Recurring topics in Nureyev’s ballets

“You live because you dance, you dance as long as you live.”
Rudolf Nureyev

lac des cygnes Rudolf Noureev

Going from one ballet to another, whether they are Marius Petipa adaptations or personal creations, we find several themes which Nureyev, Choreographer, used time and again and which seem to emanate from his own biography :

The revolt against tyrannical authority
This is the Prince from Swan Lake who refuses the fate imposed on him by his mother and his tutor; this is the lovers, Romeo and Juliet (tragedy) or Basilio and Kitri (comedy), who escape the will of their parents (reminiscent of Rudolf in confrontation with his father who does not want him to become a dancer; Rudolf in dispute with the management of the Kirov ballet who had decided not to take him on tour to Paris, or Rudolf in hiding from the KGB when asking for political asylum at Bourget airport).

The self-made individual
This is Cinderella changing from her humble status to that of a star (the path taken by Rudolf)

The dream as a transgression of reality
The strange and sensual Abderam from Raymonda appears before the young girl in her dreams. The Saracen, who is in principle the “enemy”, takes the place of Jean de Brienne, her mild-mannered fiancé, held distant captive. Initiatory dream and “catharsis” of the suppression of what is prohibited (temptation of forbidden fruit).

A theme we come across when going through other of Nureyev’s productions adapted from Petipa, where he portrays the two possible sides of the same personality: the Good and the Bad. This duality haunts Swan Lake (the white Odette and the black Odile, as well as Rothbart, the devilish split personality of Wolfgang, the tutor) and Sleeping Beauty (the Lilac fairy and Carabosse being shown as two sisters in dispute over the destiny of the young Aurora).

The dream returns in The Nutcracker (under the control of the toy’s double which comes to life and takes on the mannerisms of Drosselmeyer, the godfather who helps Clara to leave her childhood behind…)

Dreams can be used to achieve a freedom which is not authorized in the real world: Solor, by smoking opium, is able to meet up with his “bayadère”, his Indian temple dancer, in another world, that of the Kingdom of the Shades; the Nutcracker Prince / Drosselmeyer frees Clara from her nightmares to take her to a wonderful world where she becomes his princess; Siegfried, suppressing his homosexuality, falls in love in his dreams with an unattainable woman/swan.

Dreams appear as a revenge against life, but sometimes fortune can give destiny a helping hand: a heaven-sent film producer takes Cinderella away from the ill-treatment of her step mother and half-sisters to make her screen debut; Prince Desire wrests Aurora from her sleep and Carabosse’s longstanding superstitions with a kiss, marries her and takes her into a changed world.

The duality

If the characters have split personalities (Odette/ Odile, Rothbart/ Wolfgang, the tutor, Nutcracker/Drosselmeyer), or have their opposites (Lilac Fairy and Carabosse, Jean de Brienne and Abderam, Mercutio and Tybalt), the stage can equally be divided in two, opposing life on the outside (passers-by in the street, in Nutcracker and Washington Square, on the film sets for Cinderella) and the intimacy of the often suppressive, family home; hence the aspirations of the young man or young girl to escape from this enclosed world, even if only in their mind.