To make up for all the schadenfreude: a smart review of the Nureyev bio

Many of the reviews of Julie Kavanagh’s recent Nureyev bio have enshrined the author–they’re not really reviews but mini hagiographies–while pillorying the artist himself. It’s as if the reviewers–principally, Joan Acocella in the New Yorker, who thinks “Kavanagh gave Nureyev too many breaks” — always wanted to get their revenge and now this bio has given them permission.
Acocella goes so far as to say, “It seems to me that there was a connection between Nureyev’s lack of moral feeling and the general unintelligence of his work–both his performances and his productions.” Is there an editor in the house? This statement begs too many questions.
About those performances, the way Nureyev gave equal weight to transitional steps and to big ones is an example of his intelligence, him upending the cliches of ballet phrasing. It puts him in the company of Balanchine, who often uses run-on rhythms, so you feel you can’t catch your breath. Paradoxically, this enjambment (as it’s called in poetry) made Nureyev seem to appeal to our lower “instincts,” as Acocella describes it.
If by “intelligence” Acocella means self-consciously pointing to himself as intelligent, Nureyev may have wanted to do something else. He may have wanted to make an existential point about not being able or allowed to stop–or about the big and small within the wash of life. But that’s the thing: Acocella’s outrageous assertion needs some backup. The review would then have been really interesting.
I know it’s a symptom of the age we live in that even the dead aren’t exempt from lambasting, but I would have thought that dance critics–who whenever it suits them don’t notice the time they’re in–would have known better.
Well, a few have: in the process of reviewing Kavanagh’s book, my ArtsJournal colleague Tobi Tobias and New York Sun critic Joel Lobenthal, for example, remember how much Nureyev gave to ballet.
My favorite review, though, is from my friend (and regular Foot contributor) Paul Parish. Kavanagh’s bio is immoral by way of being amoral. She lets the dozens of Nureyev hangers-on tell the story for her; the book has no reigning voice, least of all that of Nureyev himself (which the recent TV documentary “The Russian Years” and his own ghostwritten autobiography suggest was compelling and unpretentious, even if he spoke as if the tongue were foreign). Kavanagh doesn’t bother to decide the relation between the myriad facts of his life. She just stuffs them all in there, to deadening effect. Here, on the other hand, is Paul.
UPDATE: Fantastic comments–by Swan Lake Samba Girl, counter critic, and choreographer Lise Brenner. But don’t forget to read Paul’s review. (That’s why I haven’t pasted the comments in the entry: I don’t want people to skip over his fantastic review. It’s got the best final line of an essay I’ve read in a million years. Here!)
[Nureyev mania on Foot began with this commentary on the PBS documentary of his youthful days in Leningrad. After the above post, we noted with relief one review and another that did more justice to the man than the bio itself.]

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  1. says

    Oh beautiful, beautiful review, Paul!
    Both of the book and of his life! My favorite so far, definitely! I actually wasn’t aware of how many people, how many critics, really disliked Nureyev until Kavanagh’s book came out — it’s very disappointing to me.
    So, I’m so glad someone came down firmly on the opposite side, and so poetically too. I have to admit I’m struggling a bit through the book. It’s just so, detailed, as Paul says, and I find myself losing the forest for the trees. But I do appreciate all the very hard work she’s put into it and I feel like, if anything, it can kind of function as an encyclopedia if I need to look anything up. Thank you for the condensed version!

  2. says

    For realz. There seemed to be a cathartic air to all the Nureyev criticism. I posted about a couple reviews by Ms. Joan and by British critic John Carey:
    The bottom line is, when we write publicly about a sexually promiscuous figure, we still have to condemn them in some way. We can’t just say, “They were a slut, and good for them!” But it seems that critics are using the bio as a catalyst for long-held angst toward Nureyev. And Acocella’s rip on Nureyev’s intelligence is right in-line with Western derision of the body (ergo, dance and sex) as essentially unintelligent–without mind–or, literally, “mindless,” as Carey puts it.
    Apollinaire responds: thank you for this, c.c. I like yr interpretation for why they’re ripping him to shreds, but I’m not entirely sure if it’s the sex thing and the Western notions of the body thing or just that people can’t stand the idea that someone might take up more room than THEY get to and so they’re scaling him down to size. Or maybe they’re simply following Kavanagh’s passive-aggressive lead. (She lets everyone tell his story for him, so of course he looks terrible–people are prone to complain, assuming that the listener will use her good sense. Lesson #1: never assume!)
    Part of me–the cynical part–thinks Kavanagh must be connected to someone everyone in the sycophantic world of dance wants to stay on the good side of. (Why Paul–way over on the West Coast–wouldn’t know any better than to still love the guy. But, hey, *I* don’t know any better, and I’m here. I guess it goes to show who’s in and who’s out of the loop.)

  3. lise brenner says

    Thank you for pulling all these reviews together. I loved Nureyev, starting with the moment I first saw him, on film at what I am remembering as the Seattle Opera House, although that can’t be right. It was Corsaire pas de deux with Fonteyn. I also saw him dancing horribly with the Boston Ballet in NYC, and beautifully in London, and horribly again in NYC…
    The point about Nureyev was that there was no reticence. He was no post-modernist, he was not apologetic about the grand ballet gesture. Several years after I first saw him live, I did a reconstruction of Water Study, danced by a truly motley collection of workshop attendees, with Ernestine Stodelle. She introduced our performance (in August at Dia with no air-conditioning) in a 20 minute speech about The Dance. She was wearing lavender chiffon and looked glorious; the fact that only a few of us could actually DO the movement didn’t affect her feeling about the occasion in the slightest.
    The glorious arrogance of Ernestine, quoting Nietzsche and Doris Humphrey before a mediocre workshop performance; the grandeur of Nureyev insisting simultaneously on his right to get on stage and on the necessity for perfection in everyone and everyone else – it’s a kind of grand refusal to see reality that is required if you are dedicated to the idea that somewhere, danced perfection exists. This sentence is confused — but so is the mindset it springs from. I think its impossible to BE a dancer if you are not also utopian – and the ideal moment constantly slipping away is the other part of the deal. And that is deeply confusing in all kinds of ways.
    For me, who got to see it in action, the point of someone as talented, as ferociously determined, as glamourosly beautiful, and as singleminded as Nureyev was that he was there, proving that a certain kind of devotion to greatness was not only possible, but something to be waved like a flag (I’m getting into the ‘grandeur’ myself!). And that was so immensely refreshing, like standing under an icy waterfall. It woke you up.
    And it was adult. There was a person on stage, making choices which sometimes failed — but which were choices, and evidence, in fact, of the thinking engagement of the artist with his form.
    Apollinaire responds: WOW. This is wonderful. It’s so great to be reminded of that era–of Ernestine and LA Dance. And, yeah, the contemporary impulse, which is to flatten reality and insist on its flatness, is working at the opposite extreme.

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