whom he formed a legendary couple on stage for 15 years. From his very first appearances at Covent Garden, “Rudimania” set London ablaze. Europe, the United States, Australia and Japan followed quickly after. His every act and gesture was chronicled, his image was popularized through thousands of photos, and then through film, with Valentino by Ken Russell and Exposed by James Tobak.
Not content to be the most magnificent and charismatic dancer of his times, he revived the technique of male dancers, enriching the Vaganova technique learned at the Kirov from his favourite teacher Alexander Pushkin with all the new techniques he learned in the West. Starting in 1963, when he was only 25, Nureyev started to remount the ballets of Marius Petipa, a choreographer he revered, creator of the masterpieces of the 19th century, the great classics Swan Lake, Raymonda, Don Quixote, Sleeping Beauty, La Bayadère. Thanks to his prodigious memory he used the productions he had seen and danced in at the Kirov as sources of inspiration.
He breathed new life into these productions, especially in the development of the male roles to which he added many technical difficulties and which he danced himself. Juggling with the life of a jet-setter, he frequented the rich and famous of the 70s, made his fortune, bought houses all over the world, never found time to stop, lived out of a few bags containing costumes and ballet slippers, but there was a place where he was always able to find himself, on stage, saying, “On stage, I’m on an island”.
Wherever he went, dance companies were revitalized, energized by his untiring passion in the service of dance, his strictness with regards to training and performance. Always in hurry, and a strict perfectionist, he was intolerant of all laxness and lack of professionalism, and demanded absolute respect for the dance. This of course led to conflicts and misunderstandings, as it is not possible to work unscathed with an idol.
Nureyev was not content to dance only the roles of princes in the classical repertoire. His insatiable curiosity pushed him towards modern dance. He was the first to break down the barriers separating ballet and modern dance, working with many choreographers of his time, including Roland Petit, Maurice Béjart, Martha Graham, John Neumeier, Murray Louis, Glen Tetley and Rudi Van Dantzig. His absolute reference remained George Balanchine, but he never joined the New York City Ballet. The breach between the two worlds would never close again; Nureyev opened a new era for all the following generations.
The great Shakespearean dramas tempted this theatre-crazed artist. He choreographed his own version of Romeo and Juliet, then a ballet based on The Tempest. Faithful to one of his first statements to the press, “Actually, I am romantic kind of dancer…”, he was drawn to the character of Byron, inspiring the creation of Manfred. And he had fun, as he well knew how, with a very Hollywood version of Cinderella. In 1983, in becoming director of the Paris Opera Ballet, he accepted to preside over the destiny of the oldest dance company in the world. A new generation of stars was born, and today they continue to give life to his ballets and teachings – a lesson in dance as well as life. He mounted his last ballet, La Bayadère, for them, a last homage to Petipa. With his strength declining, he decided to embark on another artistic journey, and began a new career as orchestra conductor. Rudolf Nureyev died of AIDS on January 6, 1993.
His disappearance raised a wave of emotion, and the most telling statement is probably that of Mikhail Baryshnikov, his friend and fellow artist: “He had the charisma and simplicity of a man of the earth, and the untouchable arrogance of the gods”. The exhibition at the CNCS is composed essentially of photos and costumes.
In fact, the primary mission of the Centre national du costume de scène is to present the aesthetics of Rudolf Nureyev through the costumes of productions he mounted for all the great ballet companies of the world. Nureyev loved sumptuous shows, generous and abundant as ceremonies, and his imagination was nourished by the splendour of the Imperial ballets and of the Russia of the tsars, the sumptuous productions of Benois and Bakst for the Ballets Russes of Diaghilev, and the aesthetics of films by Visconti and Zeffirelli. He was also a passionate collector of textiles and rugs, which he bought during his tours around the world. Far from being indifferent to fashion, he influenced men’s clothing in the London of the 60s, the years of Carnaby Street, the Beatles, the Rolling Stones and Vidal Sassoon. From childhood he was passionate about costumes and imposed changes and improvements for his own costumes at the Kirov, improvements which were then shared by the other dancers. He knew his own body perfectly, and developed a basic model for his doublets that he insisted on using, no matter what the production. Nureyev’s costumes and ballet slippers were in unimaginable state of wear and tear; the best example being his pants for Le Corsaire which he wore in every performance throughout the years, mended endless times.
The costume thus tells a completely different story from the stage version. It speaks of the attachment to a few items – rehearsal clothes, ballet slippers, costumes, thermos bottles, towels – toted in bags that Rudolf always kept with him, the daily luggage of this eternal traveller, of this rootless soul who found his identity in dance studios, rehearsal rooms and on stages around the world. These objects are the witnesses to his real life. A hundred or so costumes from ballets danced and choreographed by Rudolf Nureyev, signed by Cecil Beaton, Ezio Frigerio, Nicholas Georgiadis, Martin Kramer, Franca Squarciapino among others, form one of the main axes of the exhibition. They come from the CNCS and the Rudolf Nureyev ® Foundation as well as from theatres and private collectors.
First of all, of course, Rudolf’s own costumes, presented as armour or as relics, to which he attached great importance, and which the heads of the costume workshops at the Paris Opera have deciphered for us; those of his partners also – Margot Fonteyn, Carla Fracci, Noella Pontois, Sylvie Guillem and so many others. To evoke this legendary life, the exhibition will also present photos, coming for the most part from Rudolf Nureyev’s own collections, kept by him in the many places where he put down his suitcases from time to time - Paris, London, New York, La Turbie...
Each photo, no matter who took it, is a fragment of the Nureyev mystery, and reveals, far beyond the beauty of the body and face, a part of his magnetism and his power of seduction. No film can capture the mystery of Nureyev’s presence on stage. He enthralled and spellbound the whole theatre. Some extracts will be presented, in which a weak echo of this presence can be discerned: some interviews; a few minutes of Giselle with Margot Fonteyn in London; Swan Lake, also with Fonteyn, in Vienna; Don Quixote with Lucette Aldous in Sydney; La Sylphide with Carla Fracci in Milan. And to end, honors to the Paris Opera Ballet with La Bayadère, a testament in ballet, as a farewell and not a goodbye, to Rudolf Nureyev, who was its dance director, and who said, “As long as my ballets are danced, I will live.”