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A Birthday Tribute to Rudolf Nureyev

PARIS, 17 March 1999 - Born on Saint Patrick's day 1938, Rudolf Nureyev would have celebrated his sixty first birthday today. It would be hard to find a greater tribute to his immense talent and the heritage he left behind him than the superlative performance of The Bayadere, on January 6th (anniversary of his death), at the Opera Bastille.

Elisabeth Platel's interpretation of Nikiya the temple dancer, passionate, intense and yearning from the moment she appeared on stage touched perfection; Agnes Letestu, as the proud and beautiful Princess Gamzatti, the role Nureyev gave her when she was only a member of the corps de ballet, was dramatically and technically brilliant, while Nicolas Le Riche as Solor, the Indian warrior unable to choose between the two of them, gave a heart-stopping performance.

When I first saw The Bayadere in October 1992, it was a magnificent production, full of Russian soul and Russian excess; a melodrama rendered more moving by the fact that it was obviously Nureyev's last ballet, despite the fact he had already begun working on The Prince of the Pagodas. It was the perfect vehicle to demonstrate the astonishing and diversified talent of the company he had made the best in the world since his appointment as artistic director almost ten years before.

But with time, it has become far more than that. A much sharper edge is being given to the dramatic side, with greater emphasis on the mime, making the events very real. It is no fairy-tale, but the drama of a man who hesitates between his heart and his duty, (indirectly bringing about the death of the one he loves), and the tragedy of two women who stop at nothing to keep him. It contains a whole range of human emotions; love, hate, betrayal, weakness, possessiveness, jealousy, and violence.

The unfolding of Nureyev's version, which closely follows that of the Kirov, ends when the despairing Solor resorts to opium and is transported to another world where he joins Nikiya in one of the most famous "white acts" in the history of classical dance.

In the purest example of the classical style of Marius Petipa, the spirits of long-dead Hindu temple dancers, thirty-two of them, make a slow, hypnotic descent in arabesque from a ramp at the back of the stage, appearing as if from heaven. Wreathed in mystery, a second's hesitation from any one of them could break the spell.

Patrice Bart (Nureyev's assistant from 1986, now ballet master associated to the director) responsible for this dream-like lyricism, spoke to me of the problems in staging the work six years after Nureyev's death. "Most of the corps de ballet are young dancers from the school who never knew Rudolf, have never danced in his productions, and are unfamiliar with the Petipa style which he made his own", Bart said.

"There are fewer people here now who worked with him and who understand why he demanded certain steps, how he wanted them done and above all, why everything had to be done in a specific way. Before, I worked with Genia Polyakov and Alexandre Kalioujny; we were Rudolf's children so to speak, but now they are no longer here, I am trying to pass on Rudolf's vision to the teachers as well as the dancers."

"Fortunately", he continued, "there are the etoiles who worked with Rudolf - Laurent Hilaire, Elisabeth Platel, Isabelle Guerin, Manuel Legris, and Florence Clerc and Ghislaine Thesmar who knew his way of working well, and are now teaching here. We are guarding our heritage preciously but it's a constant battle to keep the energy, rigour and "look" that Nureyev gave us.

"Because of the difficulties , we took extra care and time to do everything thoroughly, including renewing all the hand-embroidered white and silver tutus and it seems to have worked."

At its creation, on October 8th, 1992, the Paris dancers had barely three weeks to rehearse and stage the work, accomplished under difficult conditions as Nureyev was so tired. Only the third act, the "Kingdom of the Shades", had been danced before.

"I try to do as Rudolf did", said the ballet master, "He used to watch the very last member of the corps de ballet who would do anything for him. I tell them that they are all the danseuse etoile; all Nikiyas descending from the heights of the Himalayas, all bayaderes, pure, limpid, luminous. I tell them to breathe the music, and be proud, strong and moving, reminding them constantly they are individuals, not an army of robots."

Bart likened the ballet, with its spectacular, vast proportions to a grand opera, "Maybe Aida, created only six years earlier," he said, "With roles for the soprano, mezzo, tenor, and baritone. After all, the dramatic element in both works is a love tangle. Aida is the Ethiopian slave loved by Radames, who, like Solor in the ballet, is engaged to Amneris, a princess like Gamzatti."

Laurent Hilaire, who created the role of Solor, explained that each time the ballet was programmed, the company re-worked and re-thought things through. "The interpreters have matured," he said, "and each time the work is performed, discoveries are made and superfluous details discarded. These nineteenth century classics are the pillars of classical dance. Nureyev left his trace through his ballets and we are transmitting his works in such a way that they remain meaningful to a changing public.

"Before Nureyev, we had no tradition of mime here because we had a limited repertory. He brought us the best of Covent Garden as well as of the Kirov."

Which is where Rudolf Nureyev's own story with The Bayadere began.

He first danced the role of Solor with the Kirov company in Saint-Petersburg in 1959; when not dancing, he would watch every performance he could, memorising, analysing and absorbing not only the steps, but the style, construction, content and meaning of the work. And it was as Solor that he electrified audiences in Paris when he arrived with the Kirov in the spring of 1961.

The Kingdom of the Shades (there were twenty-four "shades") was the first major production he re-staged for Covent Garden in November, 1963, re-creating each step from memory. Nine years later, he was invited to mount it for the Paris Opera Ballet (this time, with thirty-two "shades").

