“I think dancers are paid not for what they do, but for the fear they feel.”
TRQ: Rudolf Nureyev, Born March 17, 1938
Renowned dancer, choreographer, and ballet director Rudolf Nureyev is most widely known for his exceptional talent and mesmerizing stage presence that revolutionized male ballet dancing. Nureyev overcame many obstacles to become one of the most iconic ballet stars of the 20th century. At the peak of his career, Nureyev’s performances, particularly his partnership with Dame Margot Fonteyn of the Royal Ballet, captivated audiences, and popularized classical ballet. Throughout his life, he was associated with various well-known personalities, such as Freddie Mercury, Andy Warhol, Jackie Kennedy Onassis, and Mick Jagger.
Rudolf Khametovich Nureyev was born on March 17, 1938, on a train traveling along the shores of Lake Baikal in south-eastern Siberia. His father was of Bashkir Muslim descent and served in the Soviet Army, while his mother, Farida, was reportedly a Tatar from Kazan. As a child, he was small, malnourished, and sensitive, often bullied by other children.
Nureyev’s talent in folk-dancing was noticed by two exiled ballerinas in Ufa, who introduced him to the opera ballet company there. Despite his father’s disapproval, he eventually enrolled at the Leningrad Ballet School. His rebellious nature and refusal to join the Communist youth league made him an unpredictable individualist, but he was an outstanding dancer.
Nureyev’s education and training at the school impacted him greatly and allowed him to develop an intense and passionate style, which set him apart from other dancers. After joining the Kirov Ballet in 1958, he eventually defected to France in 1961, fearing punishment for his unruliness. He requested political asylum in France, taking the famous “leap to freedom.”
He was found guilty of treason in a covert Soviet trial conducted in his absence. Throughout most of his remaining life, he faced constant threats of abduction or assassination. It wasn’t until 1987 that he went back to the Soviet Union, obtaining a special visa to visit his ailing mother, who was nearing the end of her life.
Nureyev’s defection captured the attention of the world, catapulting him to superstardom almost instantly. His striking physical appearance, alluring magnetism, and remarkable athleticism captivated both men and women. His charming persona made him a beloved figure in the international social scene.
His breath-taking dancing—characterized by astonishing leaps and multiple mid-air turns—revolutionized the way male ballet dancers perform. When he emerged on the scene with his long hair, hollow cheeks, and fiery expression, he filled his performances with such intensity that they both surprised and captivated audiences.
At the height of his career, Nureyev possessed a fiery, assertive demeanour, driven by an unwavering commitment to excellence. His entrance into the Western world swiftly established him as a leading force in ballet, revitalizing 19th-century classics with a modern touch and forming an iconic partnership with Dame Margot Fonteyn of the Royal Ballet. His deep-rooted devotion to dance fuelled his drive to master an astonishing array of styles and touring relentlessly, leaving a legacy in the world of ballet.
In 1962, Nureyev captivated American audiences with his debut on television and with Ruth Page’s Chicago Opera Ballet. Later that year, he joined London’s Royal Ballet as a permanent guest artist, breathing fresh energy into the company. Alongside Fonteyn, he reinvigorated timeless classics like Giselle and Swan Lake and introduced modern ballets, such as Sir Frederick Ashton’s Marguerite and Armand (1963), dazzling audiences with his talent and passion.
That year, dance critic Richard Buckle wrote in The Sunday Times of London, that Nureyev was “a pop dancer—that’s what we’ve got—a pop dancer, at last… What the telly did for art, what Billy Graham did for religion, Nureyev has done for ballet.”
In 1970, British critic Oleg Kerensky wrote, “Part of Nureyev’s sensational success is due to his animal magnetism and sensuality. He appeals to the mothering instinct in middle-aged women, the mating instinct in young ones and the desire of many male homosexuals.”
Nureyev was an unrelenting performer, dancing almost daily for many years and often performing in back-to-back shows. He captivated audiences worldwide, drawing in diverse spectators and amassing a fortune through his talent. He invested wisely, but also indulged in luxurious homes and exquisite art collections.
One of Nureyev’s most significant contributions to ballet was his candidness about his sexuality. Entirely at ease with himself, he never attempted to portray a heterosexual persona on or off the stage. This allowed him to focus on expressing music and choreography in a way that felt genuine to him. His openness paved the way for other male dancers, freeing them from the pressure of maintaining a heterosexual image.
As an artistic director, Nureyev established his own touring companies and elevated the national ballet companies of Australia and Canada from regional status to global recognition. In 1983, he discovered the perfect artistic home when he became the artistic director of the Paris Opera Ballet, a position he held until 1989. Although he resigned, he continued as the premier choreographer for the Paris Opera Ballet until his passing.
