'Rudolf Nureyev: A Life in Dance' at the de Young Museum
by Sura Wood
Here are a few things you might not know about Rudolf Nureyev, the Russian virtuoso ballet dancer and uninhibited free spirit who defected to the West in 1961. At 5'7" and sensitive about his stature, he preferred abbreviated costume jackets that promoted the illusion of a longer leg line and that had extra fabric under the arms to allow greater mobility, and he eschewed the traditional baggy pants worn by many male dancers of the time in favor of sheer tights – self-conscious or modest about his attributes he was not. Also, in 1990, three years before his death at age 54 from complications from AIDS, he performed with the U.S. touring company of The King and I. Move over, Yul Brynner.
These are among the details revealed in the de Young Museum's Rudolf Nureyev: A Life in Dance, a curiously unsatisfying hybrid exhibition of costume and dance that falls frustratingly short in both areas. There's not enough insider information on the dance side to gratify ardent ballet fans, and the costuming aspect is thinner than usual for those coming to covet the threads.
So how does one design a museum show, which is by definition static, when it revolves around a world-class athlete? Though it doesn't surmount this challenge, the exhibit does assemble video clips of several performances, and wonderful black-and-white photographs of the young Nureyev, whose high cheekbones, large piercing eyes, Slavic good looks and dramatic inclinations made him a rock star of the dance world. He was the first dance celebrity to have his visage grace the covers of Vogue and Newsweek. But the true focus is a collection of over 70 costumes from ballets Nureyev danced in or choreographed. Jeweled and created with heavy brocades, silks, velvets and sequins – no spandex or breathable fabrics here – his regal costumes are displayed along with those worn by his partners, most famously Margot Fonteyn, and other cast members of productions such as La Bayadere, Swan Lake, Sleeping Beauty, Cinderella, The Nutcracker, Romeo and Juliet, Don Quixote, and Fonteyn and Nureyev's signature ballet, Marguerite and Armand. The costumes have historical value, especially to followers of the ballet, but they cry out for the theatrical lighting and artifice that would give them a grandeur that eludes them on mannequins. Despite sweaty wear and tear, the princely jackets and delicate tutus have survived surprisingly well, some more tarnished with age than others. Fonteyn's and Nureyev's ballet shoes, on view in a case here, certainly took a drubbing. There's something poignant about seeing them separated from the talented feet that once wore – and executed marvels – in them.
Not much for adhering to official Kremlin policies while on tour with the Kirov Ballet, and fearing he might never be allowed to travel again should he return to Russia, Nureyev requested and was granted asylum when the company was in Paris. Aside from his high-profile defection, he's probably best-known for his alchemical partnership with Fonteyn, with whom he first danced in the Royal Ballet's 1962 production of Giselle at Convent Garden. The black-velvet beaded costume he wore for his debut with her is here. A formative experience of my early childhood was seeing the duo perform on the stage of the Loews Theater, a movie house in Washington, D.C., the only ballet venue in the nation's capital in the days before the Kennedy Center opened. Even in that make-shift showcase, Fonteyn was the incarnation of elegance, grace, restraint and exquisite line. He was vital and masculine; she was beauty to his beast.
Nureyev helped expand the role of the male dancer, who up until then had been little more than a technically proficient prop, a weightlifter moving the ballerina – the star – around the stage and partnering her, before he indulged in a round of crowd-pleasing pirouettes and bounding leaps across the stage. He's credited with deepening the psychological dimensions and emotional depth of his characters, though detractors found his acting hammy and an exercise in "look at me."
He remounted Marius Petipa's Don Quixote for himself and ballerina Maina Gielgud, who remembers him as witty and well-read, a clown and chronic cut-up with an infectious sense of humor, and an exacting taskmaster who occasionally swore under his breath during their pas de deux. More anecdotes similar to the kind Gielgud shared with me privately would have been welcome as part of the exhibition, but unfortunately, there's precious little insight into this complex man or juicy behind-the-scenes dish balletomanes would relish. Nureyev, on and off-stage, was inherently more interesting than what he wore when he performed, though he was always charismatic when he moved through space. Projected on a wall of one of the galleries is amazing black-and-white film footage of Nureyev dancing for the camera in a bare studio. Dressed in rehearsal clothes and effortlessly defying gravity, he's sleek, agile and positively electrifying to watch. No wonder the rest of the show pales in comparison.
Rudolf Nureyev: A Life in Dance, at the de Young Museum through Feb. 17, 2013.