There are many fine dancers in the world but few true dance personalities - dancers whose names bring a flush of instant recognition. Some of the finest dancers will never be such personalities, and such personalities often transcend technical flaws.
Such has been the case with Rudolf Nureyev, who will bring his "Nureyev and Friends" to Symphony Hall on Wednesday, Feb. 20, for a program with the Utah Symphony. (See boxed information on E6.)Nureyev was the first of the great Russian dance defectors, and ever since 1961, when he made his great leap to freedom, he has projected a flamboyant, larger than life persona. Cult worship of the heroic male dancer began with Nureyev, followed by such personalities as Valeri Panov, Alexandr Godounov and Mikhail Baryshnikov. Nureyev has aroused great admiration in many quarters and great animosity in others, and the controversy goes on.
Over the years, one's thoughts of this sensuous, fiery dancer are colored with a sense of barely leashed temperament, of barely contained excitement - perhaps the result of his Tartar heritage.
Yet looking beyond his notoriety, one realizes that he has been sincerely dedicated to his craft and has behind him 30 years of solid achievement in the West - an accomplishment that many early detractors declared would never happen. Nureyev has walked through the storm with his head held high.
As befits a world citizen, Nureyev is a "born traveler." He was born on a train, crossing Russia toward Vladivostok, where his father was posted in the army. He grew up mostly in Ufa, in the Bashkir Republic. "At 6, I decided to be a dancer, and I never wavered," he said. With his mother's help he studied locally, then made his way to the Vaganova School in Leningrad, where he studied with the great Alexander Push-kin.
Two scratchy old films of Pavlova's dancing greatly influenced his approach. "I saw in those films how her technique came from a spontaneity within her each time she danced, and I knew I had to find that within myself also," he said.
He quickly advanced to soloist with the Kirov Ballet, where his "Le Corsaire" pas de deux became a "signature" role. But his independent attitude made him suspect with the authorities, and when he toured with the Kirov to Paris in 1961, he was told not to continue on to London but return home immediately. Suspecting that his future career would be restricted, he asked for asylum in the West.
Nureyev immediately became the hottest dancer in the world. He had a significant association with London's Royal Ballet, and especially ballerina Margot Fonteyn, but he has always danced with other companies (more than 30) and has mounted and partly choreographed more than 25 productions, mostly classical, for prominent companies worldwide.
It's been a very long career and shows no signs of really evaporating. Though this tour is billed as a farewell, Nureyev says not to count on it.
Reached in New York between engagements of Nureyev and Friends, his voice came across the wire with onlythe faintest trace of accent, as he answered questions with complete willingness and civility.
"I will stop dancing when there are no more offers," he said quite candidly. Among such offers recently have been his tour as the King in "The King and I" last year and a new ballet created for him by Flemming Flindt, "The Overcoat," with the Cleveland San Jose Ballet.
"As for the future, I could choreograph, I like that. Or I could conduct. I will be conducting about 15 minutes of the program in Salt Lake City, doing the `Sleeping Beauty' music. We have only three engagements with orchestra on this tour, so I won't have much opportunity. But it's an area I'd like to explore."
"Nureyev and Friends" is going to small American cities as well as large, but it's not the first time for Nureyev in grass-roots America. "I made such a tour back in 1973, under Sol Hurok's management," he recalled. "And I first made the acquaintance of America in 1961, when I danced on the "Bell Telephone Hour."
Nureyev doesn't need the security of any one place in his life. He is proud to be at home everywhere, he said. He maintains his chief residence in Monte Carlo and keeps apartments in New York and Paris.
Last year, he returned to the stage of the Kirov in Leningrad. "I felt I had to dance there once more," he said, "but I don't know, it was a bittersweet experience - " his voice trailed away.
Nureyev has no particular favorite role. "I enjoy all my ballets, or I wouldn't do them," he said. " `Swan Lake,' `Sleeping Beauty,' `Don Quixote,' `La Bayadere.' Then I became curious about modern dance. I courted such choreographers as Paul Taylor, Murray Louis, Glen Tetley. With Martha Graham I had seasons on Broadway, at the Metropolitan Opera, touring the world."
Asked to name his favorite partner, he replied as one hoped he would - Margot Fonteyn. Their partnership rejuvenated the aging ballerina, and their great temperamental rapport will long be remembered, in such works as "Romeo and Juliet" and "Giselle." "I was also lucky to dance with the French ballerina, Yvette Chauvire, with Rosella Hightower when I was with the Marquis de Cuevas Ballet, and Lynn Seymour," he recalled.
As for his artistic directorship of the Paris Opera Ballet (1983-89), a troupe noted for internal difficulties, Nureyev lasted six years, not a bad tenure. "I feel I did well with the company and for the company," he said. "We danced many different styles of choreography, and I built a good classical repertory for them." Nureyev resigned after coming to grips with Paris arts czar Pierre Berge.
He is glad to see Russian ballet companies coming to the Western world. He doesn't feel they have a great deal to teach Western dancers but should themselves be open to learning. "The exposure is good for them, and I hope they are ready to look at the new things happening in the West," he said.
"If they think they are the greatest all-around dancers, they are mistaken. Americans have had Balanchine, who created a new American style - great facility, great technique, beautiful line. Russians lack such line. They are not used to moving fast, producing intricate phrases, getting on with it.
"When I defected in 1961, there were five major ballet companies in the world," he recalled. "Now there are hundreds, a great proliferation in dance. Public enthusiasm has waned somewhat, but it is by no means disappearing.
"The centers of dance are in Paris, New York and London. There everyone is free to make ballets, to judge and be judged. There is a sophisticated public and critics, and enlightened dancers. The Russians need an infusion of this, to see the great creative, innovative modern choreographers, understand how to wear costumes, make the most of being on stage," said Nureyev.