During his tenure as director of the Paris Opera Ballet from 1983 to 1989, Nureyev faced criticism for often being away from Paris to perform. However, he maintained the company’s exceptional standards throughout this period. His original choreography for the company included a ballet adaptation of Henry James’s Washington Square and a Cinderella production set in the glamorous world of Hollywood.
Nureyev’s most acclaimed choreographic works include his productions of Romeo and Juliet, Manfred, and The Nutcracker. He choreographed and co-directed an opulent film ballet adaptation of Don Quixote (1973), which has since been restored and showcased as part of PBS’s “Great Performances” series.
Off-stage, Nureyev mingled with prominent figures such as Dame Margot Fonteyn, Jackie Kennedy Onassis, Gore Vidal, and Franco Zeffirelli. He honed his conducting skills with Leonard Bernstein and Herbert von Karajan. Socializing with celebrities like Freddie Mercury, Mick Jagger, Liza Minnelli, and Andy Warhol, he visited Studio 54 in the late 1970s but eventually grew weary of the celebrity scene.
Nureyev’s personal life was as renowned and fast-paced as his dancing. His romantic partners varied from hustlers to celebrities, and his physical endowment became a topic of conversation, corroborated by photos taken by Richard Avedon. Sources describe Nureyev as either bisexual, given his past heterosexual relationships, or homosexual. His personal life was tumultuous, marked by frequent visits to bathhouses and anonymous encounters.
Nureyev’s most passionate relationship was with the Danish dancer Erik Bruhn (1928-1986). Bruhn’s elegant, sophisticated classical style contrasted sharply with Nureyev’s untamed presence. However, in 1961, Nureyev believed Bruhn was the only living dancer who could teach him anything new.
Drawn to the older dancer, Nureyev fell deeply in love with him. While Bruhn reciprocated Nureyev’s physical attraction, their intense and stormy relationship was far from blissful, possibly due to Bruhn’s professional jealousy and anxiety. As Nureyev’s fame skyrocketed, Bruhn retreated into seclusion and struggled with alcoholism. Their physical relationship concluded in the mid-1960s, but Nureyev’s love for Bruhn never waned. Their tumultuous bond persisted for 25 years until Bruhn’s passing in 1986.
Nureyev also shared a long-term relationship with director and archivist Wallace Potts during the 1970s. In 1978, he encountered 23-year-old American dancer and classical arts student Robert Tracy, sparking a two-and-a-half-year romance.
Tracy eventually took on the roles of Nureyev’s secretary and live-in companion, maintaining an open, long-term relationship with him for over 14 years until Nureyev’s passing. According to Tracy, Nureyev claimed to have had relationships with three women throughout his life, expressed a want to have a son, and even considered fathering a child with actress Nastassja Kinski.
Nureyev ventured into film, theatre, and music. In 1977, he made his film debut as the lead in Ken Russell’s Valentino and later co-starred with Nastassja Kinski in the critically panned Exposed (1983). He also played the King of Siam in a 1983 US tour of The King and I. Pursuing conducting, he studied with a tutor, conducted in Eastern Europe in 1991, and in Russia in 1992. Despite his illness, Nureyev conducted a performance of Romeo and Juliet at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York on May 6, 1992.
In his last stage appearance on October 8, a frail Nureyev took a bow at the Paris premiere of his La Bayadere production. Overwhelmed with emotion, he fought back tears during the audience’s 10-minute standing ovation. Afterward, France’s Minister of Culture and Education, Jack Lang, honoured him as a Commander of Arts and Letters.
Both Nureyev and Tracy were diagnosed with AIDS in 1983. After discovering he was left out of Nureyev’s will, Tracy filed a palimony suit against the estate and received a $600,000 settlement. Nureyev passed away in Paris because of AIDS-related complications on January 6, 1993, leaving most of his wealth to foundations supporting dance and medical research.
Nureyev’s last resting place, at the Russian cemetery in Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois near Paris, is adorned with a mosaic of an Oriental carpet, a nod to his love for exquisite carpets and antique textiles. As his coffin was lowered, the last act of Giselle played, with ballet shoes and white lilies accompanying him in his grave.
Nureyev, the era’s most extraordinary dancer, captivated millions with his remarkable talent. Beyond his artistry, he presented the world with an unapologetically glamorous and openly queer icon.
About the Authors
Troy Wise is currently a PhD student at UAL Central St Martins and teaches fashion and graphic design at London College of Contemporary Arts. His background is in marketing and is founder and co-editor of Image Amplified. He lives in, and is continually fascinated by, the city of London.
Rick Guzman earned his most recent MA at UAL Central St Martins in Applied Imagination in the Creative Industries. He currently holds two MA’s and an MBA in the New Media, Journalism and International Business fields. Co-editor at Image Amplified since its start, he lives in London, is fascinated by history and is motivated by continuing to learn and explore.