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Nureyev, Rudolf Hametovichlocked

  • John Percival

Rudolf Hametovich Nureyev (1938–1993)

by Sir Cecil Beaton

© Cecil Beaton Archive, Sotheby's

Nureyev, Rudolf Hametovich (1938–1993), dancer and choreographer, was born in Siberia in mid-March 1938, the youngest child (after three sisters) of Hamet Nuriakhmetovich Nureyev (1903–1966), a Red Army political officer, and his wife, Farida Agilivulevna (1905–1988). She was on a train to join him near Vladivostok and gave birth prematurely near Lake Baikal. Rudolf's birth was registered as 17 March but was eventually found to be probably three days earlier. Nureyev's kin were Tartars, of peasant stock in the Bashkir republic, but his father, seizing opportunities brought by the Bolshevik Revolution, advanced to the rank of army major. Rudolf, only three when Germany invaded Russia, had no memories of his father earlier than Hamet's return from military service five years later. That explains the distance between father and son, made worse because he had fixed on what Nureyev senior thought the unmanly career of dancing.

Introduction to ballet

From earliest days Nureyev loved music; at seven he saw ballet for the first time. Evacuated from Moscow, the family shared a wooden house in Ufa, the Bashkir capital. Food was scarce, winters long and agonizingly cold. Everyone suffered, but the Nureyevs were poorer than some. Boiled potatoes were their main food, and Nureyev started school barefoot and wearing one of his sisters' overcoats. The town, however, did have an opera house with good standards. On new year's eve 1945 Farida Nureyeva smuggled her children in to see the patriotic ballet Song of the Cranes starring the Leningrad-trained Bashkir ballerina Zaituna Nazretdinova. At once Nureyev wanted to be a dancer. After folk dances at school and with the Pioneers, he was recommended to a ballet teacher, Anna Udeltsova, who eighteen months later passed him on to another, Elena Vaitovich. Both told him about dancers they had seen (including Pavlova and the Diaghilev company), and taught him that there was more to dancing than technique. Seeing his potential, they urged that he ought to study in Leningrad's academy, considered the best in the world.

That seemed impossible, especially when Nureyev's father forbade his dancing classes because they were affecting his school results and therefore his prospects in a ‘suitable’ career. But his mother turned a blind eye when he sneaked off to lessons under pretence of other activities. At fifteen he began serving as an extra at the opera house, gaining some income and classes with the ballet company. He progressed to dancing in the corps, and got himself on a ten-day tour to Moscow by taking over, impromptu, a folk-dance solo from an injured dancer. This was the first example of an astonishing memory for dances he had only seen, which later facilitated many of his productions.

Leningrad and the Kirov

In Moscow, Nureyev auditioned for the Bolshoi ballet school, and was accepted; Ufa also offered him a full contract. He decided, however, to persevere in trying for Leningrad: reputed to be the best school, and residential, which helped living costs. So he spent his earnings on a ticket taking him to Leningrad. There he was accepted with the comment 'you'll become either a brilliant dancer or a total failure—and most likely a failure'. At seventeen he was raw, without skills already acquired by contemporaries who had entered the academy seven years earlier, but he took this as a challenge to gain knowledge and control without losing the spontaneity and individuality of his natural talent. For three years he drove himself hard, practising between classes the steps he found most difficult, determined to overtake the others. Yet he notoriously defied rules he thought silly; for instance, watching attentively every performance he could at the Kirov Theatre, even though absence from the dormitory incurred punishment. He also, being put in the sixth grade, begged for transfer to the eighth (out of nine), afraid he might be called to military service before completing the course. This increased his reputation for being difficult, but when his wish was granted it brought him under an exceptional teacher, Aleksandr Pushkin.

Once convinced of his determination, Pushkin helped Nureyev greatly, even taking him into his own home, and coached him into the top grade. Nureyev spent two years there and on graduation danced with such fervour and brilliance that both the Kirov and Bolshoi ballets offered him a soloist contract. Unsurprisingly he chose the former, and made his début partnering their ballerina Nataliya Dudinskaya in one of her famous roles, Laurentia. Demanding both virtuosity and strong drama, the ballet brought him great success. Shortly afterwards he injured an ankle but soon got back on stage despite a doctor saying he would never dance again. Thereafter, however, throughout his career he had pain and ankle problems that would have deterred anyone less resolute.

