Rudolf Nureyev at the Paris Opera

Rudolf Nureyev at the Paris Opera

From December 21, 2023 to April 5, 2024

at the Bibliothèque-musée de l'Opéra - Palais Garnier

Exhibition accessible as part of a visit to the Palais Garnier - to prepare your visit, consult the calendar of exceptional closures of the Palais Garnier.

Rudolf Nureyev at the Paris Opera


Throughout his brilliant and itinerant career, Rudolf Nureyev (1938-1993) built a strong and fruitful relationship with the Paris Opera. It began in style as the Kirov Ballet, from Leningrad, went to Paris while touring in Europe, a tour during which Nureyev decided to defect to the West. Nureyev was then regularly invited at the Paris Opera as an Etoile guest.

There, he staged thirteen ballets as a choreographer between 1974 and 1992, organised six seasons during his tenure as Paris Opera Dance Director (1983-1989), invited choreographers to create new pieces for the repertoire, nominated many Etoiles among the talents he discovered, and finally created, in 1992, his very last ballet La Bayadère, his legacy to Paris.

Few are the artists who left such an indelible mark on the history of the Paris Opera Ballet. The great classics he passed on to the company are still among the most sparkling jewels of its repertoire. Thirty years after the passing away of this dancer, choreographer and Dance Director, the Paris Opera and the Bibliothèque nationale de France are joining forces to celebrate Nureyev by exploring the different dimensions of his relationship with his 'home', the Palais Garnier, and unveiling the priceless heritage he has left both to France and to the world of dance.

Commissaires de l'exposition : Inès Piovesan, cheffe du service des éditions (Opéra national de Paris), Antony Desvaux, responsable des publications de la danse (Opéra national de Paris), Mathias Auclair, directeur du département de la Musique (Bibliothèque nationale de France), Benoît Cailmail, adjoint au directeur du département de la Musique (Bibliothèque nationale de France)

Scénographie et graphisme : Atelier Deltaèdre, Claire Holvoet-Vermaut et Noémie Grégoire

On May 19, 1961, as he was touring with the Kirov Ballet, Rudolf Nureyev made his first stage appearance at the Palais Garnier in the Shadow scene of La Bayadère, earning a dazzling success. The audience discovered a magnetic performer, a dancer both fiery and elegant. Nureyev chose to stay in the West and quickly became an international dancer, invited on the leading stages of Europe and the United States. In 1966, he returned to the Palais Garnier with one of his privileged dance partners, Margot Fonteyn, in Marguerite et Armand.

From 1967, he became a regular guest of the Paris Opera performing great roles of the repertoire, including Giselle, Swan Lake, La Sylphide… with Noëlla Pontois and Ghislaine Thesmar, who quickly became wonderful dance partners. He was also noticed in works created by the Russian Ballets, like Apollo musagète (Balanchine) or Pétrouchka (Fokine). Named Dance Director at the Paris Opera in 1983, he kept a special status allowing him to dance in 40 shows each season, which is how he performed in all the ballet he created or revived for the Company (Basilio in Don Quichotte, Jean de Brienne in Raymonda, Drosselmeyer in The Nutcracker, the Prince in Swan Lake, Mercutio in Roméo et Juliette…).

Attentive to other choreographic languages, Rudolf Nureyev also danced in the ballets of Roland Petit (Paradis perdu), Jerome Robbins (Afternoon of a Faun), Glen Tetley (Tristan with Carolyn Carlson), Martha Graham (Phaedra’s dream), Pierre Lacotte (Marco Spada) or Maurice Béjart, whose Chant du compagnon errant was the last ballet he danced on the Palais Garnier stage in 1990.

Rudolf Noureev avec le Corps de Ballet de l’Opéra en répétition de son ballet Don Quichotte d’après Marius Petipa

The choreographic works of Rudolf Nureyev can be classified in two distinctive groups: the original ballets born in his creative mind, and those inherited from famous predecessors, which he discovered during his time in the Kirov Ballet before staging revised and personal versions of them.

