“I really have to dance more often, and so I travel around.
If I don’t, I will crumble.”
The Royal Ballet became Nureyev’s base until the 1970s. Through the years, however, he danced with dozens of other companies, sometimes simply because they wanted a guest star, but often through his eagerness for new roles and new styles.
Sometimes (for instance with Paul Taylor whose choreography he greatly admired) he would return his fee if he knew they could not afford it. A notably quick learner, he amassed an unusually large and varied repertoire. Besides the old classics, which he danced in many different versions, he took well over a hundred roles by more than forty choreographers.
About two-fifths of these roles were created specially for him by an array of talents as diverse as Ashton, Balanchine, Maurice Bjart, Rudi van Dantzig, Flemming Flindt, Martha Graham, Murray Louis, Kenneth MacMillan, Roland Petit, Paul Taylor and Glen Tetley. Among them, the part that best brought out aspects of his gifts and will always be associated with him was Ashton’s Armand, full of poetry, passion and romanticism with Fonteyn’s Marguerite.
But the intense emotion he found in Bjart’s Wayfarer, his insouciant humour in Jazz Calendar (Ashton) and Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme (Balanchine), the knotty complexity he brought to Tetley’s Laborintus and Tristan or his sheer flamboyance in Petit’s Paradise Lost all left strong memories.
Character and illumination were the qualities he brought to the standard repertoire, even in primarily dance works such as Apollo, Hans van Manen’s Four Schumann Pieces or Jerome Robbins’s Dances at a Gathering.
Naturally this was even more true in roles calling for narrative, such as Colas in La Fille mal garde, The Prodigal Son, Des Grieux in Manon, John Neumeier’s Don Juan, or the title part in Valery Panov’s The Idiot. He found a special interest in reinterpreting parts made for his great predecessor Nijinsky, and made more sense than anyone else of the gentle mood and delicate sexual allure of Le Spectre de la Rose.
He was one of the first ballet dancers, and by far the best known, 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 the dances Murray Louis made for him.
Even so, some of his admirers (Ashton and Ninette de Valois among them) thought him so incomparable in the classics that they regretted the time he devoted to contemporary dance.
The immense airborne thrust of his Bayadre solos, the utter commitment of his Albrecht in Giselle, his ardour and melancholy in Swan Lake, his vivacity and fun in Don Quixote are among examples giving strength to this argument. If forced to choose just one dance to represent the unique excellence of Nureyev’s dancing, I would name the Prince’s solo from the last act of The Sleeping Beauty, where the superb execution of each step, the flow of each section and the way they were linked in a continuous climactic progress, reached its peak in the unhurried but steadily strengthening final mange of turning leaps around the stage, until he ended perfectly still and poised in a triumphant pose embodying the ideal fifth position which his teacher Pushkin had urged.
In some of his other roles, the improvement in male dancing that was started by his example means that others can now sometimes vie with his former easy supremacy, but in that solo I have yet to see anyone come near to matching him.