Who Was Rudolf Nureyev?

If you do ballet then you probably don’t need to ask ‘who was Rudolf Nureyev,’ as anyone who has been dancing for some time has heard of this famous male dancer.

So Who Was Rudolf Nureyev?

Rudolf Nureyev is regarded as one of the greatest male ballet dancers of the 20th century.

Rudolf Nureyev History

Rudolf Nureyev was born on the Trans-Siberian train near Pysinky, Irkutsk on the 17th of March 1938. His mother Farida was traveling to Vladivostok where his father Hamat who was a Red Army political commissar was stationed.

Rudolf was then raised as the only son in a Tatar family in a village near Ufa in the Soviet Republic of Bashkiria.

When his mother smuggled him and his sisters into a performance of the ballet Song of the Cranes, he fell in love with dance.

As a child he was encouraged to dance in Bashkir folk performances and his talents were soon noticed by teachers who encouraged him to train in Leningrad.

who was Rudolf NureyevOn a tour stop in Moscow with a local ballet company, Nureyev auditioned for the Bolshoi ballet company and was accepted. However, he felt that the Kirov Ballet School was the best, so he left the local touring company and bought a ticket to Leningrad.

Due to the disruption of the Soviet cultural life during World War II, Nureyev was unable to enroll in a major ballet school until 1955 when he was 17 years old. This is when he was accepted by the Leningrad Choreographic School which was the associate school of the Kirov Ballet.

Despite the fact that he had such a late start, he was soon recognized as an incredibly gifted dancer. He pushed himself hard rehearsing for hours in order to make up for the years of training that he missed.

Under the tutelage of a great teacher, Alexander Pushkin, he blossomed. Pushkin not only took an interest in him professionally, but also allowed the younger dancer to live with him and his wife.

Upon graduation, the Kirov and the Bolshoi both wanted to sign him, but he continued with the Kirov and went on to become a soloist, which is extremely unusual for someone of his age and experience.

In his three years with the Kirov, he danced fifteen roles mainly with partner Ninel Kurgapkira with whom he was very well pared, even though she was almost a decade older than he was.

Rudolf Nureyev became one of the Soviet Union’s best-known dancers, in a country which revered the ballet and made national heroes of its stars. Soon he was enjoying the rare privilege of travel outside of the Soviet Union, when he danced in Vienna at the international Youth Festival.

Not long after that for disciplinary reasons, he was told he would not be allowed to go abroad again.Rudolf Nureyev

In 1961 the Kirov’s leading male dancer, Konstantin Sergeyev was injured and at the last minute Nureyev was chosen to replace him on the Kirov’s European tour.

In Paris his performances electrified audiences and critics, but he broke the rules about mingling with foreigners and allegedly frequented gay bars in Paris, which alarmed the Kirov’s management. The KGB wanted to send him back to the Soviet Union immediately.

He was then told that he would not travel with the company to London to continue the tour because he was needed to dance at a special performance in the Kremlin. Rudolf Nureyev believed that if he returned to the U.S.S.R., he would most likely be imprisoned due to the fact that KGB agents had been investigating him for being gay.

It has been the more popular and accepted belief that he ‘leaped to freedom’ in order to be a ‘free artist,’ though many of Nureyev’s private accounts, as well as the accounts of many of his close friends tell that he stayed in the west due to the dire consequences of being gay in the Soviet Union.

On June the 17th, 1961 at the Le Bourget Airport in Paris, Rudolf Nureyev defected.

Within a week he was signed up by the Grand Ballet Du Marquis de Cuevas and was performing the Sleeping Beauty with Nina Vyroubova.

His dramatic defection, outstanding technique, exotic looks and his astonishing charisma on stage made him an international star. His defection also gave him the personal freedom he had been denied in the Soviet Union.

On Tour in Denmark, he met Erik Bruhn, a dancer ten years older than him and they became lovers. Erik was also his closest friend and his protector for many years. Bruhn was also the director of the Royal Swedish Ballet from 1967 to 1972 and Ballet Director of the Paris Opera Ballet from 1983 to 1989.

Rudolf Nureyev petitioned the Soviet Government for many years to be allowed to visit his mother to whom he remained very close, but he was not allowed to do so until 1989 when his mother was dying. During this visit even with his diminished physical ability, he was invited to dance in Leningrad. This visit gave him the opportunity to see many of the teachers and colleagues he had not seen since his defection, including his first ballet teacher in Ufa.

The Perfect Partnership

who was Rudolf Nureyev

Nureyev’s first appearance in Britain was at a ballet matinee organized by the Royal Ballet’s Prima Ballerina Dame Margot Fonteyn. This event was held in aid of the Royal Academy of Dance, a classical ballet teaching organization of which she was the President.

