Helene

Julie Kavanagh's Nureyev Biography

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One aspect of the book I didn't have any space for is the disconcerting collusion of journalist / critics and the dancer / company at the time. One cannot help but hope things have gotten a little better in the intervening decades

There's the strange case of Nigel Gosling, one of Nureyev closest London friends, who also happened to be a critic writing under the nom de plume Alexander Bland. Even Kavanagh has a hard time at some points in the book telling the two personae apart. In the USA there's the critic John Martin writing virtual love letters to Kirstein (of all people!), and a minor case is a Viennese critic who's sure she is the woman who can save Nureyev's life.

Do you think Kavanagh does a good job alerting us to this? In other words, is the collusion disconcerting in itself, or because JK can't "unpack" it? Do say more--yes, it certainly might be disconcerting on a local level (or for other reasons? say more if you can), but culturally it's a fascinating reflection of mid-century critical practices.

Well, I think Kavanagh does a good job in that she isn't "unpacking" it too much. At first it looks as if she thinks nothing out of the ordinary is going on (which is probably true, considering the era we're talking about). Only later in the biography does she explicitly say something about this critic / intimate friend collusion. Perhaps you would like the other way around, and have her raise the red flag immediately; however often it works far better if the writer hands the reader the material and lets him / her draw the conclusions first. This is a rather thankless strategy, since a significant number of readers will think they're smarter than the writer.

BTW returning to the TMS discussion ("is there Too Much Sex in the book?"), I couldn't help but notice there is yet another thing Richard Buckle's Nijinski and Kavanagh's Nureyev have in common, in that both books inform us about the size of the subject's genitalia at some point. All on hearsay, of course. I wonder if this is a standard issue in bankers' of politicians' biographies, too.

http://www.hermanstevens.nl/result_non-fictie.asp?Id=62

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I couldn't help but notice there is yet another thing Richard Buckle's Nijinski and Kavanagh's Nureyev have in common, in that both books inform us about the size of the subject's genitalia at some point. All on hearsay, of course.

Not entirely, unless she didn't see the well-known photo of Nureyev many of us did in the early 70s (I don't know about Nijinsky.).

I wonder if this is a standard issue in bankers' of politicians' biographies, too.

Probably only if they are going to get impeached for it.

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Well, I think Kavanagh does a good job in that she isn't "unpacking" it too much. At first it looks as if she thinks nothing out of the ordinary is going on (which is probably true, considering the era we're talking about). Only later in the biography does she explicitly say something about this critic / intimate friend collusion. Perhaps you would like the other way around, and have her raise the red flag immediately; however often it works far better if the writer hands the reader the material and lets him / her draw the conclusions first. This is a rather thankless strategy, since a significant number of readers will think they're smarter than the writer.

I guess I'm old school: the author's thesis should come first, followed by the support. I want a roadmap of what I'm going to read, esp. if I have to slog through mounds of primary source evidence, even if it's juicy stuff. And I can still draw my own conclusions, I hope!

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I'm reading it right now and can't put it down. I've gone through over 200 pages in less than 24 hours. I think this will be the definitive biography. I particularly like Kavanagh's painstakingly researched account of the Russian years, and the letters from Bruhn to Nureyev. Authors had always spoken about the "love affair" but it never took shape for me until I started reading the biography. Lines like "Forgive me if I did not help enough. I hate to see you upset; it hurts you, and it hurts me" all of a sudden made their love very believable and human.

*And reading this book makes me, again, long for a biography about Bruhn.*

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My copy arrived. I've only had time to look at the pictures, many of which were entirely new to me. Fonteyn is astonishingly beautiful in the shots of her dancing with Nureyev. There's a magnificent 1967 photo of Nureyev's "famous legs"-- bare, muscular, veined, sculpted.

I want to second canbelto's wish for a detailed biography of Bruhn (especially Bruhn the artist). I was intrigued by Lupe Serrano's comments about dancing with Bruhn, which can be found in an interview/discussion with Kirk Peterson (Ballet Review, , Summer 2007).

Then Erik Bruhn came [to Ballet Theatre]. I danced a lot with him. It was wonderful. He was so beautiful, so pale, you felt inspired to do your very best. But he was also a bit of a hypochondriac. If he wasn't feeling a hundred percent, he just couldn't make himself dance. He was such a perfectionist, he felt obliged to do better than the past performances, so sometimes he would really be down. We would be posing berore the start of the Don Q pas de deux and he would say, "I hope you're 'on' because I don't think I'm going to be much help to you today. And he would grunt on the first lift. So on the one hand you were inspired to do you very cleanest, purest, best dancing. On the oyther hand, he could be a little down on himself, which is hard to ignore.
Serrano has some interesting comments about dancing with Nureyev, too.

