The International Writers Magazine: Legends of the 20th Century

Polly, Me and Nureyev
William Cunningham

udolf Nureyev was probably the finest male ballet dancer of the 20th Century. Certainly it would be hard to name any male dancer at any time that had an effect on the general public that was greater than Nureyev.

Many of the public would never have experienced ballet at all but for his presence and charisma. He was able, by his wide repertoire and punishing schedules to reach a far wider audience than any dancer before him and add that to the millions who saw him on television and in films and it is easy to see what he achieved for his art.

The personal story of his early life in the Ural Mountains is in itself the stuff of legends. He was born on a train on the Trans Siberian Railway in Russia somewhere near the remote Lake Baikal in March 1938 the only boy with three elder sisters. The family were Tatars, the renowned Mongolian people of Central Asia who had invaded Russia in the 13th Century and who are now assimilated into Russian life.
His family were very poor and shared a wooden house with another family in Ufa, the Bashkir capital. They suffered from the cold Siberian winters and lived on a diet consisting mainly of cabbage and potatoes. When he started school he had no shoes and had to wear his sister’s overcoat to keep out the cold.
As a child he showed an precocious talent for dancing to the local Bashkir folk music. When he was just six years old he saw ballet for the first time and was immediately captivated by its music, colour and movement.
He was determined to make a life in the ballet and he practised long hours until in 1955 he was noticed and attached to the Kirov ballet in Leningrad (Now St Petersburg) where he was soon recognised as the most gifted dancer that the school had seen for many years. He had, however, no time for the rules and regulation of the Soviet system which seem to suppress his artistic talent and he often found himself on the wrong side if the Soviet establishment.

However, within two years Nureyev was one of Russia's best-known dancers, and he became a celebrity in his own country, but he was unknown to the outside world. Soon he enjoyed the rare privilege of travel outside the Soviet Union when he danced in Vienna at an International Youth Festival. There he saw for the first time the prosperity of the West and the artistic freedom given to performers. Later in 1961 Nureyev was chosen to dance in Paris where his performances electrified both critics and audiences alike. But Nureyev broke the rules about mingling with foreigners, and was told he would be returned to Russia in disgrace, and he feared that he would probably never be allowed abroad again.

The Soviet secret police were present in the touring party and kept a special close watch on him. In spite of that on 17 June at Paris Airport he made a daring leap to freedom. In Russia he was sentenced to prison in his absence. For many years all his travelling had to be done on temporary documents but eventually he was given Austrian citizenship.

On June 28th 1978 Nureyev was scheduled to dance at the London Coliseum Theatre in London at which time I was working in Riyadh Saudi Arabia. Being due some leave I wrote to my wife Polly in England to try to get tickets to see his performance, she wrote back and said that tickets were available but they were £14 each. That was a considerable sum in 1978 but I had just finished performing myself in an amateur production of HMS Pinafore in Riyadh and people had paid £6 to come to see me, so in comparison £14 was very fair price to pay to see a legend dance.

When the day arrived Polly and I went excitedly to the West End to confirm a reserved table for after theatre supper in a smart Italian Ristorante San Martino in St Martin’s Lane, close by the Coliseum. The Tuscan patron, Luigi, was very attentive; "What theatre you go? He asked in heavily accented English. "We ‘ave five theatres near ‘ere, what one you go?
"To see Nureyev" we answered with noticeable pride for if we were not part of the West End cultured elite at least we could pretend to be for one night.
"S’good, ‘es only next door, so no problem, we shall see you later, you ‘ave a good supper, you see".

In the theatre we were entranced by the first act and could hardly contain ourselves, and I was determined to try to see Nureyev after the show. Taking one of my business cards with the Arabic Company name on it, I put our seat numbers on the card and wrote on the back that we were travellers home from the Middle East and should very much like to meet Nureyev after the performance if it was possible. This I gave to one of the usherettes and asked her to give it to her boss to be passed onto Nureyev. Before the end of the interval the House Manager found us and was pleased to tell us that Nureyev would be happy to see us directly after the show. As the last curtain fell the house manager appeared and took Polly and me up a few stairs to the back stage, along a dimly lit corridor to a dressing room and after knocking he showed us into the presence of Nureyev. There was the great man, still in costume, taking off his makeup with a tissue. He paused and looked up smiling.
"Come in, come in Cunningham, and bring your charming daughter with you. I am always happy to see a fan of the ballet."
He pronounced Cunningham with an outrageous Russian accent, with a guttural initial letter like the Arabic "kh" "khunningham" and I was mesmerised to see that he had, on his immaculate and handsome face the faint scar of a hare lip, something that I had never noticed before. So the great man was not perfect after all.

