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Diane Solway's meticulous biography of the first modern superstar of ballet fills us in on the colorful details between Nureyev's birth, defection and death but manages somehow to remain disappointingly aloof from its title character. For an exploration into the life of a dancer whose passion at times surpassed his technique, Nureyev: His Life ironically possesses an excess of workmanship but little virtuosity.
Nureyev made a name for himself as a beautiful young creature who fluttered over the iron curtain; he sustained his fame because of his breathtaking gift. The boldness of Nureyev's artistry and the fevered pitch at which he lived both onstage and off are the sort of meaty material any biographer would relish getting her mitts on, and Solway does try gamely to keep up with her subject. But along the way she keeps getting distracted, unwilling to filter the significant from the incidental. She takes us to Nureyev's opening night on Broadway, but yanks herself out of the scene to add a footnote that, technically speaking, he first appeared on a Broadway stage briefly a few months before. She has Nureyev dancing in Paris for the first time and digresses into an account of a ball someone else threw eight years earlier. Piling on information isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it does throw the rhythm off, especially because Solway's style is so flat and newsy. Indeed, some of the best moments in Nureyev come when Solway is quoting other sources, whether it's Nureyev's critics or the Central Committee's report on his defection (which bore the catchy title "On the Mistakes of the Leningrad Kirov Academic Opera and Ballet Theater Leadership in the Preparation of and During the Tour of the Ballet Company Abroad").
Fortunately, the story of Nureyev's life offers a fair amount of drama even without authorial embellishments. We see Rudik (a poor peasant child growing up in the midst of the Stalinist purges) discover dance almost by accident and immediately become consumed by it. We see a rebellious youth whose shocking, impulsive defection was sparked more by a stubborn fascination with Paris than a philosophical rift with communism. We see the jet-setting, tantrum-throwing celebrity whose hedonism was exceeded only by a fanatical need to practice and perform -- to stay moving no matter what. And in the end, we see a man whose hatred of the disease that made his body betray him was so fierce he refused to let his friends and associates even acknowledge he had it.
Nureyev gives the curious reader all those things. But there are too many anecdotes that seem forced in for the sake of recording everything, too many tangential asides that go nowhere. Solway's otherwise admirable eye for detail bogs down a story that begs to move along breathlessly. She clearly identifies with Nureyev's obsessive need to do as much footwork as possible, but she needs to follow his example one step further -- to understand that to create something truly memorable, you also have to be willing to just let go and fly. -- Salon
Farida had only reluctantly agreed to make the six-day journey across Siberia and the Russian Far East. At thirty-three, she was eight and a half months pregnant and worried that she might go into labor oil the train. She would have three small girls to mind and the railway cars were sure to be crowded with soldiers and refugees. There would be little room for her to lie down and rest, and few diversions for tile children. The train made two brief stops a day, but the March winds were so severe they made her ears ache, making it impossible to spend more than a few minutes out of doors. She feared there would be no one to help her and little in the way of medical assistance should anything go awry. This she dreaded most of all.
And yet Farida was anxious to be reunited with her husband and didn't want to delay the trip until after the baby's birth, when travel might prove even more taxing. After her neighbors reassured her that two military doctors and another family from their village would be traveling on the same train, Farida proceeded with the thirty-nine-hundred-mile journey. A small, pretty woman with doleful brown eyes, Farida Nureyeva was not in the least frail or fainthearted. Her black hair, parted severely in the center and wrapped neatlyaround her ears, framed a wide, proud face, its complexion dulled by hardship. In the ten years she and Hamet had been married, their lives had been irrevocably altered by the turbulent social and political currents sweeping the country. For generations, Hamet's family had worked in the fields, a pattern only recently broken by the Revolution, In the new social order, the ambitious Harriet had been able to reinvent himself and lie had gladly exchanged the mantle of poor Tatar peasant for the more promising one of politruk. His advance through the ranks had brought a steady change of postings, which required him to be perpetually on the move. Often, Farida was left alone for weeks on end to look after their small children. But uprooted as their life had been, they had lived among their own people and in familiar surroundings in whichever Tatar village Hamet happened to be sent.
This trip to the Far East, however, marked a departure from the patterns of their past, and as Farida boarded the train, she couldn't dispel her nagging fears, despite all the reassurances she had been given. She had never taken such a long journey before and she was moving tier children from the relatively safe haven of the Ural Mountains to a potentially dangerous port of call. She wondered what kind of life she could make there for her children, especially for the infant she now awaited with anticipation and concern.
As the Trans-Siberian snaked its way across the undulating Urals and into Siberia, past hundreds of identical small towns and gaily painted wooden bungalows, Farida passed the time gazing out at the snowblanketed steppes, the monotony of white broken now and then by ghostly forests of pine and silver birch. Meanwhile, Rosa, Lilya and Ra'zida took delight in this new adventure and passed the time running tip and down the corridors, exploring the train with great excitement, only dimly aware of just how soon their new sibling would arrive.
On March 17, Farida went into labor. She was still nineteen himdred miles from Vladivostok. As promised, tier neighbors sent for the doctors, and clean white sheets were spread about the carriage. Sometime that afternoon, Farida gave birth to a boy. Upon hearing his first cries, his sister Rosa became so enraptured that she neglected to pay attention to the comings and goings of other passengers in the corridor and caught her fingers in a closing door, tier sobs mingling with those of her newborn brother. Following a Muslim custom that children's names should begin with the same letter as that of the first child, Farida named tier son Rudolf. She picked the name for its sonorous rhythms and not in honor of Rudolph Valentino, as has sometimes been presumed.
Carried in his mother's arms, the Nureyevs' only son was at the beginning of a journey that would take him from one end of the country to the other, and nearly halfway back again -some seven thousand miles over the next five years. The upheaval of those first years would leave him with a permanent sense of rootlessness. He would always be a gypsy, never a native. "It seems to me very symbolic and revealing that I should have been born en route, in between two places. It makes me feel that it was my destiny to be cosmopolitan. Ever since I was born, I have had no real sense of 'belonging'; no real country or house to call my own. My existence had none of the usual, normal limitations which make for a feeling of permanence and this has always left me with a strong sensation of having been born stateless."
Beginning with the time and place of his birth, Nureyev's life was fraught with uncertainty Unfortunately neither his birth records nor relatives' recollections provide any conclusive answers, a problem that dogs anyone trying to piece together the details of a life that began in the darkest hours of the Stalinist era. Even Nureyev himself came up short when, late in his life, he tried to divine the precise moment of his birth in order to have his astrological chart done. While the family story has it that he was born in the afternoon, neither Nureyev's sister Razida nor his niece Alfia — both of whom lived with Farida Nureyeva...
Posted January 30, 2003
This book is perhaps the most comprehensive account of Rudolf Nureyev's life that has ever been published. It is based on a very thorough, scholarly research and is a real pleasure to read. Most other books about Nureyev lack the depth and impartiality. In contrast to them, this book is much more profound and rich in details. For example, most other books about Nureyev hardly mention the fact that he was an ethnic Tatar. Dianne Solway's book, in contrast, not only mentions this fact but devotes much attention to it. The roots of Rudolf Nureyev's talent are in his cultural background, in the musical traditions of the Tatar people. Despite its volume, the book reads very fast and leaves the reader with a desire to learn more about the most talented dancer of the 20th century.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.