Take Nureyev to bed!

Julie Kavanagh leaps high with her new biography.

CASE IN POINT Take Rudolf Nureyev’s advice: “Sit down on suitcase for a minute. It is old Russian superstition. Will work.”

CASE IN POINT Take Rudolf Nureyev’s advice: “Sit down on suitcase for a minute. It is old Russian superstition. Will work.” Courtesy of Faina Rokhind

Biographies are hard. Ace detectives and thorough interviewers don’t always make eloquent writers—and don’t even mention dance expertise—which is why the skill of Julie Kavanagh, who trained in ballet before becoming a journalist, is such a rare and obvious pleasure. In her new Nureyev: The Life, a follow-up to her masterful Secret Muses: The Life of Frederick Ashton (1996), Kavanagh tells the star’s life story: from his 1938 birth on a train to his 1961 defection and 1993 death from AIDS (he was diagnosed in 1984 but kept it largely a secret for nearly ten years). Admittedly, Kavanagh does not shy from relating her subject’s insatiable sexual appetite, but her book is just as rigorous and insightful a look at a vital era of dance, displaying Nureyev’s deep hunger for learning and teaching. Kavanagh’s research led her to previously undisclosed correspondence from the Danish dancer Erik Bruhn as well as the discovery of Teja Kremke, an East German dancer who not only captured a young Nureyev on film—the footage was shown in a recent documentary—but encouraged him to move to the West. A hero, just like Kavanagh.

Why did you want to focus on Nureyev?
To begin with I felt very reluctant. I didn’t think there was anything I could get that anyone else hadn’t before. It was the Russian story that really grabbed me. And actually, I didn’t think that he’d been well written about as a dancer. The previous biographers were good reporters, but they didn’t have deep dance knowledge. What really helped me to infiltrate his mind was learning about how important Petipa and Bournonville were to him. If you think about it, they were the motivation for everything he did and everyone he met. He sought out Erik Bruhn because he felt that [Bournonville training] was an element missing from his own dance training. He had a fling with Maria Tallchief because she could get him to Balanchine. It sounds simplistic in terms of understanding him, but one had to tackle that arcane aspect in order to get into that very complex mind.

What kind of process do you follow?
It does take time. The thing with biography is that you can’t just go in there and interview. You’ve got to become friends of your subject’s friends. It’s not just treading in their footsteps—you’ve got to immerse yourself and, in a way, I didn’t want to do that again. I did it with Ashton. You lose friends! Ashton’s friends were all in their eighties, and I was very sad [in the case of Nureyev] to lose Wallace Potts, whom I became very close to. I was very sad to lose Maude Gosling.

When do you start writing?
When I feel I’ve got the meat, I put it all on the computer and then what takes the time is distilling it all. I think with someone like Nureyev, who did so much, the danger is to want to put everything in—actually, most of my time is spent taking everything out. And the trouble with a lot of biographers now is that they put all these facts and hundreds of quotes in, and they don’t have a sense of narrative. I think that’s vital. I don’t really like biography as a form, I love fiction.

Did you know Nureyev?
He was a pinup of my teenage years when I was at the Royal Ballet School. I met him in ’76 when I interviewed him for Valentino. He was filming in Blackpool; at that point he was a huge star, and at the end of the day he was watching all these takes and decided he didn’t want to do an interview. He was being the typical prima donna. But I think the publicist told him that I’d been a dancer, and he softened and we had this amazing dinner together where we drove out in his limo to a restaurant and sat by the fire, and he was drinking Pimms. His masseur rang up to say that Singin’ in the Rain was on television, so we kind of ended up sitting with our dinner on a tray in front of the television. And then I had lunch with him about a decade later in 1986 at his Quai Voltaire apartment [in Paris]. He was ill by that time; it wasn’t the same experience. He was having a real embattled time with the Paris Opera—the dancers were going on strike, and he was very defensive. He looked terrible, his hair was thinning, and I kind of felt let down by him—at that point, I didn’t think he should have been dancing! I just spent the time staring at my feet.

You were embarrassed for him for not getting off the stage?
Yes, and angry that he would demean himself in that way. But having written the book, I understand totally that he was doing it to blot out illness and because he was a dance addict. What I think was great about him was that he was still coaching dancers and passing on his knowledge. He grew in my estimation as this incredible, intelligent figure. What an amazing teacher and mentor he was! I don’t think there’s been another dancer who’s ever been that to that extent. Dance was everything.

Nureyev: The Life is currently out (Pantheon Books, $37.50). “Nureyev and Shakespeare: Julie Kavanagh in Conversation with Robert Greskovic” is at Bruno Walter Auditorium Sat 6.