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The man who leapt to earth

EVEN IN TODAY’S CELEBRITY-OBSESSED times, it’s hard to imagine the cracking of a smile making front page news. Yet when a young Rudolf Nureyev finally turned up the corners of his mouth during a curtain call, the following day’s headlines proclaimed, "Nureyev Smiles!"

Today, with reality TV stars taking up most tabloid inches, a ballet dancer that commands press attention is hard to find. But in the 1960s, Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn were the talk of the town. The 23-year-old Russian, who defected from his homeland, re-ignited the career of Britain’s best-loved ballerina and quickly became a household name.

Nureyev was not the greatest classical dancer that ever lived - he was not even the greatest of his generation. But he had a star quality that set him apart from the rest, and a mass appeal that has yet to be matched. Since his death in 1993, at the age of 54, biographers have been at pains to capture the man behind the greasepaint. Many books exist, charting his rise from poverty-stricken child, born in Irkutsk, Siberia, to millionaire adult - but few, if any, of the authors were part of the dancer’s inner circle. Notoriously difficult to get close to, Nureyev had a select band of friends he trusted and adored. Everyone else was there to be used.

Which is why Carolyn Soutar has scored so well with her new book, The Real Nureyev. Two things leap off the page: one is Nureyev’s incredible stage presence, which would keep audiences applauding for up to 30 minutes after a show. And the other is the dichotomous nature of his personality. He was rude and arrogant, yet hopelessly insecure about his ability, practising for hours each day. His beautiful, sculpted body was a sight to behold, but he hated his legs, proclaiming them too short for a classical dancer. His looks and fame could have brought him the comforts of any man or woman he chose, but night after night he cruised the streets, or bought sex from a hustler. And then, despite his glamorous Champagne and caviar lifestyle, he was happiest with tea, toast and a re-run of I Love Lucy.

A stage manager on London’s West End for many years, Soutar worked with Nureyev during the 1980s. Although he went into sharp decline shortly afterwards, the Nureyev magic was still very much in evidence while Soutar was stage-managing his shows. Even in his forties - an age at which most dancers have long hung up their ballet pumps - his appeal and talent were evident. Soutar’s relationship with Nureyev was purely professional, but a mutual respect - built up over seven years of performances and touring - gave her a real insight into the dancer’s complex character. Not only that; it bought her access to the people in Nureyev’s life who knew him inside-out.

Robert Tracy, partner and friend to Nureyev for more than 14 years, had worked with Soutar while he was still a dancer. As an old friend, he was happy to contribute to her book, adding vital touches about Nureyev’s life before and after he went on stage. Soutar also tracked down a stage director from the glory days of the 1960s and ’70s, and one of Nureyev’s personal assistants, to plug any potential gaps in the timeline. Aware that there is no shortage of written material on the dancer, Soutar feels her relationship with the dancer makes her effort unique. "The existing books are missing a personal angle from people like myself - workers who knew him 18 hours a day," she says. "We didn’t meet up with him for dinner parties, but we saw what he was like from the moment he walked into a theatre to when he went home. And I thought with Robert contributing as well, we had the 24-hour version of Nureyev."

His behaviour may have indicated self-obsession, but unlike most ballet stars, Nureyev was willing to muck in. Helping to move scenery or taking a fellow-dancer through their steps was not beneath him. On the contrary, he wanted the whole production to be the best it could possibly be. Which is why his later work carries such a pitiful irony. Murray Louis, a former Nureyev choreographer and artistic director of Nikolais Dance Theatre (due at the Edinburgh Playhouse next week) describes a young, powerful Nureyev: "Rudolf had an animal ferocity - it was like watching a caged tiger. You were hypnotised by the beauty and sucked into that visceral experience he gave movement. And of course in his heyday he was dazzling technically." Years of breathtaking leaps inevitably took their toll, however, and by the time Nureyev was staging galas in the late 1980s, his Achilles tendon had no resilience - but still he danced. "People insisted on seeing him, and like a trained animal all they wanted was his jumps," says Louis. "It was the audience that destroyed him, in the sense that they paid him so extraordinarily for the shows. But when he did that last tour of Britain, the reviews were ghastly."

Those final performances may have left a bitter taste, but the legacy lives on. Nureyev’s talent, both as a dancer and choreographer, inspired generations of male dancers to step out from behind the ballerina’s tutus. While the incredible impact he had is largely unquantifiable, he was a beacon of light to many successful performers. Fellow-Russian, Irek Mukhamedov followed in Nureyev’s defecting footsteps in 1990, and spent the next ten years as the Royal Ballet’s brightest star. A long-time friend and admirer of the man they all called "Rudi", Mukhamedov performed a moving tribute to Nureyev at a commemorative gala the year he died. Louis explains the appeal: "He gave the males in the profession an authority, they were no longer considered background to the ladies. And he raised their level - dancers saw him as something to aspire to."

As both a dancer and a man, Nureyev was a fascinating, driven, captivating phenomenon. From hanging out with Jackie Onassis to prowling the streets of Manchester looking for sex, he lived a life of extremes which Soutar paints vividly through her own experience and anecdotal evidence. She may not have shared his private moments, but there are enough professional ones to capture Nureyev’s many idiosyncrasies - not least, his penchant for standing naked in his dressing room, waiting for Soutar to arrive and inform him of the restless audience outside. "I was convinced he did it every night to spark him off," she says. "It used to terrify me, but that was just his way of kick-starting himself and getting the adrenaline going so he could go on the stage."

• Carolyn Soutar is at EIBF, tomorrow at 4pm. The Real Nureyev (Mainstream, 15.99) is not on sale in bookshops until September, but will be available at the EIBF event.

 
 
 

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