My review of Julie Kavanagh’s new Nureyev biography, appearing this Sunday in the SF Chronicle’s book review:
“Ballet biographies are getting raunchy: Meredith Daneman’s insightful 2004 portrait of that bastion of British dignity, Margot Fonteyn, taught me more than I ever expected to learn about the great dancer’s Kegel muscles, and Julie Kavanagh’s 1997 study of choreographer Frederick Ashton hardly shied from exploring his more profane inspirations. Now Kavanagh is back with a revealing 782-page tome on that most mega of ballet stars, Rudolph Nureyev. But one can hardly blush at its sexual descriptiveness. It was, after all, not only technical feats but ballet as a channel for that wild, amorphous sensuality that fueled Rudimania for decades after his headline-making 1961 defection, that had women and men alike sleeping on sidewalks for tickets to his performances, that enthralled everyone from Jackie Kennedy to Mick Jagger. And Nureyev himself never hesitated to boast about his exploits, claiming (probably falsely) to have impregnated several ballerinas. You can imagine Nureyev looking on from the afterlife with that mischievous smirk of his as you read Kavanagh’s dishy, detailed treatment, for he emerges as a prodigious and insatiable lover.
But there is much more than bedroom gossip to smile about, because Kavanagh, trained from childhood in ballet, knows the art. “Nureyev: The Life” earns the definitive article of its subtitle, weaving deftly together, for instance, the difference between the Vaganova and Bournonville schools of ballet training, and the torrid passion between Nureyev and the famed Danish star Erik Bruhn. From the age of 7, when his mother smuggled him into a ballet performance in their provincial Bashkirian town of Ufa, Nureyev knew dancing was his life; after his exhausting dramas with Bruhn, he even swore off committed relationships in servitude to his career. That didn’t end his offstage adventures, from being arrested at a Haight-Ashbury weed party in the 1960s to trashing film director Franco Zeffirelli’s mansion in the 1980s. But in Kavanagh’s hands what happened behind the curtain becomes illumination for the mesmerizing spectacle that Nureyev created in front of it.”
Skipping down, the best quality of the biography is this:
“If Nureyev was later widely known to pick up hustlers, he made love with mostly one person, and that was himself. He emerges on these pages as a raging narcissist, shamelessly using fans and friends and casting them aside if they make any emotional demands in return, living only for the glory of performing and therefore dancing embarrassingly beyond his prime. But narcissists are often supremely charming and charismatic, and that is certainly the case with Nureyev in Kavanagh’s portrayal. She not only tells us about the many admirers who became Nureyev’s surrogate families after his defection left him homeless and motherless; she also makes us see why they loved him, because you can feel in her prose that she loves him, too.”
Click here for the rest of the review.