Rudolf Nureyev

Eumenis Megalopoulos | May 29, 2023

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Rudolf Nureyev (in Tatar: Рудольф Хәмит улы Нуриев; in Bashkir: Рудольф Хәмит улы Нуриев) was a Russian classical dancer, choreographer, and ballet director of Tatar origin who was born on March 17, 1938, in Irkutsk, Siberia, Soviet Union, and died on January 6, 1993, in Levallois-Perret, Hauts-de-Seine, France.

Gifted with an exemplary technique, Rudolf Nureyev is considered one of the greatest classical dancers and choreographers of his time and nicknamed the "Lord of the Dance".

Rudolf Nureyev was one of the best interpreters of the classical repertoire, but he also expressed his talent in contemporary dance and was one of the first dancers to take a new interest in the baroque repertoire. His fame, due not only to his talent but also to the extraordinary course of his life, went beyond the world of dance.

He marked the history of ballet by forming two mythical couples:

Rudolf Nureyev was director of the Paris Opera Ballet from 1983 to 1989, and also ballet master and chief choreographer until 1992. As a choreographer, he revisited all the great classical ballets, giving a very important place to the men, who until then had often been relegated to being only the stooges of the ballerinas, by introducing variations for men, notably for Swan Lake.

Nureyev thus renewed the entire repertoire of Marius Petipa, which had not appeared in Paris until then. Rudolf Nureyev's years at the Paris Opera are considered a "golden age" for ballet and his choreographies are regularly revived there.


The Nureyev family was originally from Ufa. They came from a Bashkir and Tatar peasant background of Muslim culture. Rudolf Nureyev's grandfather had the surname Fasli. But an error in registration at the town hall made the surname "Nureyev" the family name. Khamet Nureyev literally means "Khamet son of Nour" meaning "the light" in Arabic.

Rudolf Nureyev is the son of Farida, born in Kazan, Tatarstan, and Khamet Nureyev, born near Ufa, Bashkiria. He is the youngest of three sisters: the eldest, Rosa, is ten years older than him, Lilia, five years older, is deaf, and Razida, who is three years older.

In his autobiography, Rudolf Nureyev recounts his birth on March 17, 1938 between Lake Baikal and Irkutsk, Siberia, in a third-class train car on a journey to Vladivostok, then in the Soviet Union. Farida was joining her husband in the Trans-Siberian Railway. Khamet Nureyev had just been given a house in Vladivostok where he had been assigned as a "politrouk", a political instructor, in the Red Army.

Rudolf Nureyev says he has no memory of his father as a child. Indeed, his father was mobilized at the time of the invasion of the USSR by Germany, in 1941, when Nureyev was only three years old. He did not see him again until 1946. This partly explains their relatively conflicting father-son relationship.

The beginnings in Ufa

In 1941, the family was evacuated from Moscow and found refuge in Ufa, where Rudolf Nureyev grew up. The family shares its isba with three other families. The living conditions were precarious: the house had no water or electricity. The climate is very harsh, cold and dry, the food is scarce and consists mainly of boiled potatoes.

At school, the other children make fun of Rudolf Nureyev because he has no shoes and wears the coat of one of his sisters.

Ufa has a good level of theater. From a very young age, Rudolf Nureyev had a passion for music. He had a revelation on New Year's Eve 1945: he attended a patriotic ballet entitled The Song of the Storks with the prima ballerina Zaïtouna Nazretdinova. He found his vocation and started dancing the same year, at the age of seven.

He started dancing folk dances at school in amateur groups and with the Pioneers. Then he was recommended to Anna Oudeltsova who, after eighteen months, directed him to Elena Vaïtovitch. Both of them made him understand that dance is not only a matter of technique. Seeing his potential, they suggested that he continue his training at the Vaganova Ballet Academy in St. Petersburg, considered by them to be the best school in the world.

In 1953, at the age of 15, Rudolf Nureyev began to act as an extra in the city's theater. He is paid a little, which allows him to learn with the company. Progressing quickly enough, he joined the ballet company. The company is invited to Moscow for a ten-day tour. Nureyev was able to make the trip, replacing an injured dancer at short notice in a character dance solo. He didn't know the steps, didn't have time to rehearse, and it was the first opportunity for him to draw on his memory, where everything he saw was recorded instantly. He was injured during a performance.

Offer of the Bolshoi School in Moscow

Rudolf Nureyev recovers to audition at the Bolshoi dance school in Moscow where he is accepted, but he does not enter, also refusing to join the troupe in Ufa which offers him a full-time contract.

