The biographer of the world’s greatest dancer reveals that beautiful women – not men – were his first passion
9 September 2007As alluring as a young Gina Lollobrigida, Menia Martinez suddenly appeared at the Vaganova ballet school in Leningrad one day in 1955 like a rainbow in a leaden sky.
It was the middle of winter, yet she wore the thinnest of summer clothes – wild Fifties outfits such as zebra-patterned stovepipes, boat-necked tops, open-toed stilettos and huge hoop earrings. The girls in her dormitory begged her to do their makeup, tell them stories about life in Cuba and sing Latin American songs in her husky voice.
“She used to sit on a bench in our kitchen with an upended washbowl between her legs and beat it like a tomtom drum,” said Ursula Collein, an East German student who became her friend.
Like almost everyone at the school, Rudolf Nureyev was mes-merised by the Cuban girl, who was to become his first and only teenage sweetheart.
Rudik, as he called himself, was a 17-year-old from Bashkiria in the Soviet far east – as exotic as a Latin American to the Russians at the ballet school. He was noted for his wild performances on stage and his rebellious and sometimes coarse behav-iour off it. But mostly he was known for the obsessive desire to dance that had brought him, penniless, to Leningrad and had won him a place at the Vaganova academy, the training school for the Kirov Ballet.
Leo Ahonen, one of four students who shared a room with him, remembered: “When we played, he worked. The only important thing to him was to study classical ballet.”
Several students experimented with same-gender sex – nearby Eka-terina Square was a nocturnal, and highly illegal, cruising ground for gomiki – but Nureyev’s colleagues are convinced that if he felt an attraction towards any of the boys he did nothing about it. As with many of his boyhood friends, they were surprised when he later became actively homosexual.
If anything, he appeared to take a greater interest in girls than the others did. Ahonen remembers his liking for a soloist in the Finnish National Ballet, when it toured Leningrad. “She wasn’t special as a dancer, so he obviously noticed a pretty face.”
And like almost everyone at school, he was captivated by Menia Martinez. This “exotic bird” thrilled her fellow pupils but shocked some of her teachers.
“Such a thing was not supposed to enter this traditional institution,” said Collein. “I hope Menia never knew this, but we heard her being compared to a prostitute. We all liked her enormously, even though she didn’t share our hardworking Prussian ways – if she didn’t feel like it some days, she just wouldn’t get up – but she was such a winning personality that no one could be critical of her for long.”
No one except Valentin Shelkov, the college principal. Glaring at her long, heavily mascaraed eyelashes, he asked sarcastically if they were her own. Menia laughed coquettishly: “Nyet. Magazin.” [No. A shop.]
Soon after her arrival, her teacher told her about “a fantastic dancer who’s a little crazy and sloppy and needs to get into shape”. It was Nureyev. Menia loved the wild spirit of his dancing while he loved her moody recitals of Afro-Cuban song and dance.
How luscious she looked with her bare feet, flounced skirt and white bra showing through a tight, transparent black top; her eyes half closed and shapely hips swaying to the rhythm; and how well she could hold the stage alone.
“He once said to me afterwards, ‘I want to have the same emotion when I dance as you have when you sing’.”
Dismissing him as “just another stupid boy”, Menia was not romantically drawn to him at first; but two years later they began to grow attached. The same things made them laugh – Rudolf often made fun of Shelkov, standing stiffly in a Stalin-like pose and pointing to an offensive scrap of litter in the corridor – and they loved listening to music and talking about books they had read.
The friendship with Menia fanned his curiosity about the world outside. He would study photographs of Margot Fonteyn and other Royal Ballet artists in a calendar, as well as in copies of Dancing Times, which an English friend of Menia’s regularly sent to her.
His roommate Leo Ahonen, a Finn, had two passports, as the original was due to expire; Nureyev pleaded to be given the old passport. “He said, ‘We can change the pictures. It will be all right if the two of us keep this quiet’, but I was too afraid – I thought we would both end up in prison in Siberia. Yet I knew at that moment that he was going to defect one day. It came as no surprise to me when he did.”
