“As long as my ballets are danced, I will live.”
His questioning of received versions of the classics soon led him to make his own productions – that and the fact that it enabled him to dance more roles, more often.
When Nureyev first danced the Royal Ballet’s Giselle and Swan Lake, many people complained about additions and alterations he made to the choreography. But Ashton, who had produced Giselle, said “it would have been absurd … to squeeze Nureyev into a preconceived mould”, and de Valois strongly defended him. He began by mounting other people’s choreography then unknown in the west, most notably the Kingdom of Shades scene from La Bayadère, but in 1964, aged 26 and with no experience of original choreography, he put on two major works within a few months: a much revised version of Petipa’s Raymonda for the Royal Ballet’s touring company and a completely original Swan Lake at the Vienna State Opera.
These were the first of six old (Petipa or Tchaikovsky) ballets he mounted during his career, always in more than one staging for various companies, allowing him to develop and improve his ideas. All had some positive virtues and are still performed, with La Bayadère remaining the closest to its source, Don Quixote the most successful reanimation of its original, and The Nutcracker the best completely new interpretation.
On a similarly large scale are his two Prokofiev ballets, a highly dramatic Romeo and Juliet faithful to Shakespeare and his sources, and a Cinderella reinterpreted in terms of Hollywood. There were also several original one-act ballets, of which at least the Byronic heroics of Manfred deserve to survive, and probably The Tempest too.
It is no surprise that all his productions contained good roles for the leading dancers, but it is remarkable that, largely as a result of intently studying Petipa’s ballets, he taught himself to make interesting, often very demanding, dances for the ensemble too. That is something rare in present-day choreographers.
When the Royal Ballet needed a new director in 1977, Nureyev’s was one of the names considered, but rejected because he wanted to continue dancing.