What do we know about Rudolph Nureyev? He was the most famous male ballet dancer of his generation, defected from the Soviet Union to the West, partnered Margot Fonteyn hundreds of times and, as Noël Coward once observed, seemed to be concealing a Rockingham tea service in his tights. Nor was he afraid to use it – he famously fucked anything that moved, and died of AIDS in 1992.

I only saw him once. On Margot Fonteyn’s farewell tour in 1976 at the Gaumont in Southampton when Nureyev would have been 38 and Fonteyn, well, so mature we could virtually hear her knees creak from the Circle. They took the pas de deux from Swan Lake v-e-r-y slowly but when he danced alone he was immensely deft, fast and powerful.

Aletta Lawson’s biographical stage piece for Theatre Lab is sweetly drawn as, in the last days at his Paris atelier, Rudolph sees his life pass before his eyes: from his childhood as the ‘different’ boy, a Trans-Siberian Billy Elliott, through tough tutelage as a charity case at ballet school to his debut with the Kirov, defection and more glittering career in the West.  His confidante is his loyal secretary Ellie (Helen Bang) but so also, in her bejeweled music box, is the shade of Margot Fonteyn (Jo Price). Apart, perhaps, for the detail of his affair with Danish dancer Erik Bruhn (Konstantinos Kavakiotis) who was his partner for 25 years and blond rather than Greek, it reveals little we didn’t already know and, rather like Rudi’s own personal appendage, it’s somewhat long to endure for an hour and half without a break.

The steadied nature of the script is relieved after forty minutes when the excellent Benny Maslov dances, firmly capturing Nureyev’s heroic, elaborate style and swiftness. The recorded music feels confining, though, and you wish for the urgency of a live orchestra to support such exhilarating choreography.

Set and back projections are scanty: Rudi’s hedonistic lifestyle and membership of Princess Margaret’s coterie are indicated only by a couple of champagne glasses and a hostess trolley, sometimes he has to tell Margot Fonteyn (and the audience) where we are at a particular time, and the fact he was continually trailed and threatened by the KGB long after his defection is overlooked.

There are convincing outbursts of arrogance and temperament but I’m surprised they didn’t mention his anti-semitism, a prejudice that coloured his private conversations throughout his career when he would refer to Mikhail Baryshnikov, whom he disliked, as ‘Moishe’ even though he isn’t remotely Jewish, and called a Soviet ballet critic a ‘Yiddish bitch’ in an article he wrote for Esquire.

It’s curious no major movie has yet been made, although Ralph Fiennes last year announced a plan to film the hefty Julie Kavanagh warts-and-all biography.

Until then, this is an effective, rare and fascinating glimpse into a unique life.


Rudi with Erik Bruhn

Rudi with Erik Bruhn

Until June 29.