At the ballet school, he began an intense collaboration with Alexander Pushkin, the most revered teacher. The results amazed those who saw him.
Natalia Dudinskaya, the Kirov’s prima ballerina – a national treasure in the final stage of her career – had been keeping an eye on him ever since Pushkin had called her into the studio to watch him perform. “I’d been surprised by how that boy, not even in the graduate class, could sense and feel the poses.”
On graduating, he was offered a post by the Kirov as a corps de ballet member – much to his dismay, as he had been bragging to classmates that he would start his career as a soloist, which was unheard of.
Dudinskaya found him moping in the corridor and the upshot was that he would partner her on stage – though each later claimed that the other had done the asking. For the Kirov’s 46-year-old prima ballerina to pick as her new partner a boy of 21 straight out of school was as much of an event as when Mathilda Kschessinskaya – star of the Imperial Ballet and one-time mistress of Tsar Nicholas – chose the 21-year-old Nijinsky to dance with her.
His first performance with her was thrilling – like “an eruption of Vesuvius”, said one critic – though some purists complained that his boiling bravura “disturbed the subtle choreography” of the ballet, Laurentia.
Offstage, his life was just as exhilarating. His relationship with Menia had developed into a romance. “It was the first experience for both of them to be in love,” said Liuba Romankova, a close friend. “Although Rudolf was always a little self-mocking – he was very proud and didn’t like to be seen to be sentimental – he was obviously very pleased that such a fabulous, sexy girl would give him her love.”
Just before Nureyev was due to partner Dudinskaya in Laurentia for the second time, he tore a ligament in his leg so badly that he was declared unfit to dance for two years. When Pushkin saw his pupil lying on his hospital bed in black despair, he invited Nureyev to move in with him and his wife.
Nureyev’s sudden success had brought home to the dance world how great a teacher Pushkin was, and the two had grown closer than ever. Now, from the moment he was taken into Pushkin’s home, he became more of a son than a pupil.
“There, thanks to Pushkin’s and his wife’s vigilant care, and the doctor’s daily visits, after 20 days I was able to go to class,” he remembered. There was more to his welcome than “vigilant care”, however.
Pushkin’s wife, Xenia Jurgenson, 42, was a tall, attractive Baltic blonde. She looked half the age of her husband (he was 10 years older) and was as earthy and extro-verted as he was spiritual and mild. One day, soon after Nureyev had moved in with them, all three went to Liuba Romankova’s apartment for dinner.
As the meal was coming to an end, Xenia, who was sitting beside Nureyev, reached across the table for a banana, which she slowly and suggestively began to peel. Just as she was about to put it in her mouth, she whispered something laughingly to Nureyev who, clearly embarrassed, snapped back one word in reply. “Doura!” [fool] Liuba’s mother, who heard what he had said, was shocked. When she and Liuba were alone together later, she said: “I do believe that Xenia is having an intimate relationship with Rudik.”
“Mama!” protested Liuba. “How could you think such a thing?”
In her eyes Xenia was an old woman. But over the next few weeks, as she observed them together, she began to realise that her mother must be right.
XENIA was more than ready for a romantic escapade. She had fallen in love with Pushkin when she was a ballet student and he was her teacher. As soon as she graduated, they married.
It was 1937. As the daughter of a St Petersburg couturier, Xenia was fashion conscious: she might wear jaunty white ankle socks with character shoes, a bow tied round her head, or jewellery with her two-piece swimsuit, the white beads of her necklace highlighting her dazzling smile, her wavy blonde hair falling in a Rita Hayworth mane. Her vivacity and sense of fun affected everyone around her.
Two decades later, although no longer the beauty Pushkin had married, she had a good figure and liked to make an impact, continuing to dress modishly. Theirs was a good marriage, but after 20 years of conversations that invariably reverted to dance, Xenia “wanted to hear something else”, according to a friend.