During three years with the Kirov, Nureyev danced another fifteen roles (including the major classic leads) and partnered all the ballerinas. Although not tall, he had a powerful presence and his face with its Asiatic bone structure was expressive. A fan club developed, watching his every performance, drawn by the passion of his dancing and the personal reading he gave each ballet. He even redesigned some costumes, and argued with rehearsal directors, sometimes walking out of the studio to practise alone.

The leap to freedom

Nureyev's reputation for misbehaviour and his achievement grew simultaneously (he came top in an international competition in Vienna), so when the Kirov went to Paris in 1961 for its first foreign tour, he could hardly be left behind but was closely watched. Still unconforming, when buses took the company to its hotel each night, he went out with French dancers and other locals. One or two colleagues did likewise, but it was Nureyev who caused most alarm to the tour's political managers. Consequently, when everyone arrived at the airport to travel for performances in London, he was given a ticket to Moscow and told he was needed for a gala. Nureyev was sure this really meant relegation and never again being allowed abroad. Deciding to seek asylum in the West, he managed to get word to friends who came to see him off. They found that he must approach French police; he did this and was granted permission to stay in France. All later travel had to be done on temporary documents until eventually he was given Austrian citizenship. Soviet officials disparaged the ‘defector’, and in his absence Nureyev was sentenced to seven years' imprisonment; not until 1987 was he permitted to visit his elderly sick mother.

Following his spectacular success with the Kirov, the Grand Ballet du Marquis de Cuévas engaged him, but he stayed only a few months, violently disliking their Sleeping Beauty production, although he admired their ballerina Rosella Hightower, and worked with her on his first choreography, the pas de deux from the Nutcracker. He next found that Erik Bruhn (1928–1986) was about to dance in Copenhagen; Nureyev, on the strength of an amateur film, admired Bruhn more than any other male dancer. So he went to Copenhagen, where the two men fell in love, their close feelings continuing, despite quarrels and separations, until Bruhn's death. Both of them perfectionists, they did their daily class together and Nureyev began assimilating Western style to add to what he had learned in the Soviet Union. Bruhn's attitude to his roles confirmed Nureyev's belief that men should be allowed to dance as expressively as women. This later led each of them to add a soft, andante solo to Swan Lake, introducing a new gentle style of male dancing later taken up by other choreographers.

From Copenhagen, Nureyev was invited to make his London début at Margot Fonteyn's annual gala for the Royal Academy of Dancing. He danced Black Swan with Hightower and a solo, Poème tragique, made for him by Frederick Ashton. The Royal Ballet asked him to dance Giselle with Fonteyn the next season, also other classics with the guest ballerinas Sonia Arova and Yvette Chauviré. Meanwhile, Nureyev danced with Bruhn, Arova, and Hightower in Cannes and Paris, performing pieces created or staged by the two men, and he made his New York début on television (substituting for the injured Bruhn), then on stage with Ruth Page's Chicago Opera Ballet.

Margot Fonteyn and the Royal Ballet

Thus was laid the groundwork for Nureyev's international career: a lasting link with the Royal Ballet, frequent appearances elsewhere, activities as producer and choreographer, and above all his partnership with Fonteyn. Both of them danced with many other partners who almost always looked better in consequence, but they were most proud of what they achieved together. He at twenty-three gave her at forty-two a new burst of energy; she helped him settle down. They learned much from each other and danced at their very best together. He greatly wanted to show Leningrad what they had achieved (unfortunately, when he was eventually allowed there, she had retired and he was past his best). They remained lifelong close friends, and when Fonteyn was dying of cancer Nureyev paid her medical bills.

