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CRITIC'S NOTEBOOK

Nureyev: dancing around THE LIES

New Projects Put A Legend's Truths To The Test.

August 19, 2007|Lewis Segal | Times Staff Writer

Rudolf NUREYEV lied about his life so often, to so many people, that any responsible biographer or documentarian must virtually cross-examine every living source to separate his extravagant fictions from bottom-line certainties. Nureyev liked to say that when he was a child, his father beat him, but he also said that this same abusive parent bought him an accordion -- both assertions untrue and only the earliest deceptions in his complex and often contradictory life story.

Yet despite all this dissembling -- and the fact that it's been nearly 15 years since the Russian-born ballet star died at age 54 of complications from AIDS -- he's rarely been far from the spotlight. And soon he'll be in its full glare again, with the publication of a massive new book about him and the telecast of a related PBS show revealing new facets of that life and his very, very fictionalized self-image.

Coming in the PBS "Great Performances" series on Aug. 29 (9 p.m. on KCET-TV Channel 28), "Nureyev: The Russian Years" uses interviews with his friends along with previously unseen film footage to trace his rise from the poverty of his childhood through the acclaim he received as a member of Leningrad's Kirov Ballet. It ends with an account of his becoming the first Cold War ballet defector in 1961 and a précis of his worldwide triumphs.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, August 19, 2007 Home Edition Main News Part Page News Desk 1 inches; 45 words Type of Material: Correction
Rudolf Nureyev: A caption accompanying a photograph of Rudolf Nureyev on Page F12 in today's Arts & Music section implies that the picture was taken in Russia, during the early part of his career. The undated photo was taken in London after his 1961 defection.
For The Record
Los Angeles Times Sunday, August 26, 2007 Home Edition Sunday Calendar Part Page Calendar Desk 1 inches; 38 words Type of Material: Correction
Rudolf Nureyev: A caption accompanying a photograph of Rudolf Nureyev last Sunday implied that the picture was taken in Russia, during the early part of his career. The undated photo was taken in London after his 1961 defection.

In a recent phone interview, the documentary's writer-producer, John Bridcut, spoke of how the many previous films about Nureyev "always skipped over this early period quite fast because of the need to get to the golden years with [English ballerina Margot] Fonteyn. So I felt this allowed us a lot of opportunity to say something fresh on the program.

"I may be speaking out of turn here," Bridcut continued, "but there is a general perception that Nureyev was a young, aspiring talent who was made by his defection and that the West is where his career really took off. What I hadn't appreciated was that he was a big star in Leningrad before that.

"Not only was his time in Russia very fruitful, he seemed to have quite an amazing degree of artistic license in the Soviet Union -- probably more, in a way, than he would have been allowed in a Western company. The Paris Opera Ballet and the Royal Ballet would have been much more severe with him if he'd started trying to break all the rules and to defy convention in the way that he had."

Bridcut's film makes extensive use of home movies shot by Teja Kremke, a young man from East Berlin who became Nureyev's lover when they were both studying ballet in Leningrad. And Kremke's tragic story (virtually unknown until now) is also one of the many fascinating byways in "Nureyev: The Life," Julie Kavanagh's exhaustive and often startling study of the dancer and his world, coming from Pantheon Books on Oct. 2.

Where Bridcut makes Nureyev a dedicated working-class hero (allowing for a few temperamental lapses here and there), a much darker view of the man emerges from Kavanagh's research.

"Rudolf was never in love with Teja," she said this month on the phone from London. "He was really using Teja for what he could do for him, and as soon as Rudolf met Erik [Bruhn, the Danish-born international ballet star], he had no purpose anymore and was just dropped."

Kavanagh's book cites newly discovered love letters to document what she calls "the extent of Rudolf's passion for Erik, which I think will completely negate any question of whether he was in love with Margot: the fact that he canceled performances to go to Australia to be with Erik, something Rudolf would never do for anybody else."

In the 10 years she spent on her book, Kavanagh gained access to Nureyev-related KGB files, did extensive personal interviews, read all the other biographies and, inevitably, had to debunk her subject's alternately self-protective and self-aggrandizing tall tales. "He would tell one person one thing and someone else the complete opposite," she observed. "Saying that he made Margot pregnant, for example. There were a lot of fictions. He would say things to shock, and in the end I had to go with my own judgment.

"I think when you spend such a long time on a biography, in the end you have a sort of psychic link with your subject. I think that's what I had with Rudolf. I kind of knew what motivated him and when he was talking bull."

Staying too long at the fair

Kavanagh's book pays abundant tribute to Nureyev's greatness as a dancer -- even, if you like, his genius. But for Southern California audiences, who saw much more of him in extreme artistic decline than at his height, there's something alienating in all the poetic blather about how, during those endless, ghastly final tours and guest appearances, he was raging against the dying of the light, or denying death its dominion, or how, in the words of his friend and colleague Ghislaine Thesmar from the PBS documentary, "He went onstage and danced like some people go to the temple and pray even if they can't walk anymore."

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