From Ufa to Saint Petersburg

Rudolf Nureyev prefers to audition for the Vaganova Ballet Academy in Saint Petersburg. After eleven years of dance classes, including folk dance, in Ufa. He entered the Vaganova Ballet Academy in St. Petersburg in the sixth of eight divisions in 1955 at the age of 17. He was accepted with the following comment: "Either you will be an extraordinary dancer, or the model of failures, and more likely the model of failures".

He spent three years at the Academy linked to the St. Petersburg Mariinsky Ballet - then called the Leningrad Kirov. In the second year, he was promoted to the eighth division, the senior class. In the third year, Rudolf Nureyev repeats the final year. He kept his spontaneity and his determination to work.

After graduating from the Vaganova Ballet Academy, Rudolf Nureyev joined the Mariinsky Ballet in 1958, where he spent three years. He quickly became a soloist and performed the leading roles in The Corsair, Don Quixote, Swan Lake and Sleeping Beauty.

His "defection", passage to the West at Paris-Le Bourget airport

Europe discovered Nureyev one evening in May 1961 during a tour of the Kirov in Paris.

Nureyev irritated the Soviet authorities with his antics, his hours spent in the Louvre, Montmartre and scouring the Parisian nights after the performances in the company of the dancers of the Paris Opera, Claire Motte, Claude Bessy, Jean-Pierre Bonnefous and the choreographer Pierre Lacotte, as well as Clara Saint, a mutual friend of Chilean origin and niece of André Malraux. Nureyev was summoned to return to Moscow, while the ballet left for London.

On June 16, 1961, at Le Bourget airport, Nureyev fooled his KGB guards with the help of Clara Saint. She alerted the inspectors on duty and told them: "There is a Russian dancer downstairs who wants to stay in France. They get close to Nureyev, which allows him to rush to them and ask for political asylum.

Following his defection, Nureyev was hired to perform with Nina Vyroubova in Sleeping Beauty. They fell out for five years after he added a few bars to Vyroubova's last solo.

Meeting with Erik Bruhn

Rudolf Nureyev accompanies Maria Tallchief to Copenhagen where he meets the Danish dancer Erik Bruhn, whom he admires a lot because he saw him in an amateur film. They had a love affair that did not end until Bruhn's death in 1986. Nureyev, who spoke little English, met in Copenhagen a compatriot, Vera Volkova, who gave him his first dance lessons outside the USSR. They remained friends all their lives.

Beginnings in the United States

Nureyev made his American debut with Sonia Arova in collaboration with Ruth Page's Chicago Opera Ballet in 1962. Together they performed the grand pas de deux from Don Quixote in New York. Earlier in 1962, Nureyev made his American television debut dancing the pas de deux from Auguste Bournonville's "Flower Festival in Genzano" with Maria Tallchief for the show Bell Telephone Hour.

Dancer at the Royal Ballet of London

From 1962, Rudolf Nureyev danced for several years at the Royal Ballet, Covent Garden, London.

Margot Fonteyn, a 42-year-old star of the Royal Ballet, became his partner. The two of them became the most famous couple in the world of classical dance. They maintained a close friendship for the next thirty years.

Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev performed Giselle together for the first time on February 21, 1962. When the curtain fell that evening, the audience was so stunned that there was a momentary silence before the applause resounded, followed by 23 encores.

On the stage of the Vienna Opera

In 1964, Rudolf Nureyev created his first choreography of Swan Lake for the Vienna State Opera.

In this ballet he plays the role of the prince alongside Margot Fonteyn who plays Odette and Odile.

At the end of a performance, there are 89 curtain calls, a unique event in the history of ballet.


"Nureyev's footwork was unequalled," explains Mathias Heymann, star dancer at the Paris Opera. On stage, Rudolf Nureyev springs to life, as if mounted on springs.

For Brigitte Lefèvre, director of the Paris National Opera Ballet from 1995 to 2014, Nureyev had "a way of doing that, the beauty of the lines, the requirement, this way of doing great difficulties, a technique, this crowd, this knowledge and this curiosity."

The ballet superstar

He is the sacred monster who moves the crowds like a rock star, a character with an incredible destiny.

Rudolf Nureyev performs on the stage of all the major international companies. He earns 7.9 million dollars a year, the highest salary a dancer has ever received.

On July 12, 1967, after a performance at the Royal Ballet in San Francisco, Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev are invited by young "hippies" to join them to celebrate the Summer of Love, with its share of LSD and marijuana. Arrested in the "hippie" district of Haight-Ashbury by the police who suspect them of drug use, they are not prosecuted.

