Academic journal article Criticism

Threshold to the Kingdom: The Airport Is a Border and the Border Is a Volume

Academic journal article Criticism

Threshold to the Kingdom: The Airport Is a Border and the Border Is a Volume

Article excerpt

Nureyev's Antechamber

Nureyev: An Autobiography with Pictures (1963) begins about as dramatically as one would hope. It is June 1961, and Rudolf Nureyev, barely twenty-three and a star of the legendary Kirov Ballet, is at Le Bourget Airport in Paris, standing "in the shadow of the great Tupolev aircraft which was to fly [him] back to Moscow."1 Originally supposed to travel with his company to London, Nureyev has suddenly been ordered to return to the USSR to perform for Premier Nikita Khrushchev at the Kremlin. But he is having none of that: "Dance in the Kremlin indeed. That was a likely story. This, I knew, was the final coup of a three- year campaign against me."2 He faces a momentous choice: "Should I surrender and make the best of it? Or should I, like the heroine of the ballet [Swan Lahe\, defy the command and make a dangerous-possibly fatal-bid for freedom?"3

The autobiography's opening chapter reads like a classic anticommunist parable. On the one side is "a beautiful transparent Parisian summer day," artistic liberty, and the freedom to roam; on the other is the Soviet "Kollectiv" and the denigration of Nureyev's heartfelt desires as "insubordination, non-assimilation, dangerous individualism."4 Published in English only a year after the Cuban Missile Crisis, Nureyev wastes no time in describing the great dancer's leap across the Iron Curtain as a restoration of universal human rights that the Soviet system has betrayed: "a return to dignity-the right to choose, the right I cherish most of all, that of self-determination."5

If that were all that is in Nureyev's first chapter, it would be of interest mostly for Richard Avedon's startling portraits of the Bashkiri dancer in his pomp-and it would be of no interest at all for this essay on the theme of the airport as border. But this is not all the chapter contains. In Nureyev's defection story, Le Bourget is more like a character than a mere setting-which is to say, it functions like setting in a dramatic work. That drama begins when, on the bus to the airport, the Kirov's manager takes the unusual step of distributing individual tickets to London-tickets that, once the company has passed through French customs and is preparing to board their plane, he then takes back. It is at this point that Nureyev experiences "a flash of intuition . . . that something terrible was going to happen. All of these elaborate maneuvers had simply been to prove to me that I had a ticket for London."6 Soon, Nureyev receives the news of his unscheduled return to Moscow. Two Soviet policemen arrive, one of whom Nureyev recognizes as having previously followed him around Paris. As the policemen talk to the company manager, Nureyev hides behind one of the departure lounge's architectural columns. He spots a Parisian friend and cries out his desperate desire to stay. The friend runs off to find French officials to whom she can report Nureyev's decision to defect.

It is at this point that it begins to matter that this scene takes place in an airport. The Kirov Company has now departed, taking their manager and one of the Soviet policemen with them. When the remaining policeman spots Nureyev's friend returning with "two French Inspectors," he quickly finds the hiding dancer and endeavors to seclude him in a space off-limits to regular airline passengers: "He found me behind my column and tried to grab me and carry me off to a small room where I am sure the Russian pilots were waiting for take-off time for their Tupolev."' The scene that follows is highly theatrical. The agile young Nureyev escapes, taking advantage of the airport's crowds and the Soviet policeman's fear of scandal. He spots his friend with the French inspectors: they are in a place called-more shades of Swan Lake-"The Winged Bar" and it is there that Nureyev takes off:

Everything seemed to become blurred; I felt the urge to run-yet for a second which seemed to last an eternity my muscles were so heavy they might have been made of lead. …

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