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I, too, have been plowing through this fascinating tome, though not as quickly as has canbelto! I've made it as far as 1963 - about page 250. First thoughts: very detailed, thoroughly researched but not the smoothest of reads, even though most of the notes are in the back. It's a give-and-take of scholarliness versus readability, isn't it? With a subject like Nureyev, even the most lumbering sections maintain interest.

I'm only on page 250 and how many lovers has he had??? :cool:

Seriously, there are a lot of eye-opening details here. For example, I almost fell out of my chair last night while reading the part about the NYTimes' critic, John Martin, being in cahoots with Lincoln Kirstein to prevent Nuruyev from joining NYCB, so as to not jeopardize the company's planned 1962 tour to the USSR. Martin seems to have been America's 'unofficial cultural ambassador' to the USSR...thus explaining his poo-pooing of Nureyev's talents during the early years.

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For example, I almost fell out of my chair last night while reading the part about the NYTimes' critic, John Martin, being in cahoots with Lincoln Kirstein to prevent Nuruyev from joining NYCB, so as to not jeopardize the company's planned 1962 tour to the USSR. Martin seems to have been America's 'unofficial cultural ambassador' to the USSR...thus explaining his poo-pooing of Nureyev's talents during the early years.

So did I. If you consider that John Martin had previously been the NYCB's nemesis, it's doubly outrageous.

BTW as far as I'm concerned Kavanagh's biggest blooper occurs early on when she mentions Yakov Flier and misidentifies him as a violinist who won the Tchaikovsky Competition. Flier was, obviously, a pianist.

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Herman, Kavanagh has a number of bloopers related to facts about the 1950s/Leningrad but I think that it is balanced-off by the wonderful service that she has provided in helping to fill-the-gap on Nureyev's pre-defection career for non-Russian-language readers. Up to now, the best tome on RN's early years was a ca-1995 book that I bought in St Petersburg titled "Three Years on the Stage of the Kirov Theater" with the recollections of many of the friends, admirers and colleagues who were later interviewed by Kavanagh for her book.

Another interesting nugget: It's amazing how much contempt 1960s Kirov principal Sergei Vikulov seems to have had for RN. This shows up in the book even more clearly than it did in the recent PBS documentary. The irony is that Vikulov was one of the up-and-coming male dancers who most benefited from the departure of Nureyev in 1961, taking over many of RN's roles. :bow:

Well, I've made it too 1964...page 300 and counting...darn this work! Maybe I will finish the book by the holidays?

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My jaw dropped to the floor when I read that the 1958 Moscow Competition's winners were Rudolf Nureyev and Alla Sizova, but Yuri Soloviev, Ekaterina Maximova, Vladimir Vasiliev, and Natalia Makarova were also given gold medals. The 1950s had IMO maybe the greatest bumper crop of Russian dancers since the early 1900s, when no-namers like Anna Pavlova, Tamara Karsavina and Vaslav Nijinsky graced the MT stage ... :bow:

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Herman, Kavanagh has a number of bloopers related to facts about the 1950s/Leningrad but I think that it is balanced-off by the wonderful service that she has provided in helping to fill-the-gap on Nureyev's pre-defection career for non-Russian-language readers. Up to now, the best tome on RN's early years was a ca-1995 book that I bought in St Petersburg titled "Three Years on the Stage of the Kirov Theater" with the recollections of many of the friends, admirers and colleagues who were later interviewed by Kavanagh for her book.

Thank you, Natalia. Did any boo-boos stand out for you in particular?

I'm enjoying the reports of those who've posted so far. Please keep reading and posting. :)

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What I love so much about the book is that Kavanagh paints such a vivid picture of the people in Nureyev's life. I think I almost got more insight about Margot Fonteyn from reading this book than I did from the entire Daneman bio. But other people really come alive too -- Erik Bruhn, Frederick Ashton, Ninel Kurgapkina, Teva Kremke, Alexander Pushkin and his wife Xenia, the Goslings, Lincoln Kirstein, Mr. B, etc. I am just jealous of Kavanagh -- researching Nureyev's life must have been so fascinating. And that's another plus about Kavanagh. She gives the impression that she really enjoyed writing about Nureyev.

