BOSTON — RUDOLF NUREYEV'S bold leaps and magnetic style, not to mention his pop-icon status, helped popularize ballet in a way that no dancer before him had achieved. His dramatic intensity and panache won fans all over the world, and he was a tireless performer.
Nureyev, who died Wednesday, also blazed a trail for talented Soviet dancers to follow, becoming the first leading member of the Kirov Ballet to defect to the West in 1961. After joining London's Royal Ballet, he and prima ballerina Margot Fonteyn formed a professional partnership that proved legendary in its longevity and scope.
Of their remarkable pairing, Fonteyn once said, "When I am dancing with him and I look across the stage, I see not Nureyev but the character of the ballet. I don't see, as I do with others, a man I know and talk to every day."
Although people under 30 think primarily of Mikhail Baryshnikov when great Russian dancers are mentioned, Nureyev was the epitome of the classically trained, well-proportioned male dancer. With his exotic persona (it was said that his descendents were the nomadic Tatars) and eagerness to broaden his movement vocabulary, he fared equally well in modern dance. Martha Graham choreographed a dance for Nureyev and Fonteyn in 1975, calling it "Lucifer."
Nureyev started dance lessons, against his parents' wishes, at age 11. After living in Moscow, the family moved to Ufa, the capital of Bashkiria in the Russian Republic. Nureyev chose the Kirov over the more rigid Bolshoi ballet school, and his first break came when he replaced a lead dancer on the Kirov's 1961 European tour. It was on the Paris leg of the trip that he requested asylum from the French government.
Nureyev danced well into his 40s, sometimes to not-exactly-charitable reviews, and his new ballets and remakes of classic dances met with mixed critical response. He directed the Paris Opera Ballet from 1983-89, retiring to go on tour as the title character in a revival of the Broadway musical "The King and I."
Last fall, Nureyev choreographed Marius Petipa's 19th-century classic "La Bayadere" for the Paris Opera Ballet. On opening night, the 54-year-old dancer was awarded the insignia of Commander of Arts and Letters by French Minister of Culture Jack Lang.
Graham remarked of Nureyev in 1975, "He dares anything. His body is not typed. He is trained to be a cavalier in ballet but if he wants to be something else, he is a Tartar. It is a primal body, so controlled, so known."