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Julie Kavanagh's Nureyev Biography


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#136 kfw

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Posted 04 December 2007 - 09:06 AM

papeetepatrick, I think a biographer can choose her subject and what she wants to focus on. In other words, she can focus on what she thinks is worthy of our attention, and leave out or de-emphasize the rest. Of course you're right that art isn't necessarily enobling. I should have said it's potentially enobling. I think of Farrell telling her students that they are servants of the dance (I think I have that right), which is to say in part that they are serving beauty. It's also true that work has dignity, and that Nureyev worked very hard at his art. As for the sexual details in the book, I don't remember anyone complaining that Kavanaugh wrote about that aspect of his life in the first place, and of course it was a big part of his life, so she could hardly have left it out entirely. Again, it's a matter of emphasis, and of what was left out because of that emphasis.

#137 Helene

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Posted 04 December 2007 - 09:27 AM

It's hard for me to imagine that Kavanagh decided in a very long book to include ten extra pages of Nureyev's sex life in lieu of the aftermath of his death. She had a lot of access that others didn't. She had a book to write, and it's hard to think that access had no price.

Despite the ego that can be read into "The Life" in the book's title -- although it can also be interpreted as a description of Nureyev -- I think the best we can do at this point is get a mosaic from many sources. Someone else will write about the aftermath, or perhaps eventually Kavanagh's will be like Taper's Balanchine bio, with a chapter added in subsequent editions. (Which, of course, would increase sales, as all of us who bought the hardback would have to buy the paperback for the additional material...) If not, then Kavanagh's book is a contribution to the picture.

#138 dirac

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Posted 04 December 2007 - 10:43 AM

I don't remember anyone complaining that Kavanaugh wrote about that aspect of his life in the first place,


I’ve seen complaints in the reviews and comments that Kavanagh made too much of his sex life, but as far as I can tell without dipping into the book she doesn’t ignore the artist.

a biography does place, if it is at all capable of objectivity, all the elements out there.



Certainly a biography with any claims to comprehensiveness does.

#139 Herman Stevens

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Posted 04 December 2007 - 01:14 PM

I don't remember anyone complaining that Kavanaugh wrote about that aspect of his life in the first place,


I’ve seen complaints in the reviews and comments that Kavanagh made too much of his sex life, but as far as I can tell without dipping into the book she doesn’t ignore the artist.

a biography does place, if it is at all capable of objectivity, all the elements out there.



Certainly a biography with any claims to comprehensiveness does.


It's just prudery. People want to read about it, but they want to complain about it, too.

Nureyev was a sex symbol, just like Nijinsky was - only in another era. It would have not made any sense to have ignored or glossed over his sex life.

I couldn't help but notice in the National Review piece discussed here that the reviewer would not have minded less of Nureyev's "multifarious homosexual encounters" (I'm quoting from memory here).

With that kind of language it's pretty clear what territory we're in.

The parts I thought were most intriguing were the quiet parts: Nureyev and these two London friends he spent a lot of time with, just sitting in the kitchen; Nureyev playing the Bach at night to himself. This was something I could not have imagined. It's not sexy or provocative, and so no one talks about it. And yet it is among the most illuminating stuff in the book.

#140 Ray

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Posted 04 December 2007 - 01:16 PM

It's just prudery. People want to read about it, but they want to complain about it.

Nureyev was a sex symbol, just like Nijinsky was - only in another era. It would have not made any sense to have ignored or glossed over his sex life.

I couldn't help but notice in the National Review piece discussed here that the reviewer would not have minded less of Nureyev's "multifarious homosexual encounters" (I'm quoting from memory here).

With that kind of language it's pretty clear what territory we're in.


Thank you, Herman!

#141 dirac

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Posted 04 December 2007 - 01:45 PM

I couldn't help but notice in the National Review piece discussed here that the reviewer would not have minded less of Nureyev's "multifarious homosexual encounters" (I'm quoting from memory here).

With that kind of language it's pretty clear what territory we're in.


I believe Homans also said 'sordid' (although I note she said it in the pages of The New Republic, not National Review).

The parts I thought were most intriguing were the quiet parts: Nureyev and these two London friends he spent a lot of time with, just sitting in the kitchen; Nureyev playing the Bach at night to himself. This was something I could not have imagined. It's not sexy or provocative, and so no one talks about it. And yet it is among the most illuminating stuff in the book.