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It's all come home to roost. I've slowly been reading Birgit Nilsson's autobiography, and when I got home today, in addition to the latest Dance View -- yay! -- there were the following packages from amazon.com:

Alex Ross's The Rest is Noise

Alexander Meinertz's Vera Volkova

Irene Nemirovsky's Daniel Golder

Julie Kavanagh's Nureyev: The Story

When it rains, it pours. This should keep me busy until the Vancouver Olympics...

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Marc Haegeman did a series of interviews with French etoiles for DanceView over the past few years. Odd, if Nureyev's relationship was so antagonistic with the company that each of them spent a good chunk of their interviews explaining, in explicit detail, what they got from him, how much they admired him, etc.

Actually, this is a complicated topic, and from what I've read, there might be a generational divide: I guess the French etoiles you mention are those who became etoiles when he was the director (Legris, Hilaire, Guerin, Maurin...) or those who had been promoted just before (Platel), but he was in far less good terms with most etoiles from the previous generation, and especially male ones, perhaps because there was some sort of competition about casting (he liked to cast himself quite a lot) and publicity. I remember reading that at some point the only "senior" male principal who was in good terms with him was Jean Guizerix. And the Renault anecdote seemed to have provoked some scandal when it happened (I read about it in Renault's obituaries a few years later), as well as a few other incidents (throwing things at dancers, insults, etc.)

Probably his tenure was seen more positively in retrospect, when people were able to compare the shape of the company before and after, but from reviews of this period (I was about 15 when he left the company direction and wasn't interested in ballet back then), it was not a quiet period at all... And for example, Mario Bois (the widower of the étoile Claire Motte, who was a close friend of Nureyev and who was chosen by him as a ballet master before her early death) wrote in a book about him about how difficult it was to deal with him sometimes, even when defending his own interests (if I remember correctly, Bois was involved in the negociations for his POB contract, on Nureyev's side, and one problem was that Nureyev refused to stay more than 6 months a year in France because he didn't want to pay any income tax).

Well, one should also take into account that the POB isn't an especially easy company to deal with (ask Violette Verdy for example)... :)

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Thanks for giving us that background, Estelle. As you say, a complicated topic.

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I'm almost finished with the book, and have found it fascinating. One of the things I most admire about it is Kavanagh's ability to place Nureyev in context. Using his own personal identification with Byron, she manages to show that Nureyev's importance, like Byron's, was less as an individual great artist than as a cultural and artistic force who upended received ideas, broke through over-consticting conventions and remade a generation's ideas of art and culture. Like Byron, he suffered a bad childhood, came to sudden and disorienting fame, exploded an entirely new way of seeing things that built on the best of the old, and redeemed his chaotic life by re-invigorating a foundational culture - the Paris Opera Ballet instead of Ottoman-occupied Greece - that needed to be freed of corruption. She never pushes any of this too far, but the parallels are certainly there.

Instead of indulging in moralistic judgments or the tiresome psychobabble that disfigure so many biographies of great figures, she tries to see his behavior whole, as part of the total force he was. The lack of preaching allows the facts to speak for themselves all the more powerfully. His awfulness was part of his greatness, part of how he functioned - something that many of the people who put up with his frequently appalling behavior recognized. Nor does she glorify him - he doesn't need it. I think it's a fine piece of work. While re-inforcing my own decidedly mixed memories of him on stage, she also greatly expands my understanding of who he was and what he accomplished, and at what cost to himself and everyone around him.

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His awfulness was part of his greatness, part of how he functioned - something that many of the people who put up with his frequently appalling behavior recognized. Nor does she glorify him - he doesn't need it.
This is something that makes me look forward even more to reading the biography.

Now that I think of it, "his awfulness was part of his greatness" seems to summarize the long discussion we had about Nureyev shortly even before the book was published. No one distilled it down to those exact words, but the idea is there in the complexity of responses -- the accumulation of many posters who have been fascinated, disturbed, overwhelmed and influenced by Nureyev over the years.

Thanks for the review, popularlibrary. Welcome to Ballet Talk!

