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Fortress Nureyev

March 22, 1987|LEWIS SEGAL

TORONTO — Dozens of dancers, crew members and company alumni are jammed in the wings of the O'Keefe Centre waiting to rehearse the grandiose processional finale of National Ballet of Canada's 35th Anniversary Gala. But Rudolf Nureyev is on stage and in no mood to leave.

While working through partnering logistics in the Bejart/Mahler duet "Songs of a Wayfarer" with company principal Frank Augustyn, he had demanded more sound from the stage loudspeakers and complained about the lighting.

Now Nureyev suspends the dancing altogether to reset cues and colors. He wants the stage brighter, bluer and peppers his instructions with enough obscenities to make the stage very blue indeed.

"Par for the course," says a crew member backstage almost affectionately, "catty sarcasm and swearing." A technician, in another conversation, concurs. "He's enjoying a little joke out there. He hasn't changed."

Twenty minutes later, the finale rehearsal at last begins and Nureyev heads for his dressing room. En route, he passes and pauses to hear a comment from a Los Angeles dance writer on assignment for an article timed to the "Nureyev and Friends" performance in Shrine Auditorium on Saturday.

"I was interested in the way you took charge of the rehearsal to make the ballet look the way you remembered it," the writer began. "I do hope we will have a chance to talk more before you leave Toronto."

This is a major understatement. Although the writer flew to Canada with the promise of an hourlong interview, Nureyev had spoken with him for only 20 minutes, just before the run-through. And now Nureyev bridles at the request for more interview time, suddenly advancing on the writer and jabbing his finger in the narrowing space between the two.

"I want you to know your questions upset me so much I was unable to dance (at the rehearsal)," he says, his voice rising. "By dredging up all that crap, you force me to talk about it at the next interview, and the one after that." He then angrily denounces what he calls the writer's "Gestapo tactics" at the interview.

Wedged between Nureyev, a line of waiting corps members and the wall, the writer can't retreat, much less escape. He apologizes "profoundly" for upsetting Nureyev, but declares, very deliberately, that "both personally and racially I cannot identify with your term 'Gestapo tactics.' "

Nureyev looks startled and changes his Nazi insult to the generic "accusatory interrogation." But the writer won't accept that label, either. Insisting he had behaved with respect toward a man he recognizes as one of the greatest dancers of the 20th Century, he mentions that he has a number of less provocative but still pertinent questions that he hopes Nureyev will find time to answer.

At this moment, a National Ballet crew member comes to fetch Nureyev for the end-of-finale tableau, and it isn't clear whether Nureyev's loud "Nyet!" is directed at him or the writer.

In any case, it represents his last word on the subject. The next morning a publicist claiming to speak for Nureyev orders the writer not to talk to the dancer at a photo session that day. ("If you ask him any questions, he will walk out.")

During the shoot, Nureyev himself treats the writer with silent disdain. And though requests to complete the interview are subsequently made through Nureyev's management and Ambassador Foundation, the Los Angeles sponsor of "Nureyev and Friends," nothing happens.

Back in his hotel, the writer plays back the Nureyev tape, secretly a little flattered by the notion that he'd intimidated the monstre sacre of world dance, the superstar who has been almost as well known for his explosive temperament as his virtuosic dancing in the quarter century since he defected from the Kirov Ballet.

Unfortunately, the fantasy of being recognized as the Rambo of dance journalism immediately disintegrates: The cassette proves the writer a solicitous pushover, awed by Nureyev to the point where he almost apologizes for the toughest questions.

Through those questions, the writer intended to discover Nureyev's response to the incredible storm of abuse he endured in the last few years--the terrible rumors about his health, the headline-making feuds with choreographers, the accusations by critics and by dancers in his own Paris Opera Ballet that, at 49, he had nothing left to offer but was obsessed with keeping himself in the spotlight.

"Embattled Nureyev" was the first working title of the story, but events in Toronto soon changed it to "Rudi Dearest."

Just before the interview, for instance, a visiting photographer gave Nureyev a set of prints taken last July of his Paris Opera Ballet performances in New York. Nureyev looked at them blankly, as if he didn't recognize himself or his company members, so the photographer nervously added, "These are when you danced with Misha at the Met."

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