Rudolf Nureyev: The Royal Ballet's Russian Soul (Part Two)
A look at Nureyev's early career with The Royal Ballet and his staging of Raymonda.
After the success of La Bayadère Nureyev was back in John Tooley’s office hoping to persuade him and Frederick Ashton to let him stage another Russian classic, Petipa’s three-act Raymonda. This was a late masterpiece by the ballet master of the Imperial Ballet, according to the handful of people in the West who had seen it. “Fred would probably have described it as an ‘old warhorse’ and would have seen that it had both good and bad elements to it,” Tooley suggests. “But this was going to be a huge investment and we kept asking ourselves, ‘Are we right to invest this amount of money in a 19th-century ballet, even if it was choreographed by Petipa, when there are so many other works which we ought to think about doing?’”
Did Nureyev, coming from the Soviet system where budgets were as much political as economic, not understand the financial implications of staging Raymonda? “He was unaware of the cost of things,” says John Tooley, “although he knew perfectly well about money. I vividly remember walking down Jermyn Street with him and we looked into a shop which had the most beautiful four-poster bed and Rudolf said, ‘I’m going to get that!’ And then he looked at it and said, ‘No, I haven’t got enough money, so I’ll have to dance several times more so I can actually buy it!’ He was aware of the fact that you had to get money to get things.”
There was a compromise. If Nureyev wanted to make a three-act production of Raymonda then he would have to make it with The Royal Ballet’s second company. It was agreed that Nureyev and Fonteyn would dance Raymonda with The Royal Ballet touring company at the Spoleto Festival. But how to secure the Kirov’s version of the ballet with Petipa’s original choreography? Doreen Wells, who danced the first night in Italy in August 1964, likens it to the plot from a James Bond movie. “Nureyev could not fully remember all the ballet from his early years at the Kirov so it was necessary to smuggle the original choreography from St Petersburg as it had been when Petipa created the ballet in 1898. [And it was done] through a young Canadian ballet dancer who had a scholarship and could come and go easily to and from the Soviet Union. It was brought out in an empty thermos flask; the notes were provided by Nureyev’s great teacher and master Aleksandr Pushkin.”
As rehearsals for Raymonda were under way, the plot thickened – to the point of curdling. John Tooley remembers the problems of trying to stage a full-length classical ballet away from the Company’s base with Nureyev falling out with his designer Beni Montresor. “Rudolf kept saying, ‘This is no good. This is not what I want.’ But it was all too late because we had to go on with what Beni had designed.”
The final blow came days before the first night. Margot Fonteyn had to leave the Company to fly to her husband Roberto Arias, whose life was in danger following a shooting incident in Panama. Doreen Wells took Fonteyn’s place having learnt the title role in little more than 24 hours. The performance was a triumph.
Yet The Royal Ballet’s main company never took Nureyev’s three-act version of Raymonda into their repertory. A young Anthony Dowell saw the whole ballet in 1965 when Australian Ballet brought Nureyev’s version to London. “I realized even with my junior eyes that there wasn’t much substance to it in terms of story. Along with Don Quixote I think that it’s one of the thinnest plots ever.” By Act III the meagre plot has become an excuse for pure dance. “Curiously enough Act III stands up quite well on its own,” says John Tooley. “It’s a very good series of divertissements – a useful one-act addition to the repertory and a good representation of 19th-century Russian ballet.”
So, as with La Bayadère, Rudolf Nureyev taught The Royal Ballet the final act of Raymonda. John Tooley often watched the rehearsals. “Rudolf was an immensely hard worker… He was endlessly demanding and he wouldn’t accept it when a dancer said, ‘I can’t do this’. He would say ‘Come on, you can’. And then he would stretch them beyond what they thought they could do.”
Monica Mason agrees with the suggestion that not everyone could cope with Rudolf. “It was the people who really weren’t afraid of working hard that he had the most patience with. If they were one hundred per cent committed, he would be the same. And he would go over and over something, just like he did for himself.
“He would always do full class in the morning and then take rehearsals at noon and sit on that chair at the front and jump up and demonstrate and then go back and sit down. He always watched from the front with his little woolly hat pulled down over his head to keep him warm.”
But what about the famous Tartar temperament? “I don’t think that I was ever nervous of Rudolf or frightened of him. Later on when he became very exhausted and was unpredictable, then his moods used to unsettle and scare me. But not that much, because one knew that he got rid of his furies, venting them brilliantly! The swearing was terrible but you knew it was never personal!”
If The Kingdom of the Shades and, above all, Raymonda Act III, are Nureyev’s lasting legacy to The Royal Ballet, there is also something less tangible but just as important for the Company. Doreen Wells argues that, “he certainly changed the male dancer as far as The Royal Ballet was concerned. He made him more important.” As Monica Mason will tell you, he also raised the bar for everyone in the Company: “Whenever he was on here at the Opera House everyone pulled their socks up; it always seemed to me the level just rose because of his great performing skills.” Doreen Wells would go further: “He was a true star. It was his energy and his style. He really had the magic of the dance in his soul.”
This article was originally published in About the House, a quarterly magazine received by the Friends of Covent Garden. Raymonda will be staged as part of the Royal Opera House’s 2012/13 season, opening on 22 December in a mixed bill with The Firebird and In The Night.