“I approach dancing from a different angle than
those who begin dancing at 8 or 9. Those who have studied
from the beginning never question anything.”
No male dancer ever had more influence on the history, style and public perception of ballet than Rudolf Nureyev. He changed people’s expectations. Starting out from inauspicious beginnings in a remote town in the Urals, he ended up changing the whole face of the art.
By indefatigably performing a uniquely wide repertoire night after night, month after month, year after year, all over the world, he reached a wider audience than any rival, to which must be added millions more who saw him only in films and on television (he was filmed more than any other dancer before or probably since). But more important than the size of his audience was the effect on them of his charismatic personality and the utter dedication with which he performed. His own idiosyncratic way of putting it was that “every step must be sprayed with your blood”.
The dramatic circumstances of his arrival in the West, his so-called “leap to freedom”, put him immediately on the front pages of the world’s newspapers, but it was his powerful personality that kept him there, and he made stubborn use of that position to develop in his own way. Besides, as exemplar, partner, choreographer and director he gave other dancers opportunities they would not otherwise have enjoyed, and companies with which he worked became better, stronger and livelier for his presence.
There was nothing in his origins, birth or childhood to suggest where life would take Nureyev.
The youngest of four children, he was the only boy. The family were Tartars, coming of peasant stock in the Soviet republic of Bashkir, but his father, Hamet, seizing the opportunities brought to ordinary people by the Russian Revolution, become a political education officer in the Red Army, advancing to the rank of major.
Because Rudolf’s mother Farida was travelling with her daughters to join Hamet when her son arrived slightly sooner than expected, he was born in a train on the trans-Siberian railway, somewhere near Lake Baikal. His official birth date was 17 March 1938 although it was probably in fact two or three days earlier.
He had no memories of his father earlier than Hamet’s return from military service in 1946. This helps explain a lack of rapport between father and son, made worse because by then the boy had already fixed on what Nureyev senior thought the unmanly career of dancing.
From earliest days the boy had loved music, and at six he saw ballet for the first time. The family home, following evacuation from Moscow, was then a shared wooden house in Ufa, the Bashkir capital.
Conditions were not good: food was scarce, the roads unpaved, winters long and the cold so fierce that Nureyev later described how it made his nose run and the mucus turned to ice. Everyone suffered hardship but the Nureyevs were poorer than some. Boiled potatoes were their main food, and on starting school he was laughed at for having no shoes and wearing one of his sisters’ overcoats. But the town had an opera house with good standards (the great singer Chaliapin had made his debut there). On New Year’s Eve, 1945, Farida Nureyeva, with only one ticket, smuggled all her children in to a performance of the patriotic ballet Song of the Cranes starring the Leningrad-trained Bashkir ballerina Zaituna Nazretdinova. At once Rudolf decided he was going to be a dancer.
He began with folk dances at school, in amateur groups and with the Pioneers, which all ten-year-olds had to join. Then he was recommended to a ballet teacher, Anna Udeltsova, who after eighteen months passed him on to another, Elena Vaitovich. Both had danced professionally and, besides his ballet lessons, talked to him about dancers they had seen (including Pavlova and the Diaghilev Ballet). They made him understand that there was more to dancing than technique and, seeing the boy’s potential, urged that he ought to study in Leningrad, where they had trained and which they considered the best school in the world.
Getting there, however, seemed almost insuperably difficult, especially when his father forbade him to continue dancing classes because they were affecting his school results and therefore his chance of a “suitable” career such as engineer or doctor. But his mother turned a blind eye when he sneaked off to lessons under pretext of other activities.