Lunch with ‘an electric rabbit’: the day Nureyev swept me off my feet
A new film about Rudolf Nureyev's defection to the West has reminded me of a fascinating day I spent with him
My lunch with Rudolf Nureyev had been arranged with the Royal Ballet press office for one o’clock sharp at The Connaught, one of Mayfair’s grandest hotels. It was the spring of 1976 and the Russian would be coming directly from rehearsals at the opera house.
“Don’t be late,” I was counselled. “He can be a monster if he’s angry.”
I’d been invited to interview the Royal Ballet’s mesmeric star – whose headline-making defection from the Soviet Union in 1961 is the subject of a new biopic, The White Crow –to promote a season in which he would not only dance a different ballet every night, but direct and choreograph as well. “It’s a heavy workload,” the press office told me, “so he’s likely to be a little tense.”
Never having actually seen a ballet, I took advice from a friendly dance critic. “Tread carefully,” he said. “I went to see Rudi for the Radio Times. They had published something he didn’t like. As I came through the door of his dressing room at Covent Garden, all smiles, he ripped off his sweaty jockstrap so he was naked and threw it at me saying: ‘I fucking hate Radio Times!’”
Well, I couldn’t say I hadn’t been warned.
Nureyev arrived at The Connaught bang on time. He was wearing a Cossack fur hat and a silky full-length black beaver fur coat that would have looked over the top in a Moscow winter. This seemed excessive on a warm May day in London, but full marks – he was living up to his imperious, haughty legend, as if he had just stepped out of Dr Zhivago. High Slavic cheekbones, snarling nostrils, sensuous lips, deep, intelligent eyes. He had all the glamour of the young princes he played on stage. You could see what Margot Fonteyn saw in him.
The maître d’ in the Grill Room sprang to attention, but seemed tense. “I do have a rule that gentlemen must wear ties,” he stuttered. “Please, I have a lovely selection over here.” Nureyev was led to a chiffonier where the maître d’ opened a draw and invited Rudi to pick one. Nuryev looked at them incredulously. The limp, colourless ties lay in the draw like dead fish on a Billingsgate slab. The Tartar nostrils flared. “You ask me to wear these fucking things?” he exploded. “Fuck off!” With a great swish of the beaver coat, he turned on his Cuban heels and swaggered out of The Connaught. “We go to Alvaro’s,” he said, citing a fashionable club in the King’s Road.
This was 5km away, by which time I guessed he would probably have had enough and tell me to “fuck off” as well. All seemed lost, but chasing after Nureyev like Alice after the White Rabbit, I spied a cheap trattoria and managed to guide him past the hanging Chianti bottles into the restaurant where the patron greeted him with a lot of “Ciao bello!” chatter. To my astonishment, the two men then began a warm conversation in fluent Italian. Compared with The Connaught, this was a dump, but Nureyev relaxed. His standard meal was steak and crudités. But, because he was recovering from pneumonia, he asked the patron to make him Shchi, the traditional Russian cabbage soup.
For the next three hours, Nureyev sipped bowls of the broth between glasses of red wine and boiling tea, always with four sugars. He took his hat off, but put on a little woollen skull cap. “Wherever I am in the world, I am always cold,” he explained. Perhaps it was the kerfuffle at The Connaught that ignited his volcanic emotions, or that there were echoes of his impoverished youth in these homely environs, but one moment he was ablaze with fury about perceived enemies, the next, a doomy Dionysus weeping in despair that the Kremlin would not let him be reunited with his dying mother.
The White Crow charts Nureyev’s improbable journey from his childhood in Stalin’s Russia, north of the Gobi desert, to his defection while on tour with the Kirov in Paris as the ballet company was about to fly to London – a dash that plunged the Cold War into an even deeper freeze. It opens with the vagabond dancer’s birth on a crowded steam train in southern Siberia and chronicles the grinding poverty of his early life, during which he went shoeless in all weathers, while his mother Fareda risked attack by wolves in her search for potatoes and his father fought for the Red Army against the Nazis. It ends on the eve of his lionisation by fashionable society.
