<b>Nureyev combined danseur's artistry with rock star swagger</b>
One does not have to be a balletomane to applaud Julie Kavanagh's exquisite biography of Rudolf Nureyev. <b>Nureyev: The Life</b> encompasses Iron Curtain intrigue, artistic derring-do, exotic locales, brazen sex, a valiant fight against a then-mysterious disease and fame in all its celebrity-laden glory. All this <i>and</i> sumptuous exploration of Giselle, Romeo and Juliet, Swan Lake, The Tempest, etc.
A dance critic trained in ballet, who previously detailed the life of choreographer Frederick Ashton (a founding father of classical English ballet), Kavanagh spent nearly a decade working on the book. Nureyev foundations in Europe and America underwrote some research and provided access to rare documents including Nureyev's KGB file and letters chronicling his love affair with famed Danish dancer Erik Bruhn. The endorsements don't color the bravura of this work. Alongside lofty dissections of dance and technique there is plenty of dish, revealing the foibles and demons of a brilliant artist.
Running 800 (yes, 800!) pages, and covering five decades, the biography takes wing in the '50s with Nureyev's rise as ballet student and star of the Kirov Ballet. With his defection from the Soviet Union, the spotlight grows brighter. Amid the colorful passion of the '60s, the exotic, charismatic Nureyev catapults to the kind of superstardom reserved for rock stars.
His teaming with the great English ballerina Margot Fonteyn is the stuff of legend. Lines outside the theater stretch around the block; curtain calls are nearly as long as the productions. To see Fonteyn-Nureyev is to bask in nirvana. She was much older and married; he preferred men. But the two may have been lovers. They were definitely soul mates, reaching out to one another in difficult times (in her later years, as she grew ill, he paid many of her medical bills), sharing momentous adventures. Especially vivid: their headline-making 1967 dope bust in San Francisco, which began when a fan invited Nureyev to a freak-out in Haight-Ashbury.
Given his supernova status, Nureyev's story includes supporting roles and cameos by the likes of Mick Jagger, Bette Davis, Natalie Wood, No‘l Coward, Claus von BŸlow, J. Paul Getty, Princess Lee Radziwill and her sister Jackie Kennedy, Leslie Caron, Michelle Phillips, Bianca Jagger, Martha Graham, Truman Capote, Franco Zeffirelli, Gore Vidal, George Balanchine, Andy Warhol, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Jerome Robbins. There were numerous others, such as Peter O'Toole whose alcoholic excesses Nureyev couldn't match. And Marlene Dietrich, who ogled him and insisted he drive her home. Imagining himself chained to her bed, he told a friend, If I'm not back in twenty minutes, you come get me! He asked several women to bear his child. But it was men he wanted. He trolled public lavatories and the fetish clubs of downtown Manhattan, propositioned busboys and stole away the handsome young dates of female friends. Careless love brought an ugly price: In 1984 Nureyev came down with pneumonia, a harbinger of what was being called gay cancer the specter of the AIDS plague.
To this day, much about Nureyev's illness remains secret. He ducked questions about his health, sought care under assumed names and seldom discussed specifics with friends. Moreover, after being diagnosed, he went on to dance, direct, choreograph and conduct. The disease finally got him; he died in 1993. As an iconic artist, however, he continues to take bows. <i>Pat H. Broeske is a biographer whose subjects include another iconic artist, Elvis Presley.</i>