In 1977, he was offered the position of director of the Royal Ballet. Rudolf Nureyev refused, preferring to pursue his career as a principal dancer.

Director of the Paris Opera Ballet

In the 1980s, Rudolf Nureyev danced regularly at the Paris Opera.

He was appointed Director of the Paris National Opera Ballet on September 1, 1983 by Jack Lang, then Minister of Culture.

His first years as director brought criticism from within the opera house.

Rudolf Nureyev makes the Paris Opera Ballet more attractive and internationally known.

He brought a large number of choreographers to the Paris Opera, including William Forsythe and Maguy Marin.

Rudolf Nureyev was the director until 1989.

In retrospect, in an interview, Sylvie Guillem responds to David Lister, journalist and co-founder of The Independent newspaper, "Oh yes," she replies, "the funeral where all the people who sought to dismiss him for years were saying what a great man he was."


Also a choreographer, an admirer of the French school and an unconditional admirer of Bournonville and Petipa, Rudolf Nureyev remounted many ballets after Petipa in Europe.

These great ballets were for the most part unknown to Westerners.

He introduced the Parisian public to Act III of La Bayadère in 1961, and then staged his own versions after Petipa.

It was in Vienna that Rudolf Nureyev staged his first Swan Lake (1964) and his first Don Quixote.

Later, he returned to stage Sleeping Beauty (1966), The Nutcracker and Raymonda.

In 1982, Rudolf Nureyev became an Austrian citizen and was named an honorary member of the Vienna Opera.

He appeared in 1977 under the direction of Ken Russell in the lead role in Valentino, which received a mixed reception from critics and audiences despite some remarkable scenes, including the tango of Valentino and Nijinsky played by Anthony Dowell.

After many requests, he finally obtained from Gorbachev, at the end of 1989, a forty-eight hour visa to Leningrad to see his mother. He returned to St. Petersburg for the first time, quoting Ossip Mandelstam's verses: "Returned to my city known to tears...", to visit his dying mother. He brings back from this trip a photocopy of the complete score of La Bayadère by Minkus with the intention of reassembling it with the original notes by Petipa.

Struggling with illness, Rudolf Nureyev remounted the entire ballet La Bayadère in its 1877 version in October 1992.

Artistic influences

Rudolf Nureyev brings together the highly technical Russian school and the racy French style.

Above all, he respected the French school of dance and brought theatricality to it.

For Mathias Heymann, star dancer of the Paris Opera, Rudolf Nureyev is the model.

In addition, Rudolf Nureyev changed the perception of male classical dance, attaching great importance to the choreography of the dancers.

The spirit of Rudolf Nureyev

"Rudolf's desire to "go to the limit", applied to his own person, to the most dangerous limits, was also valid for the dancers he made work. Patrice Bart.

Manuel Legris, who was named star of the Paris Opera Ballet by Rudolf Nureyev, described him as follows: "Rudolf Nureyev was a high-speed train. After being booed, he pushed down his beret and worked again."

"He always expected a lot from a dancer and his artistic life. Rudolf Nureyev worked every day. He was there, at the Opera, from ten in the morning to seven at night. He leaves behind the image of an exceptional dancer, demanding and charismatic."

His numerous choreographies of classical ballets are now widely recognized. The Opéra national de Paris organizes several performances of his ballets each year.

Rudolf Nureyev's successors as director of the Paris Opera Ballet, Patrick Dupond and Brigitte Lefèvre, have often testified to the legacy and indelible mark left by Rudolf Nureyev at the Paris Opera.

As director of the Paris Opera Ballet, Rudolf Nureyev appointed five star dancers, sometimes called Nureyev "babies" because, like their master, they had great careers:

Rudolf Nureyev keeps the tradition of French ballet alive.

Nathalie Aubin, subject at the time, notes: "At the Paris Opera, it is Patrice Bart who most perfectly embodies the descent of Nureyev.

The record of the Nureyev era stands out when Benjamin Millepied takes the reins of the Paris National Opera Ballet in November 2014.

"Rudolf Nureyev made the Paris Opera Ballet sexy."

In 2013, inspired by Rudoph Nureyev, Pascal Crantelle, artistic director of the Alexander Thaliway company, wrote and created Comment j'ai croisé Rudolf Nureyev dans l'ascenseur, a theatrical and choreographic show at the Théâtre du Marais in Paris.