In 1959 she reached retirement age at the Kirov, where she had been a mid-ranking dancer, and this affected her bitterly. She felt lethargic and isolated. All Pushkin’s emotion was invested in his pupils, and when he returned home late at night he was always tired.
Then Nureyev arrived, and Xenia became fixated in a way she had never been before. “She fell totally in love with Rudik and wanted to fill her soul with this feeling,” Liuba said. “He was such an excitement in her life. After that, she had no other interests: Rudolf became her project.”
Xenia guided his reading, took him to the theatre and concerts and introduced him to her friends. Every meal at the Pushkins’ was a lesson in the finer points of etiquette: even when Xenia served just a snack, there would be a white linen cloth, candles, bone china and crystal glasses on the table.
To Rudolf, the strong-willed, sophisticated Xenia with her dancer’s body and flirtatious ways was an irresistible force. However much he recoiled from the implications of what was taking place – the betrayal of a man he loved who had invited him into his home – he found himself in her thrall: she was a woman of “enormous sexual appetite and great sensuality”, he a 21-year-old virgin who “wanted to know”.
He later told Menia that the first time Xenia made love to him she said: “I want you to know about this part of life . . . And also, I want you to feel like a man.”
Menia recalled: “She told Rudolf that Alexander Ivanovich no longer made love to her. And he was afraid, because he knew that she wanted him, and he had so much respect for Pushkin.”
A close friend believes the teacher had no idea of his wife’s transgression. “He loved Rudik as a son and he thought that Xenia Josifovna shared his attitude.”
Xenia was “very against” Menia, according to Liuba, and became “like a lioness” if she found out he had been with the beautiful young Cuban. The two women had virtually no contact with each other. It was impossible for the 20-year-old student to consider a woman twice her age (and one she saw as “large and looking like a man”) as a rival. “When Rudik told me he had been to bed with her, I thought: What! With that monster!” she recalled.
With Menia herself, Rudolf was so affectionately tactile that friends presumed incorrectly theirs was a physical relationship, too. When a friend asked Menia, she told her: “No, it’s not what I want, but I love him.”
Even when the opportunity was there, Rudolf did not attempt to take things further, telling Menia – “the only virgin in Leningrad” – that he respected her for holding back. “It’s good, Menia. Good not to.” Once, staying overnight with friends, they were given a single bed together. “They thought our situation was the same as theirs and put us in a room with a single bed. We couldn’t stop giggling because we were so squashed and had to hold each other so as not to fall out, and then we were giggling even more, thinking that they were thinking we were making love.” BY the early spring of 1959, the time had come for Menia to return to Cuba. On the day she was due to leave, Nureyev was not among the group of friends at the station who gathered to see her off. She boarded the Red Star to Moscow feeling badly let down. The train had barely pulled out of the station, however, when the door to her compartment slid open and a beaming Nureyev announced: “I’m coming with you!”
Throughout the journey they talked “about how we were going to stay in contact, how we could be together. Rudolf was very emotional – it wasn’t like before”.
Until then, in Liuba’s opinion, it had always been Menia who was the more committed of the two. “She couldn’t take her eyes off him. She was totally in love and dreamt that he would marry her. I had a lot of sympathy for Menia and tried to push Rudolf into proposing to her. ‘Oh, I know,’ he said, when I told him he should make a commitment to her, ‘but it would spoil my biography’.”
Now, realising that he was about to lose Menia, Nureyev began talking seriously about their future. In the middle of the night, stirred by the romantic atmosphere and rhythm of the train, he came down into her bunk and began to make love to her. “But at that moment I had no desire for him. I was stupid . . . A little girl.”
They spent their second night together in Moscow in a communal apartment near the Kremlin owned by Menia’s friend Bella Kurgina. Menia confided that he had proposed to her, adding excitedly: “If we’re together we can conquer the whole world!”
