In Nureyev: The Life, Julie Kavanagh presents a detailed, factual account of Rudolf Nureyev’s life as a dancer, as an individual who was fascinated by all the arts and ever eager to learn more about them, and as a man driven to experience as much as he could during his life. The biography is supported by extensive and meticulous research. Drawing on Nureyev’s An Autobiography, published in 1962, and his personal letters and papers as well as interviews with his family members, Kavanagh has provided a comprehensive coverage of his childhood. This biography vividly portrays the poverty in which Nureyev lived as achild and the hardships imposed upon the family under the Soviet system. The biography also presents a considerable amount of background information on his parents, Hamet and Farida, as well as insights into the Tartar culture in which Nureyev was reared.
Kavanagh’s account of his arrival at the Vaganova School in Leningrad and his years of study there emphasize Nureyev’s overpowering desire to dance and his determination to succeed regardless of his less-than-ideal dancer’s body and his rather late beginning of serious ballet training. Kavanagh also fully develops the problems Nureyev faced as a result of his being different from the other students and of his volatile and intensely sensitive nature. She portrays Nureyev’s insistence upon his own ideas about what dance should be and his individualism as a dancer even when he was a beginning student. He was never satisfied to accept even a teacher’s control of his dancing. Kavanagh’s portrayal of his relationship with Alexander Ivanovich Pushkin and his wife, Xenia Josifovna Jurgenson Pushkin, calls attention to how influential they were in his development both as a dancer and as an individual.
Having obtained access to the KGB files regarding Nureyev’s defection in 1961, Kavanagh recounts the episode with a sensitivity to what it meant for Nureyev, for his family and friends, and to Russia as a political entity. Although Nureyev was completely apolitical and wanted only the freedom to dance as he wished and to become a star, the defection could be nothing other than a political embarrassment for the country and a very difficult situation for his loved ones. Kavanagh emphasizes the real and serious danger in which Nureyev placed himself but underscores his lack of choices, as returning to Russia would have destroyed his career. Since he was unable to accept the state control that dominated every aspect of communist Russia, Nureyev would not have been permitted to continue to dance with the Kirov Ballet but would have been exiled to a provincial school. After his defection, he lived many years with the ever-present fear of being either killed or seized by the KGB and returned to Russia, where he would have been tried as a traitor.
Kavanagh includes myriad detailed descriptions of Nureyev’s solo performances in which he made changes to dances that had traditionally been performed in exactly the same way since their creation. She also provides extensive descriptions of his costumes and treats his interest in costuming and its importance for him as a dancer. Concerned about his short legs, Nureyev was always very much aware of how a costume made him appear, and he used both color and design to lengthen the appearance of his legs. Such passages provide further insight into why Nureyev needed to leave Russia and to pursue his career in the West, where change and innovation were not only welcomed but also encouraged.
Having studied ballet herself, Kavanagh...
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