Rudolf Nureyev, the charismatic Soviet dancer whose daring dash to freedom opened a brilliant career that brought ballet to audiences around the world, died yesterday. He had been suffering from AIDS.
Nureyev, 54, died at a Paris hospital, surrounded by family and friends, of “a cardiac complication, following a cruel illness,” said his physician, Michel Canesi. At his bedside were his sisters Rosa and Rosida, two nieces and a nephew.
Nureyev was a passionate dancer, classically trained and with the highest technical skills, but bringing a fire and showmanship to every appearance.
Dancers and directors said he was one of the dance greats, personally responsible for spreading appreciation of ballet in the West and shattering the barrier between classical ballet and modern dance.
His defection in 1961 stunned the world. In one of his first performances in the West, the audience’s ovation lasted longer than the eight-minute dance.
Kevin McKenzie, artistic director of the American Ballet Theater, said Nureyev’s contribution to the world stage was inestimable.
“More than anyone else, he was responsible for not only bringing ballet to the awareness of the general public but for singlehandedly creating legions of dance fans over four decades,” he said. “We have truly lost one of our giants.”
“He dares anything,” American choreographer Martha Graham said in 1975. “He has the courage to do it, to break the pattern that the audience has made for him.”
Russian TV declared him “one of the greatest dancers of the century.”
Nureyev was the Kirov Ballet’s leading dancer in 1961 when he became the first Soviet star to defect, making a dramatic run forfreedom in a Paris airport.
He was granted political asylum and became a naturalized Austrian citizen in 1982.
Nureyev joined the Grand Ballet du Marquis de Cuevas in Paris, and made his first appearance in 1961 with Margot Fonteyn, 19 years his senior, at the Royal Ballet in London.
He went on to captivate audiences around the world for three decades with his stage presence and athletic prowess.
For much of that time, he and Fonteyn were a ballet duo. Both seemed more romantic and thrilling together than with other partners.
Perhaps his greater contribution to ballet was to generate public interest. He made his art exciting. TV began showing dance, and he focused attention on the male dancer. Choreographers began creating ballets with important roles for men.
Nureyev once said the only male dancer in the world better than himself was Erik Bruhn, a Dane who was more technically accurate. But Nureyev was considered unrivaled in the passion and excitement he brought to the stage.
“I think he’ll be remembered as the greatest dancer of our lifetime,” said Maude Gosling, a London dance critic.
Nureyev’s fame spread far beyond the dance world. He was lionized as a celebrity.
Nureyev performed around the world until he was in his late 40s.
Early in his career, he electrified audiences with super-high leaps. As he lost strength, he turned to choreography. He directed the Paris Opera Ballet from 1983-89, retiring to take the lead role in a traveling version of the Broadway musical “The King and I.”
Last summer, he made his American debut as a conductor in New York with American Ballet.
Nureyev was born March 17, 1938, in Transsiberia. His father, a Red Army soldier of Tatar descent, tried to dissuade his young son from studying dance, saying he’d end up a drunk at 30.
But Nureyev studied Russian folk dance at the Ouafa School until 1955, then moved to Leningrad, where he attended the Vaganova School until 1958.
He was the Kirov Ballet’s lead male dancer until his defection.
“I have no country,” Nureyev told Newsweek in ’65. “For me a country is just a place to dance. Your roots are your work. Work is sacred.”
Nureyev appeared in several films including “Romeo and Juliet,””Swan Lake,””I Am a Dancer,””Don Quixote” and “Exposed.” He played the title role in Ken Russell’s “Valentino.”
It was Nureyev’s wish to remain in France and he will be buried in the Russian cemetery just outside Paris, probably Tuesday.