By MATTHEW GUREWITSCH
AUG. 26, 2007
Rudolf Nureyev in 1960 posing for a friend’s camera near the Leningrad Ballet School. (Credit Tamara Zakrzhevskaya/WNET and BBC)
A POINT comes in the afterlife of an artist when, for the time being, biography has pretty much done its work. The essential history is known; the ambience is broadly understood; the relationship between the life and the work has yielded its chief mysteries. Barring bombshells any future surprises are apt to be minor: not revelations, just minutiae.
To judge by the title, the 90-minute documentary “Nureyev: The Russian Years,” written and produced by the British filmmaker John Bridcut, would promise to fall squarely into the category of marginalia. After all, when Rudolf Nureyev, the young sensation of the Kirov Ballet, bolted from the clutches of the K.G.B. to asylum in Paris, he was all of 23. That was in 1961, and his glory years lay before him.
Even so, the prelude behind the Iron Curtain proves a mesmerizing subject. Between previously unknown film clips of the young Nureyev in full flight and fresh interviews with associates whose lives he touched or inadvertently destroyed, the material is of novelistic richness.
A BBC production in association with WNET in New York, “Nureyev: The Russian Years” receives its American premiere on the PBS series “Great Performances” on Wednesday. (Check local listings.) The BBC broadcast, with six extra minutes, follows on Sept. 29.
Of special interest is the shadowy Teja Kremke (pronounced TAY-ah KREM-keh), an East German ballet student who met the young Nureyev in Leningrad (as St. Petersburg was then), was smitten and urged him to seek his fortune in the West.
Credit for unearthing the connection to Mr. Kremke belongs to the British writer Julie Kavanagh, who began research for a new biography of Nureyev in 1997. Her book “Nureyev: The Life” is due from Pantheon on Oct. 2. Television rights to the project were sold to the BBC some time ago, and Ms. Kavanagh is listed as a consultant on Mr. Bridcut’s film.
Glamour, rough sex, intrigue, scandal: Nureyev had it all, and much that was not a matter of public record was common knowledge. Even so, he took many secrets to the grave when he died of complications from AIDS in 1993. Ms. Kavanagh has unearthed many of them, notably about his reckless, flamboyantly indiscreet love life.
But pillow talk was by no means her only research interest. With dogged persistence she eventually obtained access to Nureyev’s K.G.B. file, the court documents of his trial (in absentia) for treason and a cache of self-abasing love letters from Nureyev’s idol, Erik Bruhn, the Danish danseur noble. The surprise, in the case of the letters, was that Nureyev had not burned them. But the surprise about Mr. Kremke was that such a person existed at all.
“I basically uncovered the story of a cold war thriller,” Ms. Kavanagh said recently from London. “No one had heard of Teja before. He doesn’t show up in any account of Rudolf’s life. His death was very murky. He drank. He was very depressed. His whole family was punished for his brief dangerous liaison.” Travel denied, study opportunities denied, wretched work: the usual bureaucratic torture. Mr. Kremke, especially, took it hard. He drowned under mysterious circumstances in 1979, still in his mid-30s.
Luckily for posterity Mr. Kremke was also an amateur filmmaker and compulsively shot Nureyev from the wings of the theater in the Kirov years. He followed him into the streets of Leningrad too; one of his clips is presented as an arty prophecy of Nureyev’s defection. But for global politics the romance might have continued. Ute Kremke, Teja’s sister, tells Mr. Bridcut she overheard a phone call in which Nureyev begged her brother to follow him to the West. Then the Berlin Wall went up overnight, and it was too late.
In commercial hands “Nureyev: The Life” might have been turned into a juicy television series, somewhere between “Rome” and “Queer as Folk,” with cameos for the likes of Nikita S. Khrushchev, Martha Graham, Aristotle Onassis and Robert F. Kennedy. The trick would have been to cast the uncastable part of Nureyev.
That was one problem Mr. Bridcut never had to worry about; from the beginning, his film was conceived as a stand-alone documentary. And he, Ms. Kavanagh and the BBC agreed that the subject should be the Russian Nureyev, the diamond in the rough. “This part of the story contained the most interesting new material,” Mr. Bridcut said recently by e-mail from England, “and was virtually virgin territory.”
The earliest known film of Nureyev dancing was made at a student competition in Moscow in 1958. At 20, dressed only in white harem pants, a gold headband and regulation soft slippers, he tears off a solo from “Le Corsaire.” The leaps and spins come thick and fast, embellished with Arabian Nights flourishes that go well with his Tatar allure. Yet the most seductive moment of the dance comes between the circus tricks, with a little nothing of a step called pas balancé. A sweep of the leg here, an echoing sweep of the arm there, and repeat, to the other side — that was all, then straight into the next cyclone of a pirouette. But that throwaway transition was Nureyev’s invitation to join him in his private world of fantasy. Technically, the narrator of the Bridcut film points out, Nureyev’s performance at the competition was “far from perfect.” But already the imprint of his personality was unmistakable.
Some of the old clips are little more than a blur, yet Nureyev is there. Sometimes it’s the snap we see, or the humor, or the core of tragedy. Sometimes it’s the plush, catlike landings, the fearless flight. In one clip he cavorts on a lawn, improvising in a striped wrap, cinched around the waist to form a tunic: a faun more frisky than Nijinsky’s. Sergiu Stefanchi, once Nureyev’s roommate at the Vaganova Ballet Academy, the training ground for the Kirov Ballet, remembers roaming the squares of Leningrad with him under the opalescent glow of the White Nights of summer. “You are a Stradivarius,” Mr. Stefanchi remembers saying back then. “Inside you are singing, and the steps are coming.”
Until now Mr. Bridcut has been best known for his biographies of the British composers Elgar and Britten. Some may grouse that his Nureyev film is not really a dance film. The dance sequences are just snippets, but the oral history fills in many blanks. Many of Mr. Bridcut’s talking heads — early teachers, childhood acquaintances, dancers, fans, admirers, an old flame Nureyev seriously considered marrying — are quoted in the Kavanagh biography, but none register in print as memorably or as vividly as here.
You will not forget the peppery Ninel Kurgapkina, an early partner at the Kirov, who made Nureyev pick up the flowers thrown by his fans before dancing her solo. Or Alik Bikchurin, a hard-headed fellow student Nureyev irritated and impressed in equal measure. Or Tamara Zakrzhevskaya, a university student who followed him around Leningrad when he was nobody, snapping photographs of him gazing like Narcissus at his reflection in a puddle. Ms. Zakrzhevskaya was one who paid dearly when he defected; the authorities expelled her from the university. Yet she speaks of Nureyev with undying devotion.
In the end, Mr. Bridcut said, working on “Nureyev: The Russian Years” was not so different from working on his music films. “It deals with the same excitement and problems of artistry — the degree to which real artists have to focus intensely on their own work at the expense of those around them,” he said. “This self-absorption — self-obsession, even — can be hard for those close to them. Benjamin Britten is a classic example, and yet those who were caught in his flame, even if they were burned, still have a great love for him, which is quite remarkable. The same is true of Nureyev.”
Young Teja - Source: John Bridcut
The portrait of himself which Teja gave to Xenia Pushkin - Source: Nureyev: The Life by Julie Kavanagh