© Jacques Moatti
Born on board the Trans-Siberian Railway not far from Lake Baikal, Rudolf Nureyev (1938-1993) first learnt traditional folk dancing in Oufa (Bashkiria). He saw his first ballet at the Oufa Opera at the age of seven, however, he did not officially begin training as a dancer until he was fifteen. Two years later, he continued his studies at the Vaganova School in Leningrad during which time he was tutored by dance master Alexander Pushkin from 1955 to 1958. The following year he was accepted into the Corps de ballet of the Kirov Theatre where he soon became a soloist. During one of the troupe’s tours of Western Europe, Nureyev made his debut on the stage of the Palais Garnier on May 15, 1961 for a dress rehearsal of Sleeping Beauty. He would also cause a sensation by performing in the Act featuring the Kingdom of the Shades in La Bayadère three days after seeking political asylum from French customs and immigration officers at Le Bourget Airport on May 16, 1961 after the powers that be at the Kirov had decided to send him back to Moscow without allowing him to continue on the Ballet’s tour to London. As a result, Paris remained a city of great symbolic value for him. He ultimately became the director of the Paris Opera Ballet from 1983 to 1989 after having danced for numerous companies (including the Grand Ballet du Marquis de Cuevas and London’s Royal Ballet) and having created Tancrède (Vienna Opera, 1966) and Manfred (Paris Opera, 1979). The Paris Opera Ballet’s repertoire would be enriched by his reinterpretations of Marius Petipa’s choreographic masterpieces. These would include Don Quichotte (1981), Raymonda (1983), Swan Lake (1984), Romeo and Juliet (1984), The Nutcracker (1985), Cinderella (1986), Sleeping Beauty (1989) and La Bayadère (1992). The status accorded a male dancer, which in ballet had been greatly undermined since the 19th century, gained new importance in his works. Nureyev also created a number of contemporary ballets including The Tempest (1984), Bach Suite (1984) and Washington Square (1985). He also offered an extremely diverse contemporary repertoire (Frederick Ashton, Rudi van Dantzig, Roland Petit, Maurice Béjart, George Balanchine, Glen Tetley, Martha Graham, Murray Louis, Jerome Robbins, Bob Wilson, Paul Taylor, Hans van Manen, Lucinda Childs, Twyla Tharp, and William Forsythe). Finally, he began a new tradition at the Paris Opera by naming the new Etoiles on stage at the end of a performance in the presence of the audience. The stage of the Palais Garnier had great significance for him: he would salute his audience there for the last time at the end of a performance of La Bayadère on October 8, 1992. His funeral in January 1993 would also be honoured at the Palais Garnier. Rudolf Nureyev was a Chevalier of the Légion d’Honneur (1988) and a Commandeur des Arts et Lettres (1992).
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