Rudolf Nureyev says of him that he is direct and frank. He is extremely vigilant. As a result, he is critical of himself right to the end, as can be seen from his comment on the video "Rudolf Nureyev at the helm": "They say I am the greatest dancer in the world. - It's true... It's not true. It's true and it's not true. I train, that's true. I practice every day. I am a student like the others. Right, disciplined, obedient, neither black nor white."

Manuel Legris describes Rudolf Nureyev as "very generous with shining eyes".

Mythical side

Rudolf Nureyev became a mythical figure. Brigitte Lefèvre, director of the Paris Opera Ballet from 1995 to 2014, describes this aspect of Rudolf Nureyev as follows: "When the ballet performed in the 1980s in the United States, it was based on Rudolf's fame. People knew little or nothing about our company. I think it's great that Rudolf Nureyev was able to have this mythical side. People are convinced that they have seen him dance... even if they haven't."

Rudolf Nureyev remains synonymous with great ballets with formidable technical difficulties for the stars.

The era of Nureyev

Rudolf Nureyev is considered a sacred monster, who has left the Paris Opera Ballet an exceptional classical repertoire.

Intransigent and passionate, he restored the Paris Opera Ballet to its first international position, organizing three consecutive tours to the United States after an absence of more than thirty years. He brought the Company back to its highest artistic level and gave the youngest dancers a chance without always respecting the tradition of the ranks. He has had a profound impact on a whole generation of dancers, demanding total commitment from them and constantly pushing the limits of what is possible.

"Rudolf Nureyev made the love of dance explode in me, he gave me ballet as a passion.

"It was an absolutely magical discovery of a new world. But at the same time, if we did not do our job well as dancers, our ears were ringing! Nureyev had sacrificed his life to dance, and he demanded the same of us. But we were ready to give our all not to disappoint him. He was a very great man.

Ballet culture

For Rudolf Nureyev, the star of the company is the corps de ballet. That's how Rudolf Nureyev works.

Patrice Bart became Rudolf Nureyev's right-hand man.

In Rudolf Nureyev's years as director of the ballet, he is the heart and Patrice Bart the soul of the Paris Opera Ballet.

Attendance at rehearsals

Rudolf Nureyev constantly pushes the limits of what is possible. He is always very demanding, but he is already demanding of himself.

This fact, Manuel Legris experiences it with his partner Élisabeth Maurin. The couple performed Romeo and Juliet at the Paris Opera at the age of 17. The impression of Rudolf Nureyev is very strong.

The two young dancers interpret the roles of Romeo and Juliet for the first time.

Manuel Legris remembers Rudolf Nureyev, describing the circumstances of these rehearsals.

"For the balcony scene, he was practically with us, with me and Elizabeth on stage. I was very impressed that he wanted to be there, to participate, because he was often present backstage, but because of this theater, its openness to the stage and the design of the set, I had the feeling that he was there with us on stage. It was very impressive.


After his mission as ballet master at the time of Rudolf Nureyev, Patrice Bart remains guardian of the temple. In 1990, he became associate ballet master at the direction of the Paris Opera Ballet and held this position until his retirement on March 30, 2011.

Manuel Legris continues Nureyev's style to this day.

Inspired by Rudolf Nureyev, Manuel Legris is making a great career as a star dancer. Director of the Vienna Opera Ballet since September 1, 2010, Manuel Legris follows in the footsteps of his former master and follows the rehearsals of the Vienna Opera Ballet.

Rudolf Nureyev triggered Sylvie Guillem's career by naming her étoile when she was only 19 years old, which was an unprecedented event. He would prefer to avoid this phase, in which a great dancer is considered a star without being named a star, so that the dancer has to wait and suffer because she wants to dance now when her wings are big.


In 1984, while Rudolf Nureyev was losing a lot of weight and suffering from a persistent fever, he underwent medical examinations and discovered that he had HIV (AIDS).

In 1988, during the performance of La Sylphide by Bournonville Flemming Flindt at La Scala, the first critical voices, doubts and gossip about the dancer's increasingly disappointing form were heard.

For many years he denied the fact; when, around 1990, he became obviously ill, he courageously fought his illness without stopping dancing. He tried several experimental treatments that did not slow down the inevitable degeneration of his body. He appears thin and has more and more difficulty to move.

However, he had to face reality. At that time, his courage was admired by many of his detractors. His physical decline made him suffer, but he continued to fight by appearing in public. During his last public appearance, on October 8, 1992, for the premiere of his production of La Bayadère at the Palais Garnier after Marius Petipa, the audience gave him a standing ovation.