The Royal Ballet became Nureyev's base until the 1970s, when new directors began to squeeze him and Fonteyn out. Through the years, however, he danced with dozens of companies, eager for new roles and new styles. For Paul Taylor, whose choreography he greatly admired, and Martha Graham he appeared without fee. A notably quick learner, he amassed an unusually large and varied repertory. Besides the old classics in many different versions, he took well over 100 roles by more than forty choreographers. About two-fifths of these were created specially for him by a diverse array of talents including Rudi van Dantzig, Flemming Flindt, Graham, and Kenneth MacMillan. The new-made part that best brought out his gifts was Ashton's Armand, full of poetry and passion with Fonteyn's Marguérite. But the emotion he found in Maurice Béjart's Wayfarer, his insouciant humour in Jazz Calendar (Ashton) and Le bourgeois gentilhomme (Balanchine), the knotty complexity he brought to Glen Tetley's Laborintus, or his sheer flamboyance in Roland Petit's Paradise Lost all left strong memories. To the standard repertory he brought character and illumination, even where dance was primary: Apollo, Hans van Manen's Four Schumann Pieces, or Jerome Robbins's Dances at a Gathering. Naturally this was even more true in narrative roles, such as Colas in La fille mal gardée, The Prodigal Son, Des Grieux in Manon, John Neumeier's Don Juan, or the title part in Valery Panov's The Idiot. He especially liked reinterpreting parts made for his great predecessor Nijinsky, and made rare sense of the delicate sexual allure of Le spectre de la rose.

Nureyev was one of the first ballet dancers to perform with contemporary dance companies, being particularly successful in capturing the character and weight of the Revivalist in Graham's Appalachian Spring and the slippery smoothness of dances Murray Louis made for him. Yet many thought him so incomparable in the classics that they regretted the time he devoted to contemporary dance. The immense airborne thrust of his Bayadère solos, his utter commitment in Giselle, ardour and melancholy in Swan Lake, vivacity and fun in Don Quixote gave strength to this argument, and above all The Sleeping Beauty, where the intelligence of his acting and perfection of his dancing were unmatched. In some other roles the improvement in male dancing started by his example has sometimes allowed others to vie with his former easy supremacy, but in the Beauty his execution, phrasing, and finish were unique.

When Nureyev first danced the Royal Ballet's Giselle and Swan Lake, many people complained about his additions and alterations to the choreography, but Ashton and de Valois strongly defended him. Questioning received versions of the classics soon led him to make his own productions. He began with existing choreography unfamiliar in the West, notably the Shades scene from La bayadère, but in 1964, aged twenty-six and inexperienced as a choreographer, he put on two major works within a few months: a much revised version of Petipa's Raymonda for the Royal Ballet and a completely new Swan Lake at the Vienna State Opera. These were the first of six old ballets he mounted, always in more than one staging for various companies, allowing him to develop and improve his ideas. All had positive virtues and outlived him in performance, with La bayadère remaining the closest to its source, Don Quixote the most successful reanimation of its original, and The Nutcracker the best completely new interpretation. On a similarly large scale are his two Prokofiev ballets, a highly dramatic Romeo and Juliet faithful to Shakespeare (and Shakespeare's sources) and a Cinderella reinterpreted in terms of Hollywood. There were also several original one-act ballets, outstanding among them the Byronic heroics of Manfred and the cool characterizations of The Tempest. Unsurprisingly his productions contained good roles for the leading dancers, but remarkably he taught himself, through studying Petipa's ballets, to make interesting, often very demanding, dances for the ensemble too: something rare in latter-day choreographers. Nureyev's productions always owed much to his general culture: widely read, assiduous in attending films, plays, and galleries at any spare moment, loving to play music alone or with friends, and applying his prodigious memory to the detail of everything he saw or heard.


When the Royal Ballet needed a new director in 1977, Nureyev's name was considered, but rejected because he insisted that he would continue dancing. However, in 1983 he was offered and accepted the position of ballet director at the Paris Opéra, which he held for six years, surrounding himself with first-rate ballet staff able to sustain and later continue his policies. Chief among these was widening the repertory, through his own productions and by bringing in an immense variety of ballets by leading choreographers and also by aspirants whose talent seemed real. He wanted the dancers, like himself, to experience many styles: from the great classics (not previously well represented in Paris) and revivals or reconstructions of historic French works, to the best ballets of modern times and many creations. He stimulated the dancers, besides, by giving early opportunities to newcomers from the excellent attached school (which also benefited under him from new premises, while the company similarly gained new rehearsal studios). More performances and increased touring were other benefits. The dancers found working with him made their work exciting and fulfilling, and he was famed for being always ready to help any dancer who asked him. A proclivity for temper tantrums was notorious too, but usually with good reason and not for long. He spoke several languages fluently, with a strong accent, and could curse violently in all of them.