He danced Poeme Tragique, which was a heavily symbolic solo choreographed by Frederick Ashton and he brought the house to its feet in the Black Swan pas de deux from Swan Lake.

Nureyev was so well-received by London audiences that Dame Ninette de Valois offered him a contract to join the Royal Ballet as Principal Dancer.

His first appearance with the company was partnering Margot Fonteyn in Giselle on the 21 of February 1962. Fonteyn and Nureyev went on to form what became known as the perfect partnership which became perhaps the most famous partnership in modern theater history, despite Nureyev being 19 years younger than Fonteyn.

They danced together for many years and their last performance together was in Baroque Pas de Trois on the 16th of September 1988, Fonteyn was 69 and Nureyev was 50.

Together they transformed such cornerstone ballets like Swan Lake and Gizelle. They also premiered in Sir Frederick Ashton’s ballet Marguerite and Armand, which was a ballet danced to Liszt’s B minor piano sonata, and this became their signature piece.

Between them they always completely sold out the house, and this led to some injustice, notably when Kenneth Macmillan was forced to allow them to premier in his Romeo and Juliet. Between them they always received upwards of 20 curtain calls together.

Nureyev stayed with the Royal Ballet until 1970, when he was promoted to Principle Guest Artist, enabling him to concentrate on his increasing schedule of international guest appearances and tours. He continued performing regularly with the Royal Ballet until he committed to the Paris Opera Ballet in the 1980’s.

In 1982, Nureyev became a naturalized citizen of Austria and in 1983, he was appointed director of the Paris Opera Ballet, where, as well as directing, he continued to dance and to promote the younger dancers.

He remained there as a dancer and chief choreographer until 1989. Among the dancers he groomed were Sylvie Guillem, Isabelle Guérin, Manuel Legris, Elisabeth Maurin, Élisabeth Platel, Charles Jude, and Monique Loudières.

His artistic directorship of the Paris Opera Ballet was a great success as he lifted the ballet company out of a dark period. His version of The Sleeping Beauty remains in the Company’s repertoire and was revived and filmed later with his protégé Manuel Legris in the lead.

Despite his advancing illness towards the end of his tenure, he worked tirelessly, staging new versions of old standbys and commissioning some of the most ground-breaking choreographic works of his time. His own version of Romeo and Juliet was a huge success.

When he was sick towards the end of his life, he worked on a final production of La Bayadère which closely follows the Mariinsky Ballet version that he danced as a young man.

When AIDS appeared in France’s news around 1982, Nureyev took little notice. He tested positive for HIV in 1984, but for several years he simply denied that anything was wrong with his health. However, by the late 1980s his diminished capabilities disappointed his admirers who had fond memories of his outstanding prowess and skill.

Nureyev began a marked decline only in the summer of 1991 and entered the final phase of the disease in the spring of 1992.

Nureyev re-entered the hospital Notre Dame Du Perpétuel Secours in Levallois-Perret on 20 November 1992 and remained there until his death from AIDS complications at age 54 on 6 January 1993.

His funeral was held in the marble foyer of the Paris Garnier Opera House. Many paid tributes to his brilliance as a dancer. Oleg Vinogradov of the Mariinsky Ballet, stated “What Nureyev did in the West, he could never have done here.”

After so many years of having been denied a place in the Mariinsky Ballet’s history, Nureyev’s reputation was restored and his name was reentered in the history of the Mariinsky. Some of his personal effects were placed on display at the theater museum in what is now St. Pietersburg.

40 thoughts on “Who Was Rudolf Nureyev?”

  1. It was nice to learn about the life of Nureyev. He was very talented and also took it upon himself to promote younger dancers which shows his selflessness. It is a pity that people’s interest started to diminish after he got sick. I guess with talents like Dance, out of site means out of mind. But it is great that his reputation has been restored. Thank you for sharing your knowledge. It was a great read.

    • Thank you for stopping by. I loved Rudolf Nureyev growing up, so I really enjoyed researching for and writing this article about him. I was especially enamored with the partnership that he and Margot Fonteyn shared.

  2. Wow! So much information about great ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev. This post is really interesting and I must say, I was truly ecstatic reading about it. To be honest, though I never knew about this Rudolf Nureyev before. He seems to be quite an achiever and also very popular who has changed and included quite some interesting things to the ballet. I have a new respect for male ballet dancers.

  3. Thanks for sharing such an amazing post. Basically dancing is one of my hobbies, it gives me this inner joy whenever I find my self dancing. Rudolf Nureyev was a selfless, gifted and talented ballet dancer, who also took it upon himself to train others in ballet dancing. Thanks for writing this article, it actually brings to my remembrance the effort of this selfless hero Rudolf Nureyev.