My eyes could not leave the scar but I managed to say "I have never seen a ballet before in my life"
"Khunningham, You are not a young man to say such a thing" he retorted in feigned shock.
"Young I am not", I replied, (That was a little porkie, because actually I was about six months older then he). "but younger than you I am, and one day you will stop dancing".
I continued "Ages and ages hence when my, yet unborn, Grand Children ask me if I ever saw Nureyev dance I shall say "See him dance, I met him and shook his hand""
His reaction was startling; leaping up, casting away his tissue he thrust out his hand, and taking mine in his he declared "Khunningham, you are wise beyond your years. Give me your programme".

Quickly we handed over the programme; he opened it to a page showing a picture of him in a dramatic pose and scribbled across the picture Nureyev. "Show this to your Grand Children" he boomed. After a few more pleasant and amusing exchanges with lots of laughter on both sides we took our leave and went to Luigi’s where the poor man was frantically holding our table for us against a sea of waiting customers.
"Where you been?" he asked "The show is over ages already, never mind I ‘ave kept your table" He gave us a menu and brought us a drink while he fussed about the busy restaurant. We sat in suppressed glee at our good fortune in seeing Nureyev at close quarters and were looking again at the programme when the door to the restaurant opened and there framed by the doorway stood Nureyev himself. He stood there with a large coat draped dramatically across his shoulders and was wearing a Russian astrakhan fur hat, what a luvvie. He paused for a moment when, unexpectedly, the whole restaurant broke into spontaneous applause. He nodded graciously, accepted the adulation and looking around seeing us sitting in the corner, extended his arm in a terpsichorean gesture more suited to the ballet he offered his hand in our direction and said with a smile "Ah, it’s my old friend Khunningham"
At that, he glided across the floor and squeezed himself onto the little bench next to Polly.
Luigi nearly had an apoplectic fit. "You don’t tell me ‘es your friend" he squealed. We all laughed and Nureyev said "Give me your programme"
"We’ve done that" I whispered
"Give me your programme" he insisted
He took the programme and on his portrait picture inside the front cover he wrote with a theatrical flourish Rudi
"Show that to your Grand Children" he announced with a certain amount of satisfaction ""Show that to your Grand Children"
He then left and joined his party and we went home joyful and contented anxious to find a secure storing place to keep our precious programme in perfect condition for our future Grand children.

Full 10 years later Polly and I were living and working in Malaga in the South of Spain and Polly had been invited to lunch by a group of American expatriates at a Spanish restaurant. I was sat next to a mature and attractive American lady and I asked who all these Americans were that had settled in Malaga for their retirement. She explained that they were all people from the arts, mostly from the performing arts, musicians, actors and dancers. They had met previously whilst working in America and had formed this informal colony in the south of Spain where they could live in comfort at far less expense. "Are there any former ballet dancers amongst you?" I asked.
She informed me that she herself had been a ballerina and had worked all over the world, including Russia.
"Ah, but did you ever meet Nureyev?" I invited with a beaming smile and a glint in my eye.
"Oh, yes" she replied, "I have met him a few times"
"Well then listen to this" I exclaimed, and went into the tale that you have just read above.
She sat attentively listening, not interrupting at all until I had completely finished the tale, then she sat back, smiled and said "Khunningham," mimicking my impression of Nureyev; "Khunningham, in fact I know Nureyev very well, we have danced together many times and we still write to each other occasionally. And now I shall tell you something; Nureyev has told me that story himself and I was waiting to see if you elaborated on it in any way"

I was stunned. Nureyev told the same tale? How can it be? It seems that although we felt that the meeting was all about us visiting a legend, somehow we had made an impression on him, something that we had never even considered could happen and I sat stunned at the thought. Nureyev had charisma and simplicity of an earthly being and the unattainable arrogance of the gods, yet he remembered us.
Rudi was still dancing at that time and was scheduled to visit Portsmouth in 1991 and we were determined to meet him again, but unhappily the concert was cancelled because of his ailing health and in January 1993 he sadly died in Paris, his adopted city which he loved so well
According to his last wishes, Rudolf Nureyev was buried in the Russian cemetery at Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois, near Paris.

 © Larry Cunningham October 2006

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