On top of his dance activities, Nureyev made time to act in two films, Valentino (1977) and Exposed (1983): neither of them very good, though he upheld his roles well, explaining that he found little difficulty in a non-dancing role because much of ballet involves acting. Similarly, on leaving Paris he toured North America in the musical The King and I. But dancing was always his main concern and he took every opportunity to perform, appearing every night on long tours or during extended London seasons (these also gave opportunities to major companies he invited from America, Australia, Canada, Italy, Japan, and Switzerland). Additionally, he invented—initially for a Broadway run, and later often elsewhere—a new format, ‘Nureyev and friends’, to give programmes of works with small, specially assembled casts. When his stamina declined with age, he used this format to present himself in roles needing drama or plasticity while others took the technically more demanding parts. He also moved on to different roles in longer ballets: the old toymaker Dr Coppelius, or parts made specially for his maturity in The Overcoat and Death in Venice. The very last new role he took, not long before his death, was the mimed part of Carabosse in a new Berlin production of his Sleeping Beauty.

Final years

Before that Nureyev had already branched out in another sphere, as an orchestral conductor. Some of his many musician friends had suggested this, knowing of his devotion to music, and he took serious coaching for it. He successfully gave concerts with a Viennese orchestra and conducted a gala performance of Romeo and Juliet at the Metropolitan Opera House, New York. Conducting seemed to offer a fresh career, and in addition he had plans for creating several further ballets, but declining health prevented this. Within a year or so of becoming director in Paris, he had been diagnosed HIV-positive. Because AIDS often develops slowly, it was believed then that only a few of those with the virus would develop the disease, but that proved false. Nureyev's determination enabled him to continue working for a decade, and later he was given such experimental treatment as was available. With time, however, he weakened, and his final production for the Paris Opéra was completed only with painful difficulty, helped by colleagues he trusted. This staging of La bayadère (it had long been his wish to mount it) proved one of his most successful ballets, but photographs of him at the première revealed to the world how ill he had become. Even then he hoped to go on working, but his strength went. Nureyev died on 6 January 1993 in Paris, and was buried at the cemetery of Ste Geneviève-des-Bois, Essonne. A memorial tribute in words and music was held in London, at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden, on 25 April 1993.

His legs, as Nureyev once put it, had made him a rich man. He enjoyed having several homes on both sides of the Atlantic, with collections of paintings, other art objects, and musical instruments he liked playing. The collections were later sold at auction. After making provision for his two surviving sisters and their families, he left everything to two foundations for benefiting ballet, helping young dancers, and promoting dancers' health (the Rudolf Nureyev Foundation and the Rudolf Nureyev Dance Foundation). Even in death he made the world of dance richer and stronger for his life.

In performances of a uniquely wide repertory night after night all over the world with charisma and dedication Nureyev reached a wider audience than any rival. Millions more saw him in films and on television. The dramatic circumstances of Nureyev's 'leap to freedom' put him on the front pages of the world's newspapers, but his determination kept him there, using that fame to develop in his own way.


  • J. Percival, ‘Biographie’, [Rudolf Nureyev Foundation], 15 May 2002
  • J. Percival, Nureyev: aspects of the dancer (1976)
  • Nureyev: his spectacular early years: an autobiography, ed. A. Bland (1993)
  • D. Solway, Nureyev: his life (1998)
  • A. Bland, The Nureyev image (1976)


  • Rudolf Nureyev Foundation, Paris
  • Rudolf Nureyev Foundation, New York
  • GL, corresp. with publishers


  • NYPL, Nureyev Film and Video Collection


  • photographs, 1962–77, Hult. Arch.
  • C. Beaton, photograph, Sothebys, Cecil Beaton Archive [see illus.]
  • photographs, Rudolf Nureyev Foundation, New York
  • photographs, Rudolf Nureyev Foundation, Paris