Rudolf Nureyev’s Life: Family, Ballet Dancing Career, Awards

Rudolf Nureyev was a Soviet-born male ballet dancer, choreographer, and artistic director. During his prime time, people loved his iconic fast turns and suspended leaps, even putting them on par with the most legendary dancers. 

Nureyev’s career was as flamboyant as his personality was charming. We will take a look at facts about Rudolf Nureyev to see what made him the superstar he was.

Rudolf Nureyev’s Family

Both of Nureyev’s parents had Tatar origins and a Muslim base. His father, Khamit, was a political commissar and thus often went far from home. 

In fact, his mother Farida was on the way to reunite with him when Rudolf came prematurely.

Chaos happened to the Nureyev family as bombs destroyed their Moscow abode and took everything away from them. 

Obligated to return to their original region, Ufa, there was so much they needed to do to settle down, though it’s where young Rudolf found his vocation.

Rudolf Nureyev’s Partners

Different sources had different opinions about his sexual orientation. 

However, other than Nastassja Kinski, who was rumored to have almost become the mother of his child (but never Rudolf Nureyev’s wife!), Nureyev’s personal life was described as turbulent and void of deep connections with women.

  • Rudolf Nureyev & Erik Bruhn

Rudolf Nureyev & Erik Bruhn

In 1961, after defecting to the West, Nureyev finally got the chance to meet Erik Bruhn, a celebrated dancer that Nureyev had been an avid admirer of, even though they were extremely different in styles.

Despite being seen as volatile, their relationship lasted for twenty-five years and probably would have lasted even longer if Bruhn hadn’t left life first. 

No matter what was going on between them all those years, Bruhn was still referred to as a significant, great love in Nureyev’s life.

  • Rudolf Nureyev & Robert Tracy

Somewhere along the on-and-off relationship with Erik Bruhn, Nureyev was speculated to have other partners, and Robert Tracy was one of them. The love affair began in 1978 when Tracy was still a student of dance and classical arts.

Later on, Nureyev recruited Tracy as his production coordinator and personal assistant out of Paris and New York. 

They had an open relationship till the last days of Nureyev and mutually entertained the idea of being parents, though this part wasn’t disclosed until Tracy’s death as part of a contract on the secrecy of their relationship.

Rudolf Nureyev’s Early Life & Education

Early Life

In the world of ballet dancers and enthusiasts, it was well-known that Nureyev came to this life on the Trans-Siberian railway as the train approached Lake Baikal. 

The dancer also shared how he thought it was an implication of destiny that he was born stateless and he always felt no sense of belonging to any place.

Nureyev shared his impression upon going to the local opera and seeing the first performance of his life. He described his feeling for dancing as an “obsession” and considered being a male ballet dancer his unwavering decision.

Although his father disapproved of his passion, it didn’t change the route young Nureyev had his eyes set on, especially with encouragement from a former dancer who was ready to be his guide.

Rudolf Nureyev

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The first experience Nureyev had in dancing was the folk dances of Bashkir. The teachers immediately noticed his exceptional talent and recommended Leningrad for his training.

When Nureyev went on a Moscow tour with a local dance company, he auditioned and managed to get into the Bolshoi Ballet. 

Nonetheless, it didn’t feel as good as Leningrad and its Mariinsky school for ballet, so he left everything behind and got himself a ticket.

His education path was interrupted by World War II until he was 17 years old and enrolled in the Vaganova Academy in Leningrad, associated with Mariinsky. 

Alexander Ivanovich Pushkin developed a deep interest in his ability and even invited him to live with the family.

Defection to the West

Towards the end of the 1950s, conflicts began to arise. 

First of all, the government needed him to join its tour and put the West to submission in terms of culture. 

However, Nureyev was quite a rebellious young man and thus not suitable for the position. Furthermore, there was tension between him and Kirov’s director Sergeyev.

Due to the urgency from the French side, Nureyev was chosen for the tour in the end. 

To no one’s surprise, his performance was otherworldly, yet he was reported to be overly friendly with foreigners and also visited gay bars. It put him under the strict observation of both Kirov and KGB.

16 June 1961, as the Kirov company took the flight from Paris to London, Sergeyev wanted a private talk with Nureyev and requested his return to Moscow. It put Nureyev in doubt, hence he refused to comply.

Not so long after, he received news about his mom falling extremely sick and also dismissed it, believing it was only another trick of the KGB to arrest him. 

After so much dissuasion from the KGB and Sergeyev, Nureyev still stayed in Paris and quickly joined the Grand Ballet du Marquis de Cuevas.

Paris was where he met his lover and protector, Erik Bruhn, while building his career in the new place. Despite the regular letters from his family and teacher, he wasn’t moved enough to trust them even though he continuously petitioned for permission to visit his ill mother.

He had the chance to return to his hometown twice, once to see his dying mother and once for a performance at the Mariinsky Theatre.

Rudolf Nureyev’s Dancing Career

Principal Dancer with Kirov Ballet

Kirov Ballet is the old name for the Mariinsky Ballet Company we know today, and it was Nureyev’s first destination after his graduation. 

Immediately, he was ranked in the corps and promoted to principal dancer. Even his first partner, Natalia Dudinskaya, was out of the league for most young dancers.

It took a surprisingly short time for him to stand among the most popular dancers in the Soviet Union with 15 roles within 3 years, most of the time paired with Ninel Kurgapkina – an amazing partner despite her being 9 years older than him.

An unforgettable incident during this time was Nureyev refusing to perform in customary trousers and insisting on wearing his tights instead. Though he eventually relented, his later performances were indulged with his preference.

