Childhood & Early Life
Rudolf Khametovich Nureyev was born on 17 March 1938 near Irkutsk, Russian SFSR, Soviet Union to Red Army Political Commissar Hamit and his wife Feride.
As a child, he went along with his mother and sister to watch a ballet performance of ‘Song of the Cranes’. His interest in dance grew since then. He began training in Bashkir folk and due to the disturbances caused by the World War II, he was unable to enroll in a renowned school until he turned 17.
In 1955 he joined the Vaganova Academy, an associate school of the Kirov Ballet. There he was taught under ballet master Alexander Ivanovich Pushkin and graduated from school in 1958.
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Upon completing graduation, he accepted a contract as a soloist with the Kirov Ballet in St. Petersburg. His debut performance at Kirov was in the Pas de trios Swan Lake.
Within first three years, he managed to perform in fifteen roles mostly partnered with prima ballerina of the company Ninel Kurgapkina. Within this period, he became popular in the Soviet Union.
In 1961, as the company’s main male lead was injured, he was selected to accompany the troupe on a European tour of Kirov Ballet. However, he broke the protocols of the State Security Committee and mingled with foreign nationals, which was not allowed. Multiple attempts were made to send him back to the Soviet Union but he sensed that he would be imprisoned upon his arrival in the Soviet Union.
With the assistance of the French Police, he defected in June 1961 and despite attempts to negotiate, he chose to stay back in Paris. Within a week he joined the Grand Ballet du Marquis de Cuevas. His first performance was ‘The Sleeping Beauty’.
The same year he met Erik Bruhn who was a soloist at the Royal Danish Ballet and they formed a great friendship that later turned into romance. In 1962, they travelled together to Copenhagen to study the Bournville Style.
He was offered a position in Royal Ballet as principal dancer. However, he chose to be a guest artist and was associated with the company until 1977. In 1962, he also made his first screen performance with the filmed version of ballet blanc titled ‘Les Sylphides’.
His first performance with Royal Ballet was with Margot Fonteyn, performing in ‘Giselle’ at the Covent Garden. They went on to be dance partners for a long time. In 1963, Frederick Ashton choreographed ‘Marguerite and Armand’ for them and this ballet became their signature act since then. Other performances of the duo include the premiere of Kenneth MacMillan’s ‘Romeo and Juliet’, ‘Swan Lake’, Sylphides’, etc.
He worked in association with prestigious ballet companies and choreographers in Australia, USA and Europe. A few choreographers he worked with include prominent names like Roland Petit, Frederick Ashton, Martha Graham, Murray Louis, Maurice Béjart and George Balanchine.
He was passionate about the works of choreographer Marius Petipa and attempted to revive the 19th century ballet work of ‘Sleeping Beauty’, ‘Don Quixote’, ‘Swan Lake’, ‘The Nutcracker’ and ‘Raymonda’. During this time he also tried his hand at choreography with ‘Tancredi’ (1966).
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Other acts that he choreographed in his career include ‘Manfred’(1979), ‘Romeo and Juliet’ (1984), ‘The Tempest’ (1984), ‘Washington Square’ (1985), ‘Cinderella’ (1986) etc.
His other long term partner in ballet was Eva Evdokimova who was the Prima Ballerina Assoluta with several prestigious ballet companies around the world. They were first paired in ‘La Sylphide’ (1971) and later performed together in hundreds of acts over fifteen years.
In 1973, he performed in the filmed version of ballet ‘Don Quixote’ along with other members of the Australian Ballet. A few years later in 1977, he acted in Ken Russell’s ‘Valentino’. He had made several appearances in films and shows like ‘The Muppet Show’ and ‘The King and I’.
In 1983, he was appointed as the Director of Paris Opera Ballet. He remained in this position until 1989 and continued mentoring, dancing and choreography. His own choreography of ‘Romeo and Juliet’ was very well appreciated. Among the dancers he coached were renowned artists Isabelle Guérin, Manuel Legris, Sylvie Guillem, Charles Jude and Élisabeth Platel.
Towards the end of his tenure, his performances were plagued by his ill health. However, he continued to work tirelessly and put together some of his masterpiece choreographies during the time. He helped develop and flourish the Paris Opera Ballet.
Personal Life & Legacy
He was a Soviet national by birth and later became a naturalized Austrian citizen in 1982.
Rudolf Nureyev was known to be a bisexual. He had multiple romantic relationships with men and women. His first affair was with his teacher’s wife Xenia Pushkin when he was twenty. His second romantic interest was a student named Teja Kremke.
He met Danish danseur Erik Bruhn and subsequently they developed a romantic relationship. They maintained an on and off relationship for about 25 years until the death of Erik Bruhn in 1986.
He also was romantically involved with dance writer Robert Tracy since 1979 until 1993.
After he defected, he was not allowed to travel to the Soviet Union to visit his mother until 1987, when she was dying.
In 1984 he was tested positive for HIV; however, he denied of any health issues and continued performing. His health began deteriorating in 1991 and the following year he had to be hospitalized multiple times due to symptoms of pericarditis.
On 20 November 1992, he was admitted at the Notre Dame du Perpétuel Secours in Paris and remained in hospital until his death due to cardiac complications on 6 January 1993. He was 54 years at the time of his death.
In 2015, his name was included in the Legacy Walk, an outdoor display that honours LGBT history and people.