There's a story in Meredith Daneman's book - don't know if Kavanagh mentions it too - where Fonteyn is putting Nureyev up for a short while. The former had no great interest in music outside a professional context and Nureyev couldn’t get accustomed to hearing no music around the house.

#142 bart

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Posted 04 December 2007 - 01:49 PM

The parts I thought were most intriguing were the quiet parts: Nureyev and these two London friends he spent a lot of time with, just sitting in the kitchen; Nureyev playing the Bach at night to himself. This was something I could not have imagined. It's not sexy or provocative, and so no one talks about it. And yet it is among the most illuminating stuff in the book.

I'm glad you mention this, which is overlooked in every review I've glanced at.

One of the discoveries of Kavanagh's biography is just how complex he was (in terms of interests, intimacies, and how he spent his time). Who knew?

Like it or not, we DO know now. This is a credit to the doggedness of Kavanagh the researcher, and her knack of drawing out personal memories from so many of his friends and associates.

#143 kfw

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Posted 04 December 2007 - 02:28 PM

I couldn't help but notice in the National Review piece discussed here that the reviewer would not have minded less of Nureyev's "multifarious homosexual encounters" (I'm quoting from memory here).

With that kind of language it's pretty clear what territory we're in.

What's clear is that the language is descriptive and accurate. Anything else we can only guess at. I'm sorry this discussion has turned to crude catchall stereotypes. Bentley is the author of a memoir about her obsession with anal sex, so I don't think she's prudish. :)

#144 dirac

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Posted 04 December 2007 - 03:00 PM

This is a credit to the doggedness of Kavanagh the researcher, and her knack of drawing out personal memories from so many of his friends and associates.


Very true. Is there anything else in the book about Nureyev's musical tastes?

#145 bart

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Posted 04 December 2007 - 04:50 PM

Is there anything else in the book about Nureyev's musical tastes?

Not a lot, but the many small bits scattered here and there build to a fairly plausible picture of someone who was passionate about classical music, had his obsessions -- Bach was one -- and depended on the kindness of certain experts for encouragement and for a certain amount of guidance, some of which he ignored.

One of the pluses of the book is an excellent full index so you can look up almost any topic. There you'll find references to "musicality of," "piano playing of," and " orchestral conducting of" lining up alongside topics like "hair and hair styles of," "rudeness and foul language of," "arrogance and narcissism of", and "Kindness and generosity of."

#146 Quiggin

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Posted 04 December 2007 - 10:14 PM

Here's another review--if everyone doesn't have review fatigue by now--and if it hasn't been posted before. From James Davidson at the London Review of Books at www.lrb.co.uk, to subscribers only (worth subscribing).

"No Beast More Refined: How Good Was Nureyev"

Three snippets:

For there is something else about this biography that reminded me of books about Alexander the Great: the question of Nureyev’s ‘greatness’, which is often hopelessly mixed up with questions about his goodness as a human being and his technical ability. If Nureyev really was ‘one of the greatest artists the world has ever known’ [:Jane Hermann] then we might be happy to put him alongside any number of men and women who behaved appallingly but are nevertheless admired for their cultural impact, Alexander among them. What is most extraordinary about Kavanagh’s biography, however, is that she doesn’t really seem to share Hermann’s opinion about the man on whom she has spent ten years of her life.


* * *

But Kavanagh’s technical knowledge also means that she is too attentive to the not infrequent deficiencies of Nureyev’s technique, as if she were constantly grading him for an exam. Other dancers are often said to be as good as or better than him; indeed, reading the biography one gets the impression that the second half of the 20th century was chock-full of wonderful male dancers, although it is always a good idea to check her more flattering assessments against the list of names in the acknowledgments; and there does seem to be a tendency for London-based dancers to get more frequent and more effusive praise than, say, Parisians.


* * *

So I, who was born three years after Nureyev’s defection and never saw him at his best, still think that Nureyev was probably without peer, not as a teacher, but as a dancer, and that he will remain without peer for many more, though hopefully not too many more, years to come. Such a combination of grace, fire and strangeness, tiger, wolf and stallion, King Kong and a Stradivarius, is not likely to be repeated any time soon, and certainly not by today’s managed and sensible professionals. When the channels were fully functional, as quite often they were, the music and the role would fill Nureyev, Nureyev would fill his body and his body would fill the stage.



