Wednesday, July 12, 2017

Nureyev's giant leap to the West...of London


In the latest of the BBC's excellent series of short documentaries entitled Witness, the impresario Victor Hochhauser reminisces about the extraordinary personality and artistry of Rudolf Nureyev. UK readers can watch the film here:

It's astonishing, watching Nureyev, to note that however fast the steps he is performing must presumably be, they always look slow. His technical mastery is such that he is never in a hurry. And his charisma is so intense that I'd challenge any viewer to attempt removing their gaze from him for even a couple of seconds.

But for a while, Nureyev lived up the road.

That was long before I even knew where East Sheen was, of course, but now I often go jogging past the house that once belonged to him. It's just outside Richmond Park and is set back from the road beyond a wooden farm-style gate and curving gravel drive. It was chosen for him, possibly because this leafy location in south-west London was reasonably convenient for the Royal Ballet's rehearsal space in Baron's Court - but it did prove rather too far from Covent Garden. The story goes that on one occasion he was late for a performance, so grabbed a taxi to East Putney station to take the District Line into town - but he was in such a hurry that he went the wrong way on the tube and nearly ended up in Wimbledon.

The biography by Julie Kavanagh also includes a story that haunts me particularly on my run route, which takes me through Sheen Common to Bog Gate into Richmond Park itself. This path was frequented, too, by the great dancer in his time, but he was haunted by something else: the potential presence of KGB agents whom he feared might be after him. Apparently he would walk that way, anxious that one such being might jump out from behind the bushes. Sometimes, trotting along there first thing in the morning, I think I hear a step behind me in the leaves...but it's usually someone walking five other people's dogs, or a flock of the green parakeets that have colonised the place (both phenomena are new since Nureyev was there).

Nureyev was an emblem of his times - the Russian artist escaping the Soviet Union to seek artistic freedom - and a firebrand who transformed the nature of his art. Later, his death of AIDS-related illness aged only 53 made him an emblem, too, of the first generation blighted by the HIV virus. But for many among British audiences, a special defining moment was his partnership with Margot Fonteyn, which rejuvenated the career and indeed the spirit of that equally legendary ballerina. In her life history, as related on film by Tony Palmer, Nureyev is one of the few people who emerge as a true friend and support to her.

I was just too young to see them dance together. I remember my parents putting in an application for tickets the last time they performed Romeo and Juliet at Covent Garden, sometime in the mid-to-late 1970s. Seats were scarce and we didn't succeed. When notification arrived, I, already a small balletomane, shut myself in the bathroom and howled. Thank goodness for film. Here they are in Act IV of Swan Lake.

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