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On View: 'Rudolf Nureyev: A Life in Dance'

The late Russian dancer is the subject of a new exhibition at the De Young Museum in San Francisco that features some of his opulent costumes.

November 24, 2012|By Liesl Bradner
  • The costume for Rudolf Nureyev in the role of Romeo, Act 2, "Romeo and Juliet," Opera national de Paris, 1984.
The costume for Rudolf Nureyev in the role of Romeo, Act 2, "Romeo and… (Pascal Francois, CNCS )

"You live as long as you dance" was a mantra Rudolf Nureyev practiced throughout his celebrated career. January is the 20th anniversary of the great Russian dancer's death at age 54, and the De Young Museum in San Francisco is marking that with the chance to study and contemplate the life and legacy of one of ballet's biggest pop stars in "Rudolf Nureyev: A Life in Dance."

The exhibition features photographs, videos and other ephemera, but the stars of the show are 70 exquisite costumes from the ballets Nureyev danced in and choreographed, including "Swan Lake," "The Nutcracker" and "Romeo and Juliet." The opulent wardrobe pieces, valued from $45,000 to $95,000, are a testament to his obsession with detail.

"He was incredibly particular when it came to his costumes. He knew exactly which fabrics to use," said curator Jill D'Alessandro. "He believed the costume needed to finish the movement, so when the dancer stops, the costume should continue to move and float, like in Ginger Rogers' feather number in his favorite scene from 'Top Hat.'"

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He was also specific about how he wanted his doublet cut. He liked it short because he was only 5 feet 7 and wanted to create a longer line with a wide expanse under the arm.

The show, organized in collaboration with the Centre National du Costume de Scène in France and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, has its sole U.S. stop at the De Young.

Nureyev, born in 1938 aboard the Trans-Siberian express in Siberia, was 23 when he defected to France from the Soviet Union in 1961. As a former member of the Kirov Ballet, he staged many of the great Russian ballets rarely performed outside his homeland such as "La Bayadère" and "Raymonda."

It was during his tenure as director of the Paris Opera Ballet that some of the finest costumes were crafted. Here he worked primarily with Greek-born designer Nicholas Georgiadis. "They both shared a love for the baroque, so you see very rich gold lace and braid, paste jewels, faux pearls and exquisite fabrics," said D'Alessandro.

Although the majority of costumes were donated by the Nureyev Foundation to the French center, several are on loan from the Royal Opera House in London's Covent Garden, where Nureyev met his longtime ballet partner, Margot Fonteyn. Among the pieces are a luscious long velvet cape from "Giselle" and four selections from Nureyev and Fonteyn's signature ballet, "Marguerite and Armand," choreographed by Sir Frederick Ashton.

Several videos of Nureyev's performances are sprinkled throughout the show, including Pierre Jordan's 1972 grainy art film "Un danseur" (I Am a Dancer). "Watching that, I understand his ability to defy gravity. He just floats in the air," said D'Alessandro.

Newspaper clippings from Nureyev's visits to the Bay area are also displayed, among them one from the night in 1967 where after a performance, he and Fonteyn were arrested at a Haight-Ashbury party that police raided over suspected presence of marijuana.

The exhibition runs through Feb. 17.

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