The most photographed male dancer in the world, Rudolf Nureyev electrified the world with his ballet for close to three decades in the second half of the 20th century.

In the world of ballet, dominated by the ballerina or the female artist, Nureyev brought male dancing to the limelight, and changed the nature of 20th century ballet. From peasantdom to stardom, he twirled his way to the very top in an eventful life.

Rudolf Hametovich Nureyev was born in a train near Irkutsk in Russia, when his mother was on her way to meet his father, in 1938. His father was a soldier in the Russian Army stationed at Vladivostok, in Siberia.

When Nureyev was five, his family moved to Ufa. From early childhood he was bent upon joining a dancing school even though his father tried his best to dissuade him.

But young Nureyev was adamant and joined a folk dance group. In 1955, at the age of 17, he landed at the Vaganova School at Kirov, in Leningrad. Seventeen was considered too old for training from scratch.

From Russia with Love
From Russia with Love [Illustration by Shiju George]
But, during the audition his genius was so apparent that the principal, Krotovitskaya, remarked, “Young man, you’ll either become a brilliant dancer or a total failure. And most likely you’ll be a failure.” Nuruyev went on to prove her wrong.

From Vaganova he then shifted to the Kirov ballet school at St Petersburg, Russia. He found his teacher and mentor in Alexander Pushkin. Nureyev made his debut in classical ballet with ballerina Natalia Dudinskaya. He soon established himself as a favourite with Russian audiences.

Nureyev was the star attraction of the Kirov Ballet when it toured Paris in 1961, his first appearance outside Russia. After the opening performance, the audience gave the 23-year-old dancer a standing ovation that lasted longer than the dance itself!

On June 17, 1961, minutes before his plane was to take off for London, Nureyev defected. Not wanting to stay on in the Soviet Union as the communist state was then known, he asked the French officials to give him asylum or refuge. He was given asylum and later Austrian citizenship. The defection made headlines.

The same year he appeared at the Royal Ballet in London where he met Margot Fonteyn, the renowned ballet dancer. The duo enthralled the world with their performances in the “pas de deux” (dance for two) in ‘Le Corsaire’, ‘Giselle’ and ‘Romeo and Juliet’.

It was at that stage that Nureyev changed the course of ballet with what seemed an audacious demand. He wanted equal importance for the male ballet dancer in performances. Till then it was the female ballerina who was considered the most important artist in a ballet performance. Nureyev wanted equal credit for the performance.

Nureyev put forward his point of view that a dance for two means just that and not one partner dancing, while the other stood about. He won his point. And that was one big achievement in the world of ballet.

Nureyev’s presence on stage was charismatic. His most spectacular “item” was the “Nureyev leap” high in the air which has never been equaled by any other ballet artist. It was as if his body was light as a feather and the laws of gravity did not pull him down at all.

His greatest contribution was in bringing Russian dancing techniques to the West. He trained the Royal Ballet company in London.

Ballet had seen other greats: Vasily Nijinsky, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Serge Diaghilev. But Nureyev’s presence was something different altogether. He lived for dance, and dance was the first and only thing in his life. Though brilliant, he still rehearsed for hours. He made breathtaking steps look so easy.

In 1985, he visited India with the Paris Opera Ballet of which he was the artistic director from 1983 to 1989. During this period and even before it, he produced many full length ballet pieces.

Both as a dancer and as a choreographer, he demanded the best from the dancers and consequently gave the best himself. In 1989, he retired to be the leading star in the Broadway musical ‘The King and I’.

His last public performance was at Paris for the premiere of ‘La Bayadere’ directed by Marius Petipa. In 1993, at the age of 54, the most photographed and most talked about dancer of the 20th century died of complications arising from AIDS.