A fictionalized biography of Rudolf Nureyev (1938–93), chronicled in an understated, intimate narrative from the celebrated dancer’s childhood to the height (and excesses) of his fame.
The town of Ufa, in the former Soviet region of Bashkir, was about as far off the beaten track as you could get—especially under Stalin, when it was a secret industrial city not even allowed to appear on the map. Yet Ufa was to provide the first audience for one of the greatest stars in ballet history, who made his world premiere as a six-year-old dancing in the wards of WWII military hospitals. Talented from the start but no prodigy, Nureyev trained long and hard to become a dancer—first in Ufa (very much against the wishes of his father, a Party member who dreamed of having an engineer for a son), and later in Leningrad, where he became a member of the famed Kirov Ballet. When success arrived, it arrived quickly, and by the late 1950s Nureyev was doing command performances for Krushchev and the Central Committee. In 1961 he defected to the West, in Paris, transforming himself into cause célèbre—vilified at home (his father publicly denounced him) and idolized abroad. McCann (Everything in This Country Must, 2000, etc.) tells the story from different perspectives, in chapters narrated alternately by Anna Vasileva (Nureyev’s first ballet teacher), Victor Parecci (the gay Venezualian prostitute who became his lover in New York), Yulia Sergeevna (his landlady in Leningrad), and Nureyev himself. Like many success stories, Nureyev’s presented a depressing spectacle of vanity and decadence toward the end, and the later chapters (largely chronicles of parties, shopping sprees, hangovers, and petty spites) convey this vividly. The ending, a description of Nureyev’s 1987 return to visit his family in Ufa, is appropriate and moving.
Balletomanes will love it, but the focus may seem obsessive to anyone who doesn’t know who Margot Fonteyn is.