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I'm almost finished with the book, and have found it fascinating. One of the things I most admire about it is Kavanagh's ability to place Nureyev in context. Using his own personal identification with Byron, she manages to show that Nureyev's importance, like Byron's, was less as an individual great artist than as a cultural and artistic force who upended received ideas, broke through over-consticting conventions and remade a generation's ideas of art and culture. Like Byron, he suffered a bad childhood, came to sudden and disorienting fame, exploded an entirely new way of seeing things that built on the best of the old, and redeemed his chaotic life by re-invigorating a foundational culture - the Paris Opera Ballet instead of Ottoman-occupied Greece - that needed to be freed of corruption. She never pushes any of this too far, but the parallels are certainly there.

Instead of indulging in moralistic judgments or the tiresome psychobabble that disfigure so many biographies of great figures, she tries to see his behavior whole, as part of the total force he was. The lack of preaching allows the facts to speak for themselves all the more powerfully. His awfulness was part of his greatness, part of how he functioned - something that many of the people who put up with his frequently appalling behavior recognized. Nor does she glorify him - he doesn't need it. I think it's a fine piece of work. While re-inforcing my own decidedly mixed memories of him on stage, she also greatly expands my understanding of who he was and what he accomplished, and at what cost to himself and everyone around him.

Thank you for that review, popularlibrary. I enjoyed reading it. Let me take this opportunity to welcome you to the board. I hope to read much more from you.

I don’t have any problems with biographers making judgments, even ‘moralistic’ ones, if it seems to be called for. If a biographer wants to point up the fact that throwing around anti-Semitic slurs, for instance, is a lousy thing to do no matter who you are, I’d call that fair comment (although it really doesn’t need highlighting, the act pretty much speaks for itself). Some of Nureyev’s behavior does seem to have been part of what he needed to function in the world, but some of it also sounds to me as if he may have been testing people to see what he could get away with or exploiting the fact that people with less power couldn’t hit back (sometimes literally).

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Shortly after the televised documentary, there were a number of posts here discussing Nureyev's attitudes towards women. The Kavanagh book makes a couple of interesting points about this.

Nureyev was quite capable, just as has been reported here, of using incredibly strong, vulgar expletives towards women, especially when frustrated in rehearsal. This, from a description of a tour of a small group of Royal Ballet dancers in 1963:

On the plane to Athens he asked [Joan Thring] if she had booked him a room with a double bed, and at her reply, "Not Specifically," spat out a Russian expletive and stalked back to his seat. Deciding "If I let this pass, I'm ruined," she marched up to where Rudolf and Erik were sitting, and demanded to know the meaning of the word. The noun p--da ("c--t") is one of the four cornerstone obscenities known in Russian as mat -- underground steet words that have far more impact than their English four-letter equivalents, and are never used in a woman's hearing. When Erik asked Joan what had caused the outburst, she explained, relishing Rudolf's evident embarrassment. "He was shrivelling by that time. Shrivelling."

Margot was p--da , too (sometimes negigibly softened to p--dushka) -- frequently on this tour.

But apparently Fonteyn took Nureyev's outbursts in stride and rode fairly comfortably above them. Like Thring, Fonteyn could handle him.

On the other hand, Kavanah has a long discussion of Nureyev's staging of the Kingdom of the Shades scene from Bayadere, a ballet almost unknown in the West at that time. Everyone remembers that Nureyev expanded the man's role in the Scarf Duet. But Kavanagh's discussion of his intensive and highly suppportive work with the women in the company may be less familiar. About Fonteyn:

Goaded by Rudolf to "pull up [your] socks. Compete with me," she did exactly that, executing Nureyev-style marvels such as a thrillingly fast diagonal of chaines that overturned his and everyone else's vision of her.

There is also discussion of the way he brought out the best in Merle Park, Monica Mason, and Lynn Seymour in their individual Shades solos, working to expand and highlight their individual strengths. All remain grateful for this experience. Mason, for instance

danced the waltzing-cabriole solo, which Rudolf made even slower than the Kirov version to showcase [her] big jump. "He wanted it done like a man's variation." He encouraged her to exploit hidden reserves of power and to create theatrical tension by making the audience aware of the effort involved. For her, working with Rudolf was a revelation -- "the beginning of understanding something about the art." As she recalls, "I'd never been taught anything so precisely, so absolutely exactly. He described everything with such nuance ... and he could demonstrate it so that you could see .. But he didn't just leave you with a picture of him doing it. He then described to you how you would feel doing it."

Nureyev was then 25 years old. This is a more complex man -- and a more committed artist -- than sometimes appears in the literature. It's the long, wonderfully remembered passages focusing on ballet itself -- its creation, rehearsal, and performance -- that make this book especially worth reading. And reading slowly.