#147 ngitanjali

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Posted 08 December 2007 - 06:35 PM

Well, I just checked out the book from the library. If it's enthralling as most seem to say, I'll look into buying it. :) I haven't started yet, since I have finals, and then my wisdom teeth are coming out on New Years Eve (:)), so I decided to use Rudik as a distractor from the pain. I will definetly post a detailed review up, since I'm really excited about reading it.

Otherwise, I checked the price of the book on Barnes and Noble, which is about $27.00. (I could go cheaper somewhere else, I"m sure, but I have a membership with BN). For that price, I could get one, if not two, DVDs of Nureyev. Which is worth the money? Nureyev in print or Nureyev on film? What do you think?

#148 bart

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Posted 22 January 2008 - 04:03 PM

On the whole, I've been one of the defenders of the Kavanagh book on this thread. But I also know that -- amidst all the detail and commentary -- there was something troubling, something possibly a bit mean-spirited and overly negative.

So it was good to open up the new issue of DanceView (Winter 2008) and find a review by the dean of British ballet critics, John Percival. Percival puts his finger on something that troubled me about Kavanagh:

Now the curious thing is not to find delight in Kavanagh's book

Percival begins by telling us that his own favorite among the books about Nureyev is the volume of memoirs by his St. Petersburg friends, in Pushkinsy Fond, Rudolf Nuryev: Three Years in the Kirov Theater (1995).

... the most striking thing is the way none of the writers can avoid revealing how much they admired him (yes, even though they find fault with some of his activities) and how much they liked him too.

That is something which I found lacking in Jlie Kavanagh's newly published biography ... I kept asking myself, didn't she like him or his dancing. It's fair enough to note (many of us did) that he bumped a bit in landing from jumps when he first arrived in London, because he went so high and was on an unfamilliar and unraked stage. But how strange to find her claiming a decline in his dtechnique only six years later. And what a lot of supposed faults she manages to find and quote from reviews by, for instance, Arlene Croce in The New Yorker.


There's lots more. Percival corrects some errors (several of which have also been mentioned on this thread), fills in where there are omissions, and adjusts imbalances in which Kavanagh seems to have focused only on the negative. It's a good and thoughtful piece.

Percival also provides a long, beautifully balanced article on the late Maurice Bejart and his work.


DanceView is not online, but subscription information can be found here:
http://www.danceview.org/

#149 cubanmiamiboy

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Posted 22 January 2008 - 08:12 PM

I also know that -- amidst all the detail and commentary -- there was something troubling, something possibly a bit mean-spirited and overly negative.

...like what's the purpose of the over detailed descriptions of the sex activities going on on sexpots, clubs or bath houses..even if that was part of Rudik's life...? It made me feel like she didn't know what else to add. Sometimes they would be just pernicious descriptions of situations and places in which Rudolf wasn't even being mentioned, so what's up with that...? I certainly don't find that all those details reveal anything of significance to the narrative, other than adding some cheap thrill . I found it vulgar, strange, driven by morbid curiosity and totally out of place. At the end, the places still exist, personalities still frequent them, and that doesn't really make any news...at least to me...

(Edited to add: I just noticed that somebody mentioned all this already , but i didn't see the post 'till now, and still, i wanted to express my own feelings.)

#150 Herman Stevens

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Posted 23 January 2008 - 12:36 PM

I also know that -- amidst all the detail and commentary -- there was something troubling, something possibly a bit mean-spirited and overly negative.

...like what's the purpose of the over detailed descriptions of the sex activities going on on sexpots, clubs or bath houses..even if that was part of Rudik's life...? It made me feel like she didn't know what else to add. Sometimes they would be just pernicious descriptions of situations and places in which Rudolf wasn't even being mentioned, so what's up with that...? I certainly don't find that all those details reveal anything of significance to the narrative, other than adding some cheap thrill . I found it vulgar, strange, driven by morbid curiosity and totally out of place. At the end, the places still exist, personalities still frequent them, and that doesn't really make any news...at least to me...

(Edited to add: I just noticed that somebody mentioned all this already , but i didn't see the post 'till now, and still, i wanted to express my own feelings.)


It's called contextualizing. Kavananagh actually does a pretty brilliant job at this.

The problem is, if one thinks descriptions of non-romantic sexual activity are "pernicious", even though these activities were a substantial part of RN's life, this is not a book to read.


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