“As long as my ballets are performed, I will stay alive.” Rudolf Noureev
4 February, 2016: the sensational departure of Benjamin Millepied from the Paris Opera as the director of dance. In the end, he will have spent only a few months at the head of this institution which is so difficult to get moving…
I immediately think of another director who had many visions of reform, of modernity, who was also very impatient to overthrow this hierarchy. He had the audacity to re-choreograph Swan Lake! Nominated in 1983 by Jack Lang, he will remain at the heart of this institution for six years, and will leave an unforgettable impression…
What a coincidence that February 3, 2016, on the eve of Benjamin Millepied’s departure, the book Noureev: Unpublished Confessions appeared in stores, translated by Ariane Dollfus (Arthaud). An autobiography written in 1962, the work has never – until now – been translated into French.
Rudolf Noureev (New-ray-yev) – a brilliant character worthy of Tolstoy, a child of communist Russia, and moreover a political advocate for those who said no to the Party in the age of the Gulag, who fled his country.
In 1961, he chose freedom, but at quite the price. He did not see his mother again until 1987, during a trip to Moscow. She died shortly afterwards.
Noureev spoke of his childhood as an apocalyptic world of extreme poverty. One plus, however, was that the children had to join the Pioneers (Pioniery), which proposed many artistic activities, including dance. Noureev soon began practicing folk dance with the organization. By dint of hard work, the young rebel earned a place in the Kirov Ballet (now the Mariinsky Ballet) at the age of twenty.
Dance would become his whole life. Every morning at ten, he had scheduled “study,” even if his nights were exhausting, as was often the case. He was a tireless worker who offers us some unforgettable pictures.
An iron-like will allowed him to scale the craggy communist system. He moved directly toward his fate – dance – by following only that which was connected to it. Such was the case with music; he could never have imagined his life without it. Visual art inspired his stage decoration; as a great collector, he was fond of textiles, specifically rugs that reminded him of imperial Russia.
The strange and impetuous young artist danced unforgettable duos with Margot Fonteyn, whom he charmed deeply. She hosted him in London, and together they formed a dazzling couple in Romeo and Juliet and other shows. It was the unlikely alliance of an aloof British training and a volcanic Russian formation.
He was a visceral presence. A friend told me the story of his arrival in her gallery, in his typical hat and boots – a visit she will never forget…
La Bayadère could be the biggest ballet of Noureev’s life, the one in which he stupefied the audience by his breathtaking appearance, the one with which he seduced Paris upon his 1961 arrival. The one in which he evoked admiration in full costume in 1992, even when he was very sick.
A perpetual nomad, he finally assumed Austrian citizenship in 1989.
“My nationality is as a dancer…,” he was known to have said. “Life’s dull and I’m dull too, but when I get on stage, I hope that it’s a bit less boring for other and for myself.” Rudolf Noureev
Rudolf Noureev was without a doubt the greatest dancer of the twentieth century, and when he left us in 1993 – entirely too early – his casket was carried by dancers inside the Opera Garnier.
Today, we are left with his choreography, which amazes at every performance – The Nutcracker, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, and for a few months more, this Bayadère.
Florence Briat Soulié
Translated by Landon Kramer Vassar College, Vassar-Wesleyan Program in Paris Fall 2016.