It was 55 years ago when the great ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev dashed down the halls of France’s Le Bourget airport, leaped across a barrier, and yelled in English: “I want to stay in France. These men are kidnapping me. I want French protection. I want to be free!”
Nureyev’s “leap to freedom,” as it came to be known, was a symbolic statement against Soviet power, and a nod to the tight bond between art and freedom. Nureyev was “officially forgotten” in the Soviet Union after his defection, but his star continued to rise in the West – his dramatic leap from Soviet jurisdiction being just one of many eccentric acts that defined his vivid character.
Like any great artist, Nureyev was a complicated figure. Often compared to Oscar Wilde for his extravagant dress, candid homosexuality and unwillingness to mince words, Nureyev had, by the end of his life, collected riches beyond belief. But he came from remote and humble beginnings. The son of Muslim Tatars from Bashkiriya, Nureyev was born on a train traversing the shore of Lake Baikal.
Nureyev began dancing after attending his first ballet at the tender age of five, and at 16, having bought a one-way ticket to Moscow to perform at a folk festival, Nureyev auditioned and was accepted into the prestigious Leningrad Ballet School. From 1958 to 1961, Nureyev quickly mastered the entire repertoire of classical ballet.
Yet in spite of the young dancer’s obvious mastery, he was disliked by the theater administration for his rudeness, emotional outbursts, and lack of self-control, as well as his attempts to meet with foreign dancers. His romantic preference for other men likely didn’t help matters.
Funny enough, Nureyev almost didn’t make it to the West on the official tour – which would have made it a lot harder to defect once abroad. When the Kirov troupe scheduled a tour to Paris, London and New York in 1961, Nureyev was included on the list as a last-minute understudy. Once there, though, he managed to wow critics and viewers with his performances at the Paris Grand Opera in Sleeping Beauty and La Bayadere. But, unsatisfied with this arms-length fame, the young dancer would slip away from the hotel and stroll around Paris at night, never balking at the chance to meet with fans.
Of course, someone was always keeping a close eye on Nureyev. As the troupe members waited at Paris’ Le Bourget airport for their flight to London, the dancer was surrounded by six Soviet guards and told that he must immediately return to Leningrad. The 23-year-old Nureyev stalled, asking to be allowed to say goodbye to his friends. And that was when he flexed his great ballet muscles and launched into the leap that became a famous political statement.
Later, in the airport police station, where the French granted Nureyev temporary political asylum and flatly refused to let the Soviet guards near him, Nureyev said: “I am finished with Russia. I will never return.” As one of the first Soviet ballet dancers to defect, Nureyev was at first harshly denounced in his homeland, but after the initial furor died down, his name disappeared from the Soviet press altogether.
Though penniless at the airport in Paris (he reportedly had the equivalent of $10 in his pocket), Nureyev quickly made a name for himself. After his “leap to freedom” at Le Bourget, Nureyev performed both classical and modern ballet, directed a number of ballets and became the principal choreographer of the Paris Opera, dabbled in conducting, and amassed as many rumors as paychecks. By the mid-1970s, Nureyev was drawing up to $10,000 per performance, and by the time of his death, his estate was said to be worth up to $40 million. Like any star, he traveled the world – but, for many years, with one glaring exception: his former homeland.
With perestroika, the wall that had been erected against Nureyev in the Soviet Union finally fell. In 1987, after a 25-year absence, he was allowed to return to Russia for a two-day visit with his dying mother, who was still living in poverty in the provinces. When he next returned in 1989, Nureyev’s own illness was well-advanced, and the very next year, he danced his last performance. He was 52 – an almost unheard-of age for performing ballet.
Nureyev died of AIDS-related causes in Paris on January 6, 1993, and almost immediately, the debates began. Was Nureyev the artistic genius he had been proclaimed in the West or the pariah depicted by the Soviet authorities? Was he generous and resilient or stingy and given to violent temper tantrums?
Those who knew or worked with him agreed that he was finicky and needed things to go his way, but he never stopped moving – whether dancing, learning something new, or seeking new ways to explore and expand his art form. His “leap to freedom” in 1961 was as much a leap toward political freedom as it was toward the liberty of artistic expression.
This article was modified from an article that originally appeared in Russian Life magazine (print edition), authored by Tamara Eidelman.
Image Credit: wikipedia.org
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