International Writers Magazine: Legends of the 20th
Me and Nureyev
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
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 sisters
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 Martins 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.
"Sgood, 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 Luigis 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, its 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 dont tell me es
your friend" he squealed. We all laughed and Nureyev said "Give
me your programme"
"Weve 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.
Cunningham October 2006
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