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I had just reached Rudi's and Margo's arrest in San Francisco when happened to switch on Classical Arts Showcase while walking from one room to another. I heard familiar music and came back. There was Svetlana Beriosova, svelte and crisp, in a black tutu, just finishing a series of fouettes of impeccacble precision. Then, briefly, there was a very young Nureyev -- in white tights, but made to look rather plump by the camera.

Wow! Talk about coincidences. It happened so quickly that I didn't get to read the or register what the music was. Could this have been the appearance referred to on page 284?

On his last day in America, having spent ten hours in a Brooklyn TV studio filming the Diana and Acteon duet with Svetlana Beriosova, he rushed straight to Idelewild Airport as soon as the last take was finished, and caught a 9:30 flight [to Paris]that night.
The few seconds I saw certainly didn't look or sound like D&A. I would have thought Balck Swan. But I could be wrong. Has anyone seen the entire televised pdd?

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I think it's Black Swan, Bart. It's on the Bell Telephone Hour performances DVD (Nureyev and Bruhn's appearance on BTH.)

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Thanks, Alexandra, for that information. Another dvd for the well-travelled shopping cart. :blink: I was actually impressed by the quality of the image -- much better than it would have been in the 50s. The list of performances (and partners) for both Nureyev and Bruhn is impressive.

The excellent reviewer on the Amazon site points out the chance to see Bruhn in Bournonville, too and eavluates different performances. Here is her list of the contents of this dvd:

The Erik Bruhn Bell Telephone performances are:

1. Don Quixote grand pas with Maria Tallchief

2. Swan Lake black swan pdd with Sonia Arova

3. Coppelia pdd with Sonia Arova

4. Romeo and Juliet balcony scene (Bruhn's own choreography) with Carla Fracci

5. La Sylphide grand pas with Carla Fracci

The Nureyev selections are:

1. Flower Festival in Genzano with Maria Tallchief

2. Le Corsaire pdd with Lupe Serrano

3. La Esmeralda 'Diana and Acteon' pdd with Svetlana Beriosova

4. Swan Lake black swan pdd with Svetlana Beriosova

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But apparently Fonteyn took Nureyev's outbursts in stride and rode fairly comfortably above them. Like Thring, Fonteyn could handle him.

Noting pedantically for the record that this doesn’t make such behavior all right or pardonable. And it would be a lot harder for him to get away with it today.

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But apparently Fonteyn took Nureyev's outbursts in stride and rode fairly comfortably above them. Like Thring, Fonteyn could handle him.

Noting pedantically for the record that this doesn’t make such behavior all right or pardonable. And it would be a lot harder for him to get away with it today.

Absolutely. And Kavanagh includes an episode, which I read after posting this, in which one of Nureyev's outbursts resulted in reducing Fonteyn to tears. Worse -- this happened later in their relationship, when Fonteyn was no longer the useful and desired partner she once had been, and when she had significant problems relating to her crippled husband and declining physical stamina.

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On the radio (WNYC) last week, Ute Lemperer was playing songs about or that reminded her of the "energy" of Berlin back in the days of "Cabaret," and she played several songs by and performed by Jacques Brel. I hadn't heard these for years and years, but it was stirring. His energy, commitment, beauty and passion reminded me so much of everything we have been saying about Nureyev.

He smoked himself to death. So sad. He was a brilliant performer.

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bart writes (moved from the General Reading forum):

Just finished Nureyev.

I had to take a break from it occasionally. His was not a long life, as things go nowadays, but it was packed with activity and new directions, and Kavanagh has talked to just about everyone he ever met. Everything was hugely fascinating, but exhausting. Perhaps this was what it felt to be traveling or working on a project with Nureyev.

I suspect we'll all be consulting this book regularly as the years go by.

He was truly a force of nature and a one-of-a-kind -- brillliant, annoying, witty, self-indulgent, melodramatic, energetic, vengeful, sentimental, capable of incredible spurts of generosity to friends, sometimes paranoid and miserly towards the end. He was like a magnet, attracting adoration and sometimes onerous servicing from friends who loved him without always liking him. His legacy -- the ballets, the videotaped performances, the "stories," and the Rudolf Nureyev Foundation and Rudolf Nureyev Dance Foundation -- will keep people coming back for more for a very long time.

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