Among the first ones, in addition to Manfred (1979), The Tempest (1984) and Washington Square (1985), the choreography of Cinderella (1986) is particularly memorable, as he adapted the tale of Charles Perrault to the world of 1930s Hollywood.

His revision of already existing works (mostly creations of Marius Petipa) including Don Quixote (1981), Raymonda (1983), Sleeping Beauty (1989) or La Bayadère (1992), where lyricism and academicism meet and in which he set out to develop a strong symbolic interpretation (Swan Lake in 1984, The Nutcracker in 1985), belongs to the rich legacy Nureyev left to the Paris Opera. Maybe even more than in his own creations, these revisited classics bear “Nureyev’s hallmark”: a technical complexity that highlights the virtuosity of the male performers, as well as sumptuous sets and costumes designed by renowned artists (Nicholas Georgiadis, Hanae Mori, Franca Squarciapino, Petrika Ionesco…).

Regardez en ligne les ballets de Rudolf Noureev sur POP

De Don Quichotte à La Bayadère, (re)découvrez une sélection de ballets remontés par Rudolf Noureev sur POP, le site de streaming de l'Opéra national de Paris.



On February 4, 1982, Rudolf Nureyev was appointed Dance Director at the Paris Opera, his first permanent position as he was mostly used to various engagements around the world, which ensured his artistic and media influence. As Dance Director, he was responsible for programming the ballets, choosing the cast and nominating new Etoiles (Sylvie Guillem, Isabelle Guérin, Élisabeth Maurin, Manuel Legris, Laurent Hilaire).

But it was above all his personality, passion and discipline that marked an entire generation and gave new impetus to the Ballet. International tours, especially in the United-States, punctuated his tenure and brought resounding success to the Company. He inaugurated three studios under the Paris Opera’s dome, each one named after a great choreographer: Lifar, Balanchine (later renamed Nureyev) and, of course, Petipa, to whom Nureyev was deeply attached. Passing on Petipa’s legacy was crucial to Nureyev, and each season he revived his ballets, in which he also performed.

Thanks to his brilliant career and the many artistic relationships he had, he invited many contemporary choreographers, some who came for the first time at the Paris Opera: William Forsythe, Martha Graham, Maurice Béjart, Francine Lancelot, Jiří Kylián, Merce Cunningham, Maguy Marin, Jerome Robbins, Roland Petit... On August 31, 1989, Nureyev left his post, one month after the inauguration of the Bastille Opera.

Nureyev became a legend at only 23 years old. His dance company, the Kirov Ballet of Leningrad (today the Mariinsky Ballet of Saint Petersburg) was touring in Europe. During the company’s residency at the Paris Opera, which started on May 11, 1961, Nureyev quickly drew the audience’s attention. But on June 16, at the Bourget airport, Nureyev was told he was expected back in Moscow while the rest of the troup ought to continue the tour in London.

Escaping boldly KGB agents, he managed to take refuge at the airport police station and asked for political asylum. In the context of the Cold War, he was set up as a champion of freedom and made the headlines. Attending parties, galas and meetings of the jet set while fully giving the extent of his talent as a brilliant dancer and choreographer on international stages, Nureyev was seen by the media as the “new Nijinski”, and magazines enjoyed showing him half naked on beaches, alone or with celebrities, or wrapped up in rich dressing gowns in his sumptuous and baroque Parisian flat on the Quai Voltaire.

The camera achieved to make him into an icon: a cinema enthusiast from an early age, Nureyev multiplied, from 1963, documentary projects, filmed performances, and ballets specially filmed for the cinema, which brought him unprecedented fame among a wide audience.

His Cinderella is a genuine tribute to the studio world. He also starred in feature movies, such as Ken Russell’s Valentino (1977) or James Toback’s Exposed (1983). In Valentino, Nureyev emphasised his iconic image by portraying the legendary Hollywood actor Rudolph Valentino. In 2018, Ralph Fiennes’s feature movie dedicated to Nureyev fully immortalised the iconic image of this man who was one of the greatest figures of twentieth-century dance.

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