Bella, who had never warmed to Nureyev – “I found him very closed and uninteresting” – was concerned. “I felt he was using her as a way to get out of Russia without a scandal, and yet I could see it was complicated – that he was genuinely attracted to her, and there was great sympathy and feeling there.”
That night Menia slept on a camp bed with Nureyev beside her on the floor. “Most of the night he was kneeling, kissing her hand and being so loving. From the way he behaved with Menia I could never have imagined that he would turn out to be homosexual,” said Bella.
The following morning he insisted on going to the airport to see Menia off and paid for the excess weight of her luggage, which was crammed with books and records. When her flight was called, he had tears in his eyes and would not let her go. “He thought he would never see me again.” He was wrong. BACK in Leningrad, Xenia could feel her influence on Nureyev ebbing away. “She got very jealous when she felt anyone coming too close to him; she thought he belonged to her,” said Slava Santto, another friend.
“The situation with Xenia was very uncomfortable for Rudik,” remarked Liuba. “He couldn’t push her away because she loved him and did everything for him.”
He could be cruel to her, however. When he managed to get hold of a copy of a Russian magazine containing JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye he was captivated and had just finished reading it when Tamara Zakrzhevskaya, another pretty ballet-loving girl he had made friends with, called at the Pushkins’ apartment to see him.
Pointing at the magazine, he exclaimed: “You won’t be able to put this down!” Xenia overheard him, and said that she would love to read it, too. His reaction left both women speechless: “What do you need it for . . . Tamara can have 30 new thoughts in the time it takes you to come up with one!”
Xenia was visibly shattered, but she was unable to break free. “She was completely obsessed by him,” remarked one friend. “She wanted to live his life, and she enjoyed sharing his fame.”
“For the rest of her life there was only one person for her,” said another. “I think she made up some kind of fairytale for herself in her mind, building up the situation into romantic love.”
Years later Nureyev confided to friends that while he was living with the Pushkins he had made Xenia pregnant – fathering a son was a lifelong ambition – “but she didn’t want to let the baby live”. Again, in 1992, only months before he died, he asked a former Vaganova schoolmate: “What would you say if I told you I might have had a child by her?”
For Xenia to have undergone an illegal abortion would seem to have been the ultimate degradation, but in fact the procedure at that time was fairly matter-of-fact. “Everybody did it,” said one friend of Nureyev. “I did it six times. It was only a question of paying.”
Ultimately, Xenia became less possessive. Resigned to the fact that Nureyev would never reciprocate the passion she felt for him, she was more able to accept her role of taking care of him.
Liuba sees a parallel between Nureyev and the poet Alexander Blok, whose first sexual experience was at 16 with a woman twice his age. Blok developed a dualistic view of women as being either prostitutes or saints, and Liuba believes that Nureyev “also suffered from this double life. If a very young man has a relationship with an older woman, after the initial passion is over he begins to have other feelings. Rudik associated sex with shame, and women with the dark side of his nature: it’s the reason he began to look for pleasure in other places”. HE did not forget Menia, however. On an official visit to Vienna with other dancers for the Seventh Communist World Youth Festival in the summer of 1959, he spotted her in the Cuban delegation.
“He was so happy to see me. He came to our hotel, to our classes, and spent so much time with me that my friends were saying, ‘Menia, this must be love’.” she remembers.
Rudolf talked so openly about freedom that she feared for him. Although he insisted years later that defection was not on his mind at the time – “Not then” – the urgency with which he kept proposing to Menia in Vienna suggests that he was at least keeping the option open.
“He was much more insistent, saying, ‘We have to do it here.’ But Rudik at that moment was not very important for me.”
With her emotions now invested in the political upheavals of Castro’s new Cuba, Menia was no longer the doting young girl whom Rudolf had known in Leningrad; he found her “cold” and told her: “Now I think I love you more than you do me.”
