Magazine article The Spectator

The Ideal Romantic Partner

Magazine article The Spectator

The Ideal Romantic Partner

Article excerpt

NUREYEV by Julie Kavanagh Fig Tree, £25, pp. 800, ISBN 97819050490158

Before embarking on Julie Kavanagh's magnificent Nureyev, I had recently the pleasure of reading Richard Buckle's The Adventures of a Ballet Critic. This passionate and witty memoir (a book so obsessively driven by the author's love of dance, I defy anyone to read it and not be intoxicated by this love) gives a wonderfully vivid picture of the English ballet scene after the war. The main characters featured among the dramatis personae include Fred (Ashton), Billy (Chappell), Bobby (Helpmann), Margot (Fonteyn), and Madam (Ninette de Valois).

You get the feeling this rather cosy and oh-so-naughty group with their private jokes and schoolgirly tiffs could be amusingly transformed into the comedic world of Ronald Firbank, where these fey men, enthralled by a dark beauty, Fonteyn, are strictly dominated by a rather stern and reproving de Valois.

This is how it was before Nureyev. For when, after a brilliant season by the Kirov in Paris, Nureyev sought refuge in the West, and leapt to freedom -- or, as he insisted, in fact walked -- Fonteyn invited him to appear at her Royal Academy gala, Ashton choreographed his solo, and de Valois cleverly realised she had to coax the young star into joining the Royal Ballet. Nothing, as Kavanagh points out, was ever the same again.

Nothing was certainly ever the same for those of us who were lucky to be members of the audience, when Nureyev exploded onto the Opera House stage, for besides demonstrating his outlandish showmanship, his ardour in partnership and great physical beauty, he brought something we had not seen much of in those portals -- sex.

Male British dancers were personified chiefly by Helpmann, a virtuoso performer with a strong tendency for exaggeration, i. e. camp, or Michael Somes, Fonteyn's very fine partner, who was effective but a little buttoned up. You felt he must have had a good war. You could never say that of Nureyev, a child very much of his time, the Sixties, unruly, dangerous, and unpredictable. To Ashton he was a 'mixture of Tartar, a faun, and a kind of lost urchin. He's the Rimbaud of the steppes'. Kenneth Tynan, an unwilling visitor to Covent Garden, confided in his Observer piece, 'I instantly recognised the physical ideal of romantic ballet and its audience'.

Nureyev was indeed the very personification of the ideal romantic hero, 'a frail, wild animal', and his partnership with the divine Fonteyn, the beautifully lyrical prima ballerina, created a magic rarely encountered in the theatre. To a disgruntled American critic Fonteyn had 'gone, as it were, to the grand ball with a gigolo.' But de Valois was delighted. She had never seen Fonteyn 'so liberated'. Kavanagh describes very well how their differences harmonised on stage, blending into an effect much like the neo-Impressionists' 'simultaneous contrast', in which diverse colours ... recompose in the eyes of the spectator to produce new shades.

For all the claims about Nureyev's megalomania, it seems his special gift was for sharing the stage with his great female partners and, Prospero like, reanimating them -- not just Fonteyn, but also the brilliantly accomplished Merle Park, a regular partner, and the extraordinary Lynn Seymour, one of his favourite ballerinas and a great friend. It was as if his aptitude for making love to his audience was subtly balanced by the ardent love he made onstage to his partners.

Nureyev's appetite to learn was inexhaustible. 'I've tried to reject everything in life which doesn't enrich or directly concern my single dominating passion, ' he wrote. …

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