Wednesday, November 15, 2006

The Beginning: Nureyev Part I

“Susceptibility to ballet is a way of being susceptible to animal grace of movement.” Edwin Denby, 1949.

Strangely, my interest in ballet began not with watching it, but reading about it. In the spring of 1999, I read a review in the Houston Chronicle of Diane Solway’s biography of the great ballet danseur Rudolf Nureyev (1938-1993), Soviet defector (his defection in Paris in 1961 made the front page of all the major papers) and pop superstar. I picked up Nureyev: His Life (1998) on the basis of that review, knowing very little about the subject apart from a vague memory of announcements of his death from AIDS complications or about his art form other than sugar-coated The Nutcracker images (I had been taken to see The Nutcracker a few times as a child).

And yet Nureyev and ballet were once a huge well-spring of culture – the “ballet boom” begun in the 50s and lasting into the 60s and 70s. Our Western society has forgotten personages like Princess Charlotte of Wales (died 1817) and Lillie Langtry (died 1929), but in less than 30 years we have come to ignore an art form and its personages. Balanchine went from avant-garde to institution to trademark, and now many do not know that he is considered an artistic genius of the 20th century, alongside Picasso and Stravinsky. When Robert Garis writes (in Following Balanchine, 1995): “[The happiness from watching Balanchine ballets] was one of the great things in our lives, and one of the great things of the century,” I wonder how this could have been ignored and forgotten? Questions of how a culture begins to lose itself and forget parts of its identity and associations are ones I will expand on in the future, but suffice it to say that those questions, the collective amnesia about ballet as a cultural phenomenon, initially drove my interest in ballet as much as anything else.

Solway’s biography of Nureyev reads like a long encyclopedia entry with interview notes and old reviews added. While this approach to biography would be unbearably boring with some subjects, Nureyev’s life was lived so much LARGER than life, so obsessed with performance, pursuing pleasure, spanning continents (he was born, appropriately, on a train: the Trans-Siberian to Vladivostok) and the public response to him in his heyday was both rapturous and manic. There are heaps of good old self-determination in his life story: “Everything I have, these legs have danced for,” says the man who went from having to share his sister’s shoes living in a room with two other families in post-WWII Soviet Union to owning homes in America, London, and Paris, and his own Mediterranean island. There is also sorrow: his slow physical decline, unable to give-up the spotlight so the public’s last memories of him as a dancer were of his clear physical struggles. Solway never captures who the man is, and halfway through the book I realized I needed to learn about this man and this subject the only way one really can: by watching dance.

I will continue with Nureyev Part II in the coming days.

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