In Russia, Rudolf Nureyev won acclaim for his ability to leap higher, spin longer, and beat his feet together faster than most other dancers.
Now, more than 20 years later, he is still performing these feats. He is the leading dancer and director of his own production of ''Don Quixote'' with the Boston Ballet, which will tour throughout the Southern United States and in Mexico from April 5 to May 8.
Nureyev portrays Basilio, the comic young lover, in ''Don Quixote.'' He first performed this part in the 1959-60 season with the Kirov Ballet in Russia, two years before he defected to the West.
Then, as now, he was known for his rebellious moods, his hard work and determination to succeed, and a unique interpretation of his roles. As a young man, Nureyev came up fast in the Russian ballet hierarchy. At his debut with the Kirov, he was partner to the prima ballerina, rather than a member of the corps de ballet.
Basilio's solos and pas de deux are especially demanding, since they require quick transitions from the airborne turns to the fancy footwork which combines a pseudo-Spanish beat with classical ballet technique. The variations for Basilio, who is on stage for much of the three-act ballet, build to a crescendo of flying turns in the Act III Grand Pas de Deux.
Nureyev is certainly the only dancer of his generation who would put himself to this kind of test, especially since he appears in every scheduled performance of ''Don Quixote.'' In contrast, when the American Ballet Theater appeared in Boston in November 1981, Mikhail Baryshnikov, 10 years Nureyev's junior, danced only twice in the eight-performance run.
But it is Nureyev's larger role as choreographer and ballet master that is of interest, not his ability to perform the tricks of the premier danseur's trade. As he travels from dance company to company he takes his own production plans with him. This season, for instance, he scored a success with his work ''Manfred'' for the Zurich Opera Ballet.
Nureyev will return to Europe in May after his tour with the Boston Ballet. He will star in a five-week season at the London Coliseum, then in Italy and Greece, before a fall tour -- again with the Boston Ballet -- to the West Coast.
During a recent birthday party for Nureyev held during the Boston Ballet's show in its hometown, hundreds of red, white, and yellow carnations were flung on stage, and colored streamers hung from the balcony, as an enthusiastic exchange took place between the star and his fans.
''I'm so busy dancing I don't have time for holidays and nostalgic trips,'' he said later.
He also talked of another future project: ''In October I'm choreographing 'The Tempest' for the Royal Ballet in England. The second of December is the first night. The actual work will take seven weeks. The music is already chosen (Tchaikovsky's Overture to 'The Tempest,' with additional Tchaikovsky pieces). The script is written. One has to think quite well in advance, in great detail, what ingredients go into it. The length of the ballet is 1 hour, 10 minutes. I will dance the role of Prospero.''
How does he manage to be the leading dancer and director at the same time?
''We spend a long time rehearsing dancers and extras in great detail in the studio,'' he said, using the Boston Ballet engagement as an example. Now I have to polish them with utmost care so when we go on stage I won't have to correct dancers, but place them. When we go on stage, I change focus, to lighting, decor , timing. I forget myself, but later we will work on ourselves (referring to himself and his partner). The company has to be cooked now.''
Violette Verdy, co-artistic director of the Boston Ballet, added: ''When Nureyev did a completely new original ballet for the Paris Opera (the premiere of ''Manfred''), he had just broken his foot at that time. Not only was he preparing to dance it, but he was choreographing too. He went right on and did it, so you see, nothing can stop him.''
Nureyev worked with Verdy when she was director of the Paris Opera Ballet, a post he has accepted for 1983. Although Nureyev has bought an apartment in Paris , he has taken Austrian citizenship. He dances each year at the Vienna Opera House and says that the Austrians ''have always been kind to me.''
In Boston, Nureyev traveled with an entourage that separated him from the public and even from the other dancers, except in the studio and on stage.
On stage it is different. ''I enjoy dancing. I hope that I can pass this joy of dancing on to the public. I hope it is contagious, to make them want to dance , to make their soul dance. What do I get back? I'm doing what I had planned from the age of 6. It's obviously my life. I get my life back.''