Rudolf Nureyev died in a clinic in Levallois-Perret three months later, on January 6, 1993, at the age of 54. He is buried in the Russian cemetery of Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois, in the Essonne. Entirely covered with mosaic, his tomb is in the form of a kilim (sumptuous carpet that falls on each side of the stone in shimmering folds) covering the trunks of the wandering. It is the work of Ezio Frigerio, decorator who often collaborated with Nureyev. It is one of the few non-Orthodox tombs in the Russian cemetery.

The property and art collection of Nureyev's apartment, 23 quai Voltaire in Paris (where a plaque pays tribute to him), are dispersed in a historic auction. His villa in Capri was bequeathed to his sister after a long trial.

On January 6, 1993, on the occasion of Rudolf Nureyev's death, the presenter of the France 3 television news, Christine Ockrent, made the announcement:

During the same program Pierre Bergé, director of the National Opera of Paris at the time, remarks:

Rudolf Nureyev is the lord of the dance, an unclassifiable dancer.

Rudolf Nureyev was made a Knight of the Legion of Honor in 1988.

On October 8, 1992, the Minister of Culture at the time, Jack Lang, gave him the highest cultural award, making him Commander of the Order of Arts and Letters.

The National Choreographic School in Ufa (Bashkiria) has been named after him since 1997. His name is also given to the annual classical ballet festival of the Ufa Opera, as well as the Kazan Opera. A rehearsal hall of the Vaganova Academy is named after him.

At the Opéra national de Paris, an evening of dance "Tribute to Rudolf Nureyev" takes place every ten years. They took place on January 20, 2003. The 2003 tribute began with a parade of the Paris Opera Ballet, followed by a film presented by the Cinémathèque de la danse in collaboration with the Institut national de l'audiovisuel.


  1. Rudolf Nureyev
  2. Rudolf Noureev
  3. ^ a b Lord of the dance – Rudolf Nureyev at the National Film Theatre, London, 1–31 January 2003 Archived 1 December 2017 at the Wayback Machine, by John Percival, The Independent, 26 December 2002.
  4. ^ Bridcut, John (17 September 2007). "The KGB's long war against Rudolf Nureyev". The Telegraph. London. Archived from the original on 22 March 2016. Retrieved 22 May 2010.
  5. rʊˈdolʲf xɐˈmʲetəvʲɪt͡ɕ nʊˈrʲe(j)ɪf ; parfois transcrit Noureïev (nɔ'riev).
  6. De façon générale, les œuvres de Rudolf Noureev sont les ballets les plus représentés.
  7. Il faut ajouter que dans sa carrière, Brigitte Lefèvre n'a pas eu la chance de faire la connaissance de Rudolf Noureev en personne, malheureusement. Nathalie Aubin note : « à l’Opéra de Paris, c’est Patrice Bart qui incarne le plus parfaitement la descendance de Noureev. […] Les autres ne l’ont peut-être pas assez connu. ».
  8. ^ Il direttore del Teatro Kirov (ora Teatro Mariinskij), forse perplesso dall'età già avanzata di Nureev (solo diciassette anni ma di circa tre anni in ritardo rispetto ai neoiscritti), espresse un giudizio molto aspro sul suo provino: «Молодой человек, вы можете стать великим танцором или большой неудачей... и вы, вероятно, будете большой неудачей» [Giovanotto, potrai diventare un grande ballerino, oppure un grande fallimento... e probabilmente tu sarai un grande fallimento.] Dato il suo temperamento è molto probabile che il giovane Nureev, stizzito, abbia reagito male a un giudizio simile.
  9. ^ La pena inizialmente fu di quattordici anni ma venne poi dimezzata perché la fuga non fu premeditata. Molti giornalisti del tempo definirono questo suo coraggioso gesto "il grande salto" e Nureev divenne così il primo artista sovietico a varcare i confini di Stato per abbandonare la propria patria; in seguito seguirono il suo esempio anche i colleghi Baryšnikov e la Makarova.
  10. ^ L'isola di Gallo Lungo fa parte del piccolo arcipelago delle tre isole Li Galli. Già nel 1924 questo gruppo di piccole isole fu acquistato da un altro coreografo e ballerino russo: Léonide Massine, che fece costruire sulle rovine romane una villa che l'architetto Le Corbusier abbellì ulteriormente.
  11. Erinnerungen an Rudolf Nurejew. «Wer sonst, wenn nicht ich?». In: NZZ. 6. Januar 2003.

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