He was, himself, a Russian revolution Rudolf Nureyev leaped onto the world's stage and turned our eyes to dance APPRECIATION

January 07, 1993|By Joan Jacobson | Joan Jacobson,Staff Writer

Rudolf Nureyev's zealous mission to dance drove him on a frenzied 30-year tour of the world, changing how audiences saw ballet and how dancers performed it.

The legendary Mr. Nureyev died yesterday in Paris at the age of 54, just two months after receiving his last standing ovation at the Paris Opera.

His doctor, Michel Canesi would say only that Mr. Nureyev died of "cardiac complications" following a long, "devastating illness.

Following Mr. Nureyev's wishes, I can't say any more."

Previous press reports said the gaunt, Russian dancer suffered from the AIDS virus.

Though seriously ill, he spent his last months preparing the Paris Opera Ballet to dance his choreographic version of the 19th century classic "La Bayadere." On the Oct. 8 opening night, many in the audience -- noticing his frail body propped up by other dancers -- shouted "au revoir."

Mr. Nureyev's egocentric obsession to appear on stage drove him on a seemingly endless performing schedule. Like Anna Pavlova before him, Mr. Nureyev's dancing schedule had a holy fervor to it. To him, dancing was perhaps more of a religion than an art. Little seemed to stop him from spreading the gospel of dance -- not injury, illness nor age.

In his prime, his charisma and lightning speed on stage overshadowed dancers around him. He was often compared to the dancing legend before him, Vaslav Nijinsky, whom Mr. Nureyev portrayed in the 1970 movie "Nijinsky." And now a select few will be compared to the great Nureyev.

Though he could be regal or animalistic, though his leaps and turns were among the best, his greatest strength was the way he controlled the stage and created illusion -- spreading his arms and legs from wing to wing in a second, rocketing to the roof, spinning effortlessly like an electric drill into the stage floor, falling passionately in love with a dancer 20 years his senior. He could make his audience think of nothing but Nureyev.

For decades, this passionate figure mesmerized many.

Dance legend Martha Graham found the simple reason: "Nureyev never walks to the wall, the wall walks to him." And this from a woman who could walk through walls.

Born on March 17, 1938, near Mongolia on a train to Vladivostok, Mr. Nureyev escaped a childhood of poverty when his early fascination with music and dance led him to the Kirov Ballet in Leningrad.

When still a boy, he heard a teacher describe Anna Pavlova's magical dancing and decided, "This conception thrilled me: the art of hiding art -- surely this was the key to greatness in an artist," he said in a 1963 ghost-written autobiography.

In 1961, the Soviet dancer, having fallen from grace with the Soviet ballet bureaucracy, defected to the West at a Paris airport and was granted asylum by the French government.

His reason was simple enough: "A bird must fly," he later wrote.

This impulsive move opened the world of dance for Mr. Nureyev. He could experiment with new dance techniques, re-choreograph the classics. In effect, he could dance anything he wanted anywhere in the world. And he did -- but not without some help.

Shortly after his defection he accepted a chance to dance with the English prima ballerina, Margot Fonteyn.

According to her autobiography, she was at first hesitant, finding descriptions of him "tiresome," but was finally persuaded by a friend who said, "He has the nostrils. You know what I mean? People of genius have nostrils."

Their magical partnership lasted more than 10 years -- and few other partnerships in classical ballet have been matched by their symbiosis and electricity on stage.

Mr. Nureyev's success was accompanied by a life of wealth in the West. The poor boy who was sent to kindergarten in his sister's old coat, grew up to model mink in the New York Times Magazine.

His dancing was augmented by choreographing. Although he broke no artistic ground as a choreographer, he reinvented the classics with new insights -- "Swan Lake," "Don Quixote," "The Nutcracker," "Romeo and Juliet." He was an intimidating person to work for and he demanded the perfection from other dancers he applied to himself.

But his zeal for performing eventually blurred his self image.

As he aged and grew weaker, he pushed on, never considering retirement.

He even played the king in the Broadway musical "King and I," performing the role (badly, said critics) of the king who couldn't dance.

When he was 50, Mr. Nureyev appeared at the Morris A. Mechanic Theatre, filling it, with seats going as high as $45.

But the muscles of his youth had lost their elasticity. He seemed to be tracing the patterns left by a once great dancer.

He had finally lost that art of hiding art.

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