He repeatedly asked Dame Ninette de Valois to present the complete work in London, but after Natalia Makarova's version (re-mounted for American Ballet Theatre in 1980) was programmed there in 1989, in honour of Margot Fonteyn's 70th birthday, history came full circle when his more opulent, more authentic staging became the property of the Paris Opera Ballet instead.

Worthy though Makarova's version may be, she nevertheless "condensed" the original four-act work into three, used an arrangement of Minkus' music, and made various cuts throughout, returning to the twenty-four "shades" (Petipa himself programmed 48 "shades"). Rudolf Nureyev went back to the original sources, using not only Petipa's notes, conserved in the Museum of the Bakhrouchine Theatre in Moscow to give authenticity to the dramatic scenes, but also obtained the original Minkus score.

Mario Bois (Musical Editions Mario Bois), described the day in 1989 when Rudolf Nureyev arrived in his office announcing his intention to re-stage The Bayadere using the complete original score of Ludwig Minkus, the official ballet composer of both the Bolshoi and Kirov companies.

"When I reminded him that it was not available outside Russia, he simply smiled telling me not to worry because he'd see to it", said Bois. "The next thing I knew", Bois continued, "was when Rudolf staggered into my office with what appeared to be the whole score of several ballets. He had been to Russia on Gorbachev's invitation for a lightening 48 hour visit, and amidst all his commitments with ceremonies, ballets, and meetings, he'd managed to get hold of photo-copies of Minkus' original score!"

"Goodness knows how he found the time", said Mario Bois, "but when I looked closely, I found that his photocopies had been made vertically instead of horizontally, as the machine had evidently been too small for the large manuscript. Consequently, each page had been photocopied twice, but none of the sheets of music corresponded to the next. In his hurry, Rudolf hadn't worried about the order, and nothing had been numbered."

"It was like a jigsaw puzzle, but after we got Act 1 together, we discovered that many other pages were barely legible as the machine had obviously been running out of ink..... and that on others, Minkus had only written piano music. Worse, while there were only one or two notes on some sheets, it seemed complete pages were missing. The work of reconstruction was diabolical, for we had an ocean of pages almost impossible to read."

"The main problem was the orchestration, which Rudolf couldn't write. He wanted John Lanchbery, who was so happy to help him, that he arrived almost immediately."

"But that wasn't all", Bois recollected, "for the evening before Lanchbery's arrival with his own incomplete score, I suddenly realised there was no piano at Rudolf's flat for them to work on."

"No piano. harpsichord", stated Rudolf.

"I remember looking at him in amazement. Beautiful though his harpsichord was, it was 18th century, and not properly tuned. I pointed out it was hardly suited to work out a whole ballet score."

"No piano. Harpsichord."

"In despair, it occurred to me that one of my children had a small electric organ; if Rudolf was adamantly against renting a piano, it was easily transportable, and certainly more practical than an antique harpsichord, and so there they were, John Lanchbery and Rudolf Nureyev working day and night on one tattered score and one incomplete one, on my son's electric organ!"

"Listening to the pair of them reading the music together must have been rather like watching Petipa with Tchaikovsky," recalled Bois, "for Rudolf started pouncing on certain melodies - identifying a pas de deux, then cutting things here, adding bars there, wanting a woman's variation where there was none. John's contribution was to find the linking material and ensure harmonisation with the barest of changes. After they'd sorted out the piano music, they began with the orchestration, and remaining very respectful to Minkus, put together a solid musical text in the six months before rehearsals began."

How sad then, that the Orchestre de l'Opera National de Paris, directed by Vello Pahn, couldn't have shown a little of that respect not only to Minkus, but also to Nureyev, Lanchbery, and the exceptional dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet.

On one of the evenings I was there, it was rumoured that the troupe had been hit by sickness and injury, but this was not evident. It was the motley collection of musicians in the orchestra pit who were ravaged by some vicious form of sleeping sickness, not that it prevented a smirking group from playing "footsie" during the overture. On another occasion, some were singing. And as far as their playing was concerned, at times they were barely audible, so much so, that it was reported that Isabelle Guerin (who created the role of Nikiya in 1992), threatened to leave because she couldn't hear the music.

It is a curious thing, but given Stravinsky or Prokofiev, the orchestra have no problems. They also tackle Wagner reasonably well. In the past, Lanchbery has occasionally had problems with orchestras who have deliberately played "ballet music" badly. Those concerned would do well to listen to Daniel Barenboim, who recently conducted Tchaikovsky for the Berlin State Opera Ballet, or the Bolshoi or Kirov orchestras, where the quality of the music is one of the highspots of the evening.

As long ago as 1838, Theophile Gautier wrote that the very word "bayadere" evoked "sunshine, perfume, and beauty. His article spoke of the "dreams in the form of shuttered pagodas, idols of jade, and jewelled elephants with howdahs on their backs", as in Petipa's ballet. And no one has re-staged Petipa's works quite like Rudolf Nureyev. His elephant is blue and gold, turquoise, silver and white, the very colours of the Kirov Theatre. It is a wondrous creature which fires the imagination as does this last, great reconstruction of Rudolf Nureyev.

But how extraordinary that it was a Russian who brought back to France what a Frenchman had given to Russia.

Patricia Boccadoro
© Culturekiosque
March 17, 1999


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