Two years later Nureyev did defect to the West; and in 1966 – by then the most famous ballet dancer in the world – he learnt that the National Ballet of Cuba was due to appear at the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées. He went to Paris from his home in London, hoping Menia would be with them.
At the general rehearsal, trying not to be recognised, he spotted Menia onstage and sent a note to her: “When you’ve finished, go to the Hôtel des Ambassadeurs. I’ll be waiting for you.”
Alicia Alonso, co-founder and director of the ballet, forbade Menia to leave. She was backed by her husband Fernando, who had trained Menia as a young ballet student. They told her she was a representative of her country. Nureyev had betrayed the motherland; he was known to be a friend of Jacqueline Kennedy.
Menia refused to be deterred. “I don’t care,” she told the couple.
“Even if you fire me, I’m going. He was my best friend.”
The impasse was finally broken by a colleague who volunteered to chaperone her. It was a short walk from the theatre to the hotel, where Rudolf was standing outside. Seeing Menia’s male companion, he raised an ironic eyebrow. “Cuban KGB?”
“No,” she said firmly. “This is my friend.”
Her colleague left them, and they fell into each other’s arms. They were still “grasping each other” when a dance critic, Claude Baignères, passed by: “I saw Rudolf take the girl to the hotel. They looked as if they were going to stay there for three days without leaving!”
In fact they left soon afterwards to go for dinner, and noticed they were being followed by a photographer.
“No pictures! No pictures!” snarled Nureyev, throwing his jacket over Menia’s head and saying to her softly: “I don’t want them to hurt you.”
Under her coat she was still wearing her rehearsal clothes, but despite her protests Nureyev insisted on taking her to Maxim’s. It was important to him that she be made aware of his enormous change in stature.
He introduced her to Brigitte Bar-dot, and later they went on to Régine’s nightclub. Nureyev began to explain almost immediately why he had stayed in the West. He also told her how much he had learnt from Margot Fonteyn – “she was like a mother to him, he said” – and what a great revelation it had been to work with Erik Bruhn, the Danish dancer, with whom he had had a long affair.
Nureyev told her it had been so hard being constantly apart because of their different dancing commitments that Bruhn had finally decided to end things. “It’s finished,” he said, breaking down. “He’s the love of my life, but it’s finished . . . now I am alone.”
Menia recalled: “At that moment I could have gone to bed with him. It was so wonderful to see him again. He told me that there was something about me that he’d never found in anybody else, and he started to cry again, saying, ‘I love you . . . Please, Menia, stay with me. I want you to stay with me.’ I realised then why the Alonsos hadn’t wanted me to go.”
Rudolf was flying to Vienna first thing in the morning and he was insistent that Menia should accompany him: Vienna was where he had proposed to her all those years earlier.
“But why now?” she wanted to know. “I always thought you asked me only to leave Russia.”
“Well, I’m on the other side and I’m still asking,” he replied quietly.
Her first thought was that she could not let her ballet company down, but longer-term considerations made the idea of elopement seem even more “impossible”. She planned, as soon as she could, to return to Russia to dance with the Kirov or the Bolshoi.
Nureyev, more than anyone, could understand her obsession with “only dance, dance, dance”, and consequently kept contradicting himself. “He was saying, ‘Come . . . please come!’ And then, ‘No, I can see that you can’t’.”
Finally the answer Menia gave him was just as equivocal. “I told him not yes, not no, but potemu sto [because].”
It was after five in the morning by the time they left Régine’s and Nureyev dropped Menia back at her hotel. As she lay in bed, her thoughts still racing, she felt very sad, wondering if she had made a mistake. But instead of being impressed by his enormous celebrity it had made her “a little afraid”, and she knew without any hesitation that she did not want to spend the rest of her life just following him around.
“A few days later, I think it’s good that I say potemu sto.”Extracted from Rudolf Nureyev: The Life
, by Julie Kavanagh© Julie Kavanagh 2007