1961 – Rudolf Nureyev defects to the West

“I want to stay and to be free.”
Rudolf Nureyev at Le Bourget Airport

saut vers la liberté Noureev
Le Jeune -homme et la Mort by Roland Petit with Zizi Jeanmaire

When the company went to Paris in 1961 for its first foreign tour, Rudolf could hardly be left behind but a close watch was kept on him.

Still he did not conform. Instead of returning obediently to the hotel each night in the coaches provided, he went out with French dancers and other locals. One or two other Kirov dancers did likewise but Nureyev was the one who caused most alarm to the political agents running the tour.

When everyone arrived at the airport to move on for performances in London he was instead given a ticket to Moscow and told he was needed for a gala.

Disbelieving assurances that he would rejoin the company in London, he was sure he would never again be allowed out of Russia and would face relegation back home.

He decided to seek asylum in the west and managed to get word to friends who had come to see him off. They told the French police, who explained that Nureyev must personally approach them; he did this and was granted permission to stay in France. Russian officials thereafter did all they could to disparage the “defector”, and in absence he was sentenced to prison. For many years all his travelling had to be done on temporary documents but eventually he was given Austrian citizenship.

Having had the most spectacular personal success of the Kirov’s Paris season, he was immediately offered an engagement with the Grand Ballet du Marquis de Cuevas, but stayed only a few months, violently disliking their production of The Sleeping Beauty. He did however admire their ballerina Rosella Hightower, and worked with her on his first ballet production, the Nutcracker pas de deux. He next met (offstage) another ballerina, the American Maria Tallchief, and introduced himself.

Rudolf meets Erik Bruhn.

Maria Tallchief was about to dance in Copenhagen with Erik Bruhn, whom Nureyev, on the strength of an amateur film, admired more than any other male dancer. Thus the two men met and fell in love, maintaining their close feelings, despite quarrels and separations, until Bruhn’s death. Both of them perfectionists, they did their daily class together and Nureyev began assimilating western style to add to what he had learned in Russia.

Bruhn’s attitude to his roles confirmed the belief Nureyev had already developed that a man should be allowed to dance as expressively as a woman; the effect of this was exemplified when they each added a soft, andante solo to their later productions of Swan Lake, introducing a new gentle style of male dancing later taken up by other choreographers, even as illustrious as Frederick Ashton.