The film is directed by Ralph Fiennes, who also plays Ivanovitch Pushkin, Nureyev’s dance tutor at the Kirov, who is questioned by a KGB hardman after his protégé’s defection and is obviously broken by what he sees as Nureyev’s betrayal of the USSR. Ukrainian dancer Oleg Ivenko eerily captures the Rudi I saw at lunch, even convincing with his signature pantherine leaps.
“When I first came here, KGB tried every trick,” Nureyev told me. “They said my mother was dying and told her to tell me I was a traitor, and that my only salvation was to return. But I said to her: ‘Mama, you haven’t asked me the most important thing.’ ‘What is that?’ she asked. ‘You haven’t asked me if I am happy’. So she asked me: ‘Are you happy?’ ‘Yes,’ I said, ‘I am happy.’
“But I worry because I cannot phone her. She has no phone, so I must phone someone who will go and get her. Before she can reach me the phone goes dead. This is KGB cutting the line.”
He took a photograph from his wallet and showed me a smudged picture of himself as a young boy with Fareda and his two sisters, Rosa and Makarova, cradling it as if it were a holy relic. “The papers spoke of my ‘leap to freedom’. Ugh! I was calm. I walked slowly to the French policemen and said: ‘I want political asylum.’ We were due to fly to London, but I was being sent back to Moscow. KGB said I needed disciplining because I liked the freedom of capitalism I saw in the West. If I had gone, they would have killed me.”
The KGB felt they had a hold on him because they knew he was gay, even encouraged his male partners, aware that such “degenerate” behaviour could be punished with long years in a labour camp if he displeased them.
The Asiatic profile was holding up well when we met but the perfume of youth was off him. He was 38 now, earned £1m a year, had a pop star following but was still dancing 200 nights a year. I asked how much longer his body could sustain his ambition. “When I go to the barre I know what the other dancers are thinking. ‘He is finished, why doesn’t he give up?’ But I defy them. Always it is my ambition to get the audience off their seats. Ballet is martyrdom. Painful martyrdom.”
Part of his pain was his fear that, despite being a living legend, the Royal Ballet was about to dump him. “Royal Ballet is bucket of shit,” he said. “When I arrive at Royal Ballet they treat me like electric rabbit.”
“Sixteen years ago, when I came here, you couldn’t boast about your male dancers. So I am like electric rabbit at greyhound track – other dancers are dogs. Dogs must chase the rabbit, overtake rabbit. I am the rabbit. But now the dogs are fast. So there is a problem: how to derail electric rabbit before the dogs catch up. Today they have excellent dancers, so they would rather spend their money on them. Should spend on floor of Covent Garden. Hard as concrete. Only good for firewood.”
Pushkin said taking Rudi into his home to recuperate after breaking his foot was like “an untrained animal coming into the house”. I saw what he meant. He was a contradiction throughout my day with him, both arrogant and shy, quick to catch fire but in gentle moments so winning that one male dancer told me he could turn a straight man gay.
By now, my photographer had arrived and told Nureyev: “Hyde Park is ablaze with daffodils. Why don’t we take you surrounded by daffodils?” Nureyev was up for it. So off we sped again, walking a quarter of a mile to Knightsbridge, racing across four lanes of thunderous traffic, before Rudi was invited to lay down in the damp earth of Hyde Park.
“Ah, the daffodils,” he exclaimed. “How camp!”
During our walk back to where his little white Fiat was parked, I told him about a party I had been to the previous night, and he made a curious remark. “But you enjoy your life. It was much better for you to go out until four in the morning and drink than for me to go home and sleep to gather energy for a performance.”
It was said that Nureyev ushered in a new culture of narcissism in performers, but behind the imperious air lay a deep melancholy. In the film, Nureyev’s character is asked if he would ever return to the Soviet Union. “I may never return to my country, but I may never be happy in yours,” he answers.
He lived with HIV for 10 years before dying from Aids in Paris at 54. It is not without significance that among the art in his Paris flat were several paintings of Saint Sebastian shot through with arrows, a martyr he clearly identified with. He was alone when he died.
– © The Daily Telegraph