Sir John Tooley – Nureyev’s influence on the development of Ballet in the West

Remembering Rudolf Nureyev by Sir John Tooley


Sir John Tooley was Chair of the Rudolf Nureyev Foundation from 1995 to 2008. He knew Rudolf Nureyev well as they worked together from 1962 at the Royal Ballet. Sir John was Assistant General Administrator at the Royal Opera House, London from 1960 and became General Director in 1970, a post he held until his retirement in 1988.

1961 was eventful and significant in the post war history of the Royal Opera House and its two principal companies, the Royal Opera and the Royal Ballet, for that year saw the arrival of Georg Solti as Music Director of the opera and the defection of Rudolf Nureyev, who was later that year to appear in a charity performance organised by Margot Fonteyn, which in turn led to an invitation from Dame Ninette de Valois to join the Royal Ballet as a guest artist. Suddenly in our midst were two charismatic artists, with strong personalities and boundless energy, hell bent on success for themselves and for those with whom they worked. At the beginning Solti announced to the world that he was going to make the Royal Opera the greatest company in the world, a sentiment which I am sure Rudolf would have shared if in such a position with a ballet company at the time. Their effect was of a meteor hitting Covent Garden.

Prior to Rudolf’s decision to remain in Paris in June 1961, as the Kirov Ballet left for London, reports had been circulating in London and elsewhere about the quality and virtuosity of Rudolf’s dancing in Leningrad. When the Company started to perform in Paris, immediately before their London season, the reporting became intensified, now first hand and gaining in credibility. Expectations of an astonishing revelation in male dancing ran high, only to be dashed by his failure to arrive with the Company.

I was at Heathrow that day, June 16th, waiting to greet the company. There was already talk of an incident around a dancer at Le Bourget, but no more than that and no light was shed on who it might be, a situation which was little changed on the company’s arrival as Soviet practice of total secrecy prevailed. None was willing to talk, except for Constantin Sergeyev, the Artistic Director, and Natasha Doudinskaya, his wife and ballerina, who told me that I should listen only to them and shortly the truth would be revealed. The company was in a state of shock and some were in tears. Rudolf had little opportunity to tell anyone why he was not coming to London. In any event, he did not believe the reason he was given by Sergeyev for being returned to Moscow and concluded that this was the end for him as a serious dancer either with the Kirov or the Bolshoi, more likely he would be sent to the small company in his birth place, Ufa, unless he made a dash for freedom. That moment was seized.


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