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