  4. Wow, quite an achiever he must’ve been in his time to be able to achieve all he did here. I must say that I didn’t know so much about him before but knowing that it is all about ballet gave me more reason to want to learn more about him. Unfortunately, some people lost interest when he got sick which is sad. I’m happy he is gaining the reputation he deserves now. Nice work here.

  5. Can history ever forget this great dancer, Rudolf Nureyev? Though I must say that I’ve seen his pictures a lot but I have never truly given a lot of time to researching him but the post here has given so many insights to him and how he has helped in the development of ballet. This is really good to see here.

    Now I want to find out more about him and watch some online videos’s so thanks for that.

  6. What a tale to tell. I have really enjoyed reading and watching ballet dancers and to be frank I am impressed by all I have been reading about Rudold Nureyev so far, although we all have our flaws yes but I believe he is great at what he does and he is one of my favorite male dancers so far. He also happens to be my daughter’s most loved male ballet dancer as Margot Fonteyn goes for the female. 

  7. Hi, thanks for sharing this wonderful article.

    I’m a lover of classical ballet and decided a couple of years ago to read and collect dance biographies. believe it or not, they are not always easy to find. They seem to go out of print quickly, so when I had the opportunity to lay my hands on Julie Kavanagh’s biography of the great Rudolf Nureyev, I grabbed it.

    • I too love reading the biographies about the dancers and the lives that they led, most of them devoting all their lives to dance as an art form.

  8. Rudolf Nureyev was indeed a legend known for his great moves in ballet dancing. He was during his reign awarded awesomely for his spectacular moves which nobody could compete with, over the years as time pass he kept his reign despite his own shortcomings.

    This review on this great dancer shows how good ballet dance could be and still is, so you have the desire and the talent for it you too could be just like Rudolf Nureyev.

  9. I viewed your website from the position of being totally uneducated in the art of dance. And, I have never been able to learn to dance. That, I believe, was due to the fact that I never had a trained teacher. However, at age 80, I don’t think I should consider ballet. LOL.

    Your site is well written and very interesting. The glossary helped immensely to understand some of the terms that I had heard but never understood. Some of the terms I did not remember how they were pronounced. A pronunciation guide of the terms may be something you might add.

    If your theme will allow it, you might consider changing your header to be more graphic and add more color. Just a thought.



  10. Nureyev’s life was indeed tragic like many other artists from other times. It’s a pity that such a talented man was exiled from his own country due to his sexual preferences but sadly this still exists in a few countries. 

    History seems to be unfair to so many people. The way you paint it, I get the impression that even though he was a recognized artist of his time, he was not made famous until he died. The same has happened with so many historical personages. They become legends once they die. Sad but true.

    Thanks for sharing the interesting bio of this man. 

    • Oh, I think that Rudolf was much loved during his time and had a lot of fame surrounding him, especially when he danced those years with Margot Fonteyn. However, I agree that it is unfair the prejudices that he had to endure from his home country.

  11. Who hasn’t heard of Rudolf Nureyev(maybe only a few have not). 

    I didn’t realise that he was gay. Then again we all have our short comings! I thought the disciplinary actions against him were quite harsh and can clearly see why he wanted to defect. At the same time it’s quite sad too, especially the fact that he couldn’t see his mum for so many years until she was ill.

    How many ballet performances did Rudolf direct? I read somewhere that he actually acted in a couple of films, but they never actually took off.

    His gift for ballet through dancing and incredible talent of choreography was really a fight for freedom. Who doesn’t want to fight for freedom. 

    Who would you say that the better dancer was, Rudolf or Nijinsky?

    What an incredible life!

    • Not sure about the number exactly, but it was a lot of performances that he directed. 

      As far as Rudolf and Nijinsky go, it is hard to tell as they were both from different eras and were equally as famous in their time, although I think maybe in Nijinsky’s era ballet was more popular so he got more recognition.

  12. How sad that such a talented dancer died at such a young age. 🙁 Sometimes this World is full of hypocrisy, those that condemned him must have been even worse. 

    But there is a principle here:

    If you invite me over to your house, I have liberty as a human being to do whatever I want. Nobody can judge my liberty just because I’m inside your house, can they? But most of us will pay attention to the things you allow and the things you don’t in your house. If I want to show gratitude for eating your food and sleeping in your rooms, the least I can do is pay attention and not do those things that go against the standards in your house.

    We’re just travelers on this Earth, we breathe an air that is not ours and we use a body that we ourselves can’t recreate. But we still insist in not paying attention. 🙁 Our liberty should not be judged by what other human beings (even worse than us) consider are the lines that should not be crossed. We ourselves can sense which are those lines.

