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Rudolf Nureyev: The Royal Ballet's Russian Soul (Part One)

A look at Nureyev's early career with The Royal Ballet and his staging of La Bayadère’s ‘Kingdom of the Shades’.

By Christopher Cook (About the House writer)

15 September 2012 at 10.07am | 4 Comments

In the popular imagination Rudolf Nureyev was everything a classical dancer ought to be – larger than life and rarely out of the headlines. He was also the greatest male dancer of his generation and indubitably the most thrilling classical stylist of the second half of the last century. Those members of The Royal Ballet who were fortunate enough to have worked with Nureyev have never forgotten the experience. But he bequeathed more than great performances to The Royal Ballet. There’s a choreographic legacy too.

Of course, the dancing was sensational. Quite simply Rudolf Nureyev danced with a passion and style that audiences at Covent Garden and elsewhere in the West had never seen before. As Doreen Wells, who partnered Nureyev in his first production of the full-length version of Raymonda, remembers: “He was wonderful to dance with, very exciting. He had amazing energy.”

It was restless energy that drove Nureyev’s dancing, just as it was a restless dissatisfaction with life in the Kirov company that had led him to defect at Le Bourget Airport in Paris in June 1961. Indeed, Nureyev’s whole career was characterized by a need to do new things and to do them differently. Having established a thrilling partnership with The Royal Ballet’s own star, Margot Fonteyn, giving her a new lease of creative life that was little short of miraculous, Rudolf Nureyev announced that he wanted to create his own productions as well as dance.

He had in mind two works that The Royal Ballet didn’t have in its repertory. La Bayadère and Raymonda were full-length ballets from the great Russian classical tradition that had been choreographed by Marius Petipa for the Imperial Theatre, the Mariinsky in St Petersburg, in the second half of the 19th century. They were ballets that Nureyev had learnt while growing up in the Kirov company that had inherited, and developed, the Russian classical tradition after the Revolution.

In 1963 Frederick Ashton had taken over the directorship of The Royal Ballet from De Valois and John Tooley was Assistant General Administrator of the Royal Opera House. And it was to Ashton and Tooley that Nureyev went with plans to stage La Bayadère. Tooley recalls the gist of the conversation: “Nureyev said he wanted to do these pieces while he could still remember them. These ballets were very much his heritage… and because of his standing within the Company and with audiences in London he thought, ‘Well I’m going to push my luck here and see if I can persuade them to do them.’” Nureyev managed to push his luck only so far with John Tooley. “Rudolf ideally would have liked to do the whole of Bayadère. But we did say ‘no’, and since The Kingdom of the Shades was the most famous and the most appealing part of the ballet we thought, well, let’s do that for starters.”

The result was Nureyev’s Kingdom of the Shades quite as much as Marius Petipa’s, as Anthony Dowell remembers. “He very much put his own mark on it. He created challenges, for example for the corps de ballet. In some productions of La Bayadère all those girls come on in the long line-up and go into their arabesques standing on one leg, which when you are dancing in a group is already pretty nerve-racking because you feel that if you wobble you’ll be seen even more. But instead of having them just standing, Rudolf made them dip into a penchée in the arabesque, which is even harder.”

John Tooley says, “Rudolf pushed everybody to extremes. That long opening sequence was a real eye-opener for the corps de ballet because they had never been exposed to anything requiring such precision.”

The former Director of The Royal Ballet, Monica Mason, who danced in Nureyev’s Bayadère, thinks it was the young Russian’s respect for The Royal Ballet’s British tradition that made him so attractive as a teacher and producer. “He never tried to make Royal Ballet dancers look like the Mariinsky dancers. I think that it was so generous and so intelligent really that he didn’t see our qualities as limitations. He saw us as a group of young people who were extremely keen to work for him and wanted to learn. He had lots to give us and we were as hungry as could be.”

Read part two of Rudolf Nureyev: The Royal Ballet’s Russian Soul.

Raymonda Act III opens on 22 December. Frederick Ashton’s Marguerite and Armand, which was created for Margot Fonteyn and Nureyev, opens on 12 February and La Bayadère opens on 5 April.

This article was originally published in About the House, a quarterly magazine received by the Friends of Covent Garden

By Christopher Cook (About the House writer)

15 September 2012 at 10.07am

This article has been categorised Ballet and tagged About the House, La Bayadere, Marguerite and Armand, Raymonda, raymonda act III, Rudolf Nureyev

This article has 4 comments

  1. In the past few years here in America,pbs refuses to let ballet lovers such as myself watch any ballet specials with the exception of the Nutcraker every Cristmas! All they now show or have on pbs are opra`s and or pop music. I`m a disabled senior who can`t even afford to go into New York City anymore to go to the ballet anymore! pbs is doing itself a great discervice to those people who love to watch the ballet by just ignoring ballet lovers such as myself. Please, I`ve tried to convince these pbs that ballet lovers such as me deserve to be treated better with more respect to our wish for more ballet specials besides The Nutcraker and Swan Lake.some of us disabled and senior citizens cannot afford to go to the ballet anymore due to the high cost of just going into New York City just to go to see a good ballet such as Gisel and La Byader, Raymonda, We want our fare share of ballet and noit this rediculous just plain opera and pop music! Please tell pbs to let ballet lovers all over that we want our faire shre of cultureal entertainment on pbs and American Masters too! thanks.

  2. Sorry about the last postbut I`m very angry at pbs in New York for ignoring the ballet fans such as myself. Unfortunately I don`t have Email due to privacy concerns here in America,I don`t even know how to use Email,maby you could possibly cionvince pbs in New York to give us ballet fans a fair share on the telly since most of television is just awful these days what with so much violence in movies and television,etc.

  3. Richard responded on 6 January 2013 at 6:17pm Reply

    Totally agree with the above sentiments. We get no ballet on US television anymore. I think the only reason we ever did - between '75 and '85 essentially - is because lots and lots of teenage girls had a crush on Baryshnikov.

  4. What wonderful videos - Thankyou. Marvellous to see these again

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