Nureyev’s Canceled Ballet Mirrors His Soviet-Era Persecution (Op-ed)

Perhaps Rudolf Nureyev’s biography holds the key to what just happened at the Bolshoi Theater.

Days before the premiere of a ballet chronicling his life of work, love, and hate, the Theater canceled the performances, saying the ballet was not ready.

Nureyev was a brilliant dancer. But he was also a Soviet defector, openly homosexual and had been diagnosed with AIDS.

It is hard to know which of these factors played a role in the cancelation.

Nureyev was born on a train not far from Irkutsk. He learned to dance from the great St. Petersburg ballerina Anna Udaltsova who had been exiled to Ufa and out of sheer desperation had taken a position teaching choreography at the local Palace of Culture.

Nureyev’s mother was a housewife and his father a political instructor in the army. His parents felt that ballet was not masculine enough for their son and Nureyev had bitter memories of his father beating him for attending ballet classes.

Although he entered the Leningrad school of choreography after great difficulty and much delay, Nureyev became one of its most brilliant graduates, earning a position with the Kirov Ballet, now the Mariinsky.

Leap of Freedom

In 1961, the year Nureyev was recognized as the world’s best dancer, the Kirov Ballet embarked on an international tour. The troupe was to stop first in Paris, then in London.

According to the Soviet rules for touring abroad, performers could only move about in groups of five or more, communicate with approved persons, and take their meals in the presence of their Soviet “handler.”

Nureyev rebelled. He and ballerina Alla Osipenko ran off to dinner at a castle owned by the sister of French actress Marina Vlady. They did everything they could to soak in Paris. The Soviet authorities accused Nureyev of behavior unbefitting a Soviet performer and removed him from the tour. The troupe went on to London without him.

Then, at the Paris-Le Bourget airport, Nureyev achieved what would later be called his “leap to freedom.” Seeking political asylum in France, Nureyev would become the first Soviet defector. In response, the Soviet authorities convicted him in absentia of betraying the Motherland. He was sentenced to seven years and stripped of his property. Nureyev’s only request to Soviet officials, that they allow his mother to visit him, was never granted.

Mikhail Gorbachev personally granted Nureyev permission to enter the country for 72 hours in 1987 to say goodbye to his dying mother. He was forbidden to speak with anyone else.

In 1989 Nureyev danced in several performances on the home stage of the Kirov Theater, and in 1992, a few months before his death, he directed “The Nutcracker” in Kazan, his mother’s hometown.