  13. Before I read this post, I had zero knowledge of who Rudolf Nureyev was and I must thank the author for providing me with this information, it’s been helpful. It is quite baffling that someone with such a deep and controversial history isn’t often mentioned. I wonder if ballerinas hold him in high esteem. 

    • Well, I am constantly working in the dancing world, and we hear about him very often. So this is probably why I thought everyone would know who he was. He is a legend to the dance community yes, even if a lot of the outside world hasn’t heard of him.

  14. Wow, this is a very good post to tell us all about the great male ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev. It is the first time that I am hearing about him and it is good to read so much about all that he achieved during his time. I suppose that he is not given the due accolade for all that he has done to that industry which is very bad. You have written well. Keep up the good work!

    • Thanks for stopping by to comment, and I think Nureyev got many awards and accolades during his lifetime, especially towards the end.

  15. Wow, what an interesting biography. Nureyev was indeed an outstanding dancer and not just in ballet alone. He had reasons as to why he should give up on his dreams but never did, that is determination for you. He was determined because whenever he saw an opportunity he grabbed it and left the world clapping and wowing to his great moves.

  16. Thanks for this amazing post about the life of ballet dance Rudolf Nureyev. Really, he was the great dancer of The Soviets and was born with such great talent. 

    He performed a variety of solo dances and also performed a principal role with partner old aged co-actor Natalia Dudinskaya.  His somewhat ambitious and vulgar acts on stage were denied in the Soviet Union and also in other country’s cities like Paris and London also criticized him from time to time.

  17. While I do not have a particular interest in ballet, I am well aware of the name Nureyev.  You provided a seemingly detailed review of his life, in such a brief article.  I did not know much of his background before, but I believe you have given me a greater understanding of the brilliance of Nureyev.  Very well written story, thank you.

  18. Rudolf Nureyev was a brilliant dancer and a very interesting character. Even though I didn’t know him personally, I have seen photos of him and seen video footage of him dancing. 

    Reading about him in this article today brought back fond memories.

    Your article has revealed many insights in how he played a big role in ballet dancing. Quite impressive; thank you.

    • Thanks for stopping by to comment Juma, and it is great to see all the comments people have posted. It’s good to know that he won’t be forgotten in a hurry.

  19. Thanks for sharing your site on dance!!  It’s the best one I’ve seen.

    I enjoyed the dance teaching tips on dance!  My daughters love to dance so this will be very helpful!  I also like the list of ballet definitions as ballet terms are in French so it gets confusing.

    Are you a dancer?

    • Thanks for your kind words. No, I am too old to dance now so I teach. In my younger days, I danced my life away.

  20. This is a very interesting article since I do not know a lot about ballet, but have friends and family members who trained early in life.  It’s good to know about Rudolf Nureyev as I appreciate greatness and excellence in any area of life. He has a fascinating background. It took a lot of courage and perseverance to develop his natural gifts given the challenges in which he was surrounded. 

    It was probably a good thing that he defected. My family in Lithuania experienced many hardships during Soviet control and occupation. It is unfortunate he passed on at such an early age. Thanks so much for the education. Much appreciated.

    • Thank you for stopping by and taking the time to comment Joseph. Sorry to hear your family also experienced hardships and hopefully all is a lot better in the Soviet at the moment.

  21. Thank you for your post. My daughter is a ballet dancer and I had heard a lot about Rudolf Nureyev from my daughter. I always wanted to learn more about him, but have never taken the time to do anything.

    Here comes the your article, which has all information I want to know. Rudolf is one of the greatest male ballet dancers and I am always impressed by his performance. Unfortunately we never have the chance to see his live performance, which is my daughter’s dream. But we watch his dance videos very often. Rudolf is my daughter’s idol. 

    It was tragedy that Rudolf died so young. Otherwise, he could have made a lot more contributions to the ballet dancing world.

  22. I pride myself as a box of knowledge as I have a penchant for reading about great men and women from the past, who were renowned across various fields. However, I haven’t come across the name Rudolf Nuyerev until I read this post, which has been very informative. His life story and legacy is both inspiring and enticing. I can’t help but wonder how much his story would make for a great biopic. 

    • I am surprised you haven’t heard of him, as he was the rage when I was growing up in the eighties. There are a lot of books written about his life and the perfect partnership that he had with Margot Fonteyn which are very interesting.

  23. Hi
    Thank you for sharing the story about Rudolf Nureyev. I didn’t know his story before. I read your blog and also through Wikipedia I understand that he was really a great dancer.

    To be honest, I can hardly see ballet performances where I live; if I want to watch it, I can only watch videos through youtube. I would love to be able to go and see a live performance at one of the huge opera houses or fancy theaters people talk of.

    • I hope that one day you can realize your dream of seeing a live performance. It is much more magical than watching the same on video.


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