Principal Dancer with the Royal Ballet

The Royal Ballet was the next destination in Nureyev’s career, and he certainly deserved the role of Principal Dancer. However, he also received negative feedback and criticism for the major changes he made to Giselle and Swan Lake.

In 1970, he became a Principal Guest Artist, which allowed him to perform for the company regularly without sacrificing his international tours and appearances.

Rudolf Nureyev & Margot Fonteyn

Nureyev appeared alongside prima ballerina Margot Fonteyn for the first time in Giselle (1962), arranged by the Royal Ballet in favor of the Royal Academy of Dance.

The cooperation between two of the most acclaimed names in ballet was foreseen as a success, though the positive feedback still exceeded expectations, leading to a long-term partnership.

Every appearance of the duo left an impact as powerful as an earthquake, and they indulged their admirers with numerous curtain calls at times. 

At the premiere of Romeo & Juliet (1965), fans were recorded shredding their program papers into confetti and showering the dancers with this gift.

In 1967, after a schedule in San Francisco, they fled from a police raid and got arrested in the same neighborhood. However, the police dropped the charges of public disturbance and involvement with marijuana due to a lack of proof. 

Director of the Paris Opera Ballet

Nureyev’s statelessness ended after over two decades with citizenship granted by Austria. 

Good news continued to find him with the promotion to Director of the Paris a year later, ending his bond with the Royal Ballet. He remained a dancer and a choreographer alongside promoting younger generations.

More noticeably, aside from the artistic value he worked tirelessly and ignored his health conditions for, his directorship in artistry also helped the POB out of its darkest era.

His legacy during this era included but was not limited to Sleeping Beauty, Romeo & Juliet, and the final creation of La Bayadère to memorize the same role he had with the Mariinsky Ballet.

Other International Contributions

Of all the appearances he had outside of Europe, he somehow had a very tight connection with the Canadian National Ballet and became their guest artist many times, even staging a new Sleeping Beauty production for them. 

He had frequent partnerships with several ballerinas here too, such as Veronica Tennant and Karen Kain.

In 1975, he had various projects with the American Ballet Theatre for the resurrection of many classic productions like Le Corsaire, Ramonda, and Swan Lake.

Rudolf Nureyev’s Awards & Accomplishments

The awards Nureyev earned were not rich in number (likely due to his twenty years of defection) but extremely meaningful.

  • Chevalier of Legion of Honour (1993): For professional activity (25 years minimum) and or public service (20 years minimum) with eminence.
  • Commandeur of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres (1992): The highest grade of the Order, indicating a necklet with a medallion and limited to 20 recipients per year, recognizing great contributions or propagations to literature and arts.

Rudolf Nureyev’s Films

As outstanding as his name was, the growing film industry in the 60s certainly couldn’t forget him. 

His debut was Les Sylphides the film version (1962), though he didn’t choose to focus on his acting career due to his modern dance projects with the Dutch National Ballet.

In 1973, Nureyev was featured in the Don Quixote film, which he produced and toured with Sir Robert Helpmann. It took another four years for him to play the lead role again in Valentino (1977).

Rudolf Nureyev in Valentino (1977)
Rudolf Nureyev in Valentino (1977)

The rumored woman to almost bear his child, Nastassja Kinski, was his co-star in the movie Exposed (1983), but the role wasn’t related to dancing.

While not too keen on a cinematic career, Nureyev has a variety of documentary films about himself. 

Some of the most notable names are:

  • Rudolf Noureev au travail à la barre (1970), 
  • Nureyev (1981, 1991, 2007), 
  • Rudolf Nureyev: As He Is (1991), 
  • Rudolf Nureyev: Rebellious Demon (2012), 
  • Rudolf Nureyev: Dance to Freedom (2015), 
  • Nureyev: Lifting the Curtain (2018).

Rudolf Nureyev’s Death

In 1982, France’s news was heated with news about AIDS, which Nureyev didn’t pay too much attention to. Two years later, even with the positive test result, the dancer still insisted that his health was as fine as it always was.

However, performances couldn’t lie. His diminished prowess when he wasn’t even in his fifties disappointed fans, and there was no magical comeback or recovery anymore.

Nureyev became a regular patient at the Notre Dame du Perpétuel Secours hospital with severe pericarditis. The American Ballet Theater’s invitation for him to conduct Romeo & Juliet (Prokofiev) was his only inspiration and elatedness.

He appeared in public for the last time in October 1992 at the premiere of La Bayadère (choreographed by him). The show was a triumph and he was presented with the highest award in the culture of France, though his condition was pushing him to the end.

Nureyev stayed in the hospital from November 1992 to January 1993, when he was announced to be deceased with AIDS complications being his cause of death. 

His funeral took place at the Paris Garnier Opera House with many dancers and admirers paying tribute.

His final resting place was Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois, the Russian cemetery near Paris. The grave featured a solemn tomb and an Oriental carpet, for Nureyev was an enthusiastic collector of beautiful textiles and carpets. 

People played Giselle and bid him farewell with his ballet shoes and white lilies in his grave.

Final Words

After he passed away, his reputation was gradually restored. Despite being with the Mariinsky Ballet for only 3 years, his name was included in its history again. Various effects and costumes he had were displayed for tribute, and the peak was a rich collection by the Centre National du Costume de Scène.

Every 10 years after his death, the Paris Opera will present an homage to him on his birth month. This tradition touched the hearts of everyone who loved and remembered him.

In November 2018, the Musa Cälil Tatar Academic Opera and Ballet Theater in Kazan put up a monument in memorial of Rudolf Nureyev in a solemn ceremony. 

On the same occasion, the President of Tatarstan praised Nureyev for being “an international value”, someone we only see once in a century.

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