Nureyev as a young star on PBS this week…

…in fact, tomorrow, Wednesday, at 9 pm, for New Yorkers (repeated Saturday night at 12:40 am–officially Sunday). The focus is Nureyev’s Soviet years.
The documentary, “Nureyev: The Russian Years,” has its cheesy moments, but the footage of him dancing–both newly discovered film and clips from studio films and live broadcasts shot soon after he defected, in 1961 at age 23–are thrilling through and through.
Also, there’s Nureyev talking (much of it snagged from Patricia Foy’s 1991 documentary “Rudolf Nureyev,” in which he is clearly very ill). I didn’t have the space to go into this in my own account of the film, but Nureyev is a captivating talker, mainly because the truth matters to him. It mattered to him in his dancing–to articulate the steps and get them to speak–so it would in his talking, too. He doesn’t waste a word (he may not have had the energy to), and what he says is often very wise–and impishly contrarian.
Nureyev was at his peak before my time (though my mother did take me and my sister to see him and Fonteyn when I was about 5; we were very high up and they might as well have been tiny dolls, for all I could see). But watching a pile of videos of old performances and all the documentaries I could find made me miss him as if all over again.
The two mammoth biographies haven’t done that: Diane Solway’s from 1998 and Julie Kavanagh’s, out in October. They complement each other: even when they cover the same ground, it’s from different angles. Solway’s tone and approach is more journalistic and authoritative, Kavanagh’s more novelistic and gossipy. When a vivid, multivoiced narrative is appropriate, Kavanagh’s is better. When you want things to be more organized–and more restrained–Solway’s is.
In both cases, though, the writers run into the common problem of biographers of great artists, which is that their subject is wiser than they are (and dead by the time they’re writing). You end up wishing they’d get out of the way. Plus, in the case of Kavanagh, some gadabout fool with nothing better to do than follow Nureyev around–and there were many– is too often who we’re listening to. The biographies tend to fall into a soporific seesaw rhythm: “On the one hand, Nureyev danced sublimely; on the other, he was a lousy lover.” The two hands aren’t commensurable. One’s the hand of God, and the other isn’t.
If you want to bone up on Nureyev, I recommend the autobiography, written (by Alexander Grant, in fact) when the dancer was only 24! He was later embarrassed by his precocity–told Baryshnikov when B defected not to make the same mistake. But I loved the book. I loved him, his simplicity and soulfulness and honesty (for a supposed pathological liar) about the deep things where lying doesn’t figure.
Finally, re his reputation as a terrible choreographer, yes, most of what he made was disappointing, but his “Nutcracker” (with Merle Park) is really entrancing. I know the big deal there is supposed to be its Freudian strains, but I actually missed that part: was too enchanted by the overall vision–and it is overall, carrying the whole ballet!–and the allegro steps, with their folk dance rhythms and extreme pointey-point maneuvers, as though Nureyev couldn’t get the fairies in “The Sleeping Beauty” off his mind, or were discovering where Balanchinean rhythms, which come naturally to him, would take him if he embedded them in the steps.
Okay, a contest: Be the first to tell me which famous variation Nureyev is doing on the grass in that red-and-green towel thingie (this is from the PBS documentary), and I’ll treat you to an evening at the ballet (with me, of course. There’s the catch).
p.s. My Arts Journal neighbor Tobi Tobias has written a lovely–and complete–account of “Nureyev: The Russian Years” here.
[Thus began the Nureyev mania on Foot. After the above post, we moved on to outrage at the reviews of Julie Kavanagh’s new mammoth biography that used the occasion to trash Nureyev, and finally relief at one review and another that did more justice to the man than the bio itself.]

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