Rudolf Nureyev: A Life in Dance

By Mary Ellen Hunt

November 1, 2012, PUBLISHED BY IN DANCE

Ballet bookshelves are crammed with countless biographies and novelizations of the life of Rudolf Nureyev attesting to a long-standing public fascination with the iconic ballet star, even some 20 years after his death. To tell the truth, I’ve avoided most of them. However, Rudolf Nureyev: A Life in Dance, an expansive exhibition of Nureyev’s costumes and photographs at the de Young Museum, not only promised a glimpse into a glamorous career, but also sparked a memory of a young rat pulling at his cuffs.

Costume by: Nicholas Giorgiadis Photo by:  Pascal François/CNCS
Costume by: Nicholas Giorgiadis
Photo by: Pascal François/CNCS

In 1980, Nureyev’s production of the Nutcracker for the Berlin Ballet was—unaccountably—scheduled for July at the Metropolitan Opera House in New York. I was lucky enough to be among the small army of local children the company had chosen to use for the usual variety of roles—from party guests to the soldiers and mice. Although I was disappointed at not being selected to be one of the girls who got to wear pretty bows and makeup in the party scene, that ignominy was assuaged by the revelation that since Nureyev would play the Drosselmeyer role, we small rats would actually get to interact with him briefly.

To a child, the idea of being on the Metropolitan Opera House stage with Rudolf Nureyev was the equivalent of living out Clara’s magical Nutcracker dream. Nureyev’s history was already fabled by that time. His sensational defection in the airport in Paris in 1961, his remarkable partnership with Dame Margot Fonteyn, the rise to international fame, were already part of the legend of Rudi. It was a few years before Nureyev would take over as director of the Ballet de l’Opéra de Paris, and this production for the Berlin Ballet marked one of his increasingly rare guest appearances.

“Now don’t all rush at him,” the ballet mistress, Gudrun Leben, told us sternly. She was an austere German woman with short red hair who drilled the rats incessantly in our paces, so we already knew by heart what to do when Nureyev finally appeared for one brief rehearsal with the children before the actual performances. When at last we got to meet him, we were spellbound by this seeming demigod. Nureyev was, even at that latter stage of his dancing career, impossibly handsome and charismatic as he loomed over us wrapped in dark clothes with heavy heeled boots, but he was also, as I recall, remarkably kind to the kids, staying after rehearsal and signing autographs for everyone.

Ultimately, his Nutcracker—the Berlin version was decidedly a far cry from the more opulent version he later staged for the Paris Opera Ballet—was not kindly received by the New York critics who found it glum and overbearing. The “color spectrum as perceived by a dog” was how one writer described the decor and costumes, which bore little evidence of the sophisticated and luxurious tastes that would mark his later productions.

Of course, for us rats, elegance was not the byword anyway. We were enormous, portly rodents—like grey Teletubbies with giant papier-mache masks. But hidden inside each padded belly was a small treat.  The children who had performed in those roles in Berlin had written notes to future rats and pinned them inside the costumes along with their addresses. The result was that for several years I had a young penpal named Martina in Germany.

Pictured: Rudolf Nureyev Photo by:  © Francette Levieux
Pictured: Rudolf Nureyev Photo by:
© Francette Levieux

In retrospect, there is something delightful about the idea of young dancers connecting through the costumes we shared. The rat outfit was hideously ugly, but we took a certain pride in it. No longer was it just a bulky assemblage of fabric with a painted mask, but rather something that had a life of its own—a connector that travelled the world and carried with it the excitement of sharing a stage with a legendary dancer. In the performances, I was elated to be able to put mousey-grey gloved hands onto Nureyev’s arms and drag him offstage with all the zeal that a small rat could muster. Now I wonder how many other small rats clawed at him in exactly that same costume.

The allure of costume is that each has a life of its own—not just an outward character, but a history told in the careful construction, the decoration, the sweat, the mending and of course the dancers who have worn it. When you look at Nureyev’s tunics, it’s impossible not to imagine the body that went into it. Cut perfectly to his size, they reveal broad shoulders tapering to narrow hips, and they are embellished in many cases with incredibly lavish detail that seem perfectly matched to the palatine presence of the man.

“What the costumes reveal of him is his attention to detail and his love for sumptuous ornamentation,” says Jill D’Alessandro, Curator of Costume and Textile Arts at the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco. “Nureyev was a textile collector and he loved the exotic, so you see his Tartar roots in these costumes. They’re relics of his past, like talismans that have a memory in them.”

There are more than 70 costumes either worn by Nureyev or worn in his ballets in the exhibition, which runs through February 17 at the de Young Museum in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park. This will be the only U.S. stop for the collection, which was jointly organized by the de Young with the Centre national du costume de scène in Moulins, France.

Arranged according to the ballets they belong with, the exhibition at the de Young is designed to allow you to feel as if you are among the dancers, with elements of the set designs that give context to the costumes. And of course, you can examine the painstaking embroidery, the elaborate braiding on the jacket for his Raymonda, the luxurious decorations on his tunic from Swan Lake and the carefully darned and repaired sleeves of the shirt he wore in Glen Tetley’s Pierrot Lunaire.

“In this exhibition, you get this opportunity to have an intimate experience with these costumes that, for so many of us, we only see for a fleeting moment from the orchestra or balcony,” D’Alessandro remarks, noting the intriguing dichotomy between the fantasy of the designs and the palpable presence of the dancer’s workaday mending.

Pictured: Rudolf Nureyev, Photo by: André Chino. Courtesy CNCS.
Pictured: Rudolf Nureyev
Photo by: André Chino. Courtesy CNCS.

“Coming from a costume and textile background, what is remarkable to me are the types of materials and the details—the real pashmina shawls that have been repurposed for these costumes, the paste jewels and pearls and gold thread,” she observes. “One always thinks—especially because when you’re looking at a dancer from far away—that they would be wearing fabrics like Lycra or synthetic materials and these aren’t that– they’re the most beautiful silks and gold thread.”

Alongside the costumes and photographs that comprise the main exhibition organized by the Centre national du costume de scène, D’Alessandro notes that the show also includes a textile education gallery as well as a small collection of memorabilia, newspaper clippings, programs, and photos that chronicle Nureyev’s many San Francisco connections, including one of the berets he was so fond of wearing, loaned by Tosca Cafe’s Jeannette Etheredge.

There are no grey-bellied rat costumes in the exhibition, but for this former rat the allure of the Nureyev mystique still runs deeper than the threads.

Rudolf Nureyev: A Life in Dance: October 6, 2012–February 17, 2013, de Young Museum, Golden Gate Park, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, San Francisco. For more information: (415) 750-3600 or

Mary Ellen Hunt writes about dance and the arts for the San Francisco Chronicle. She has also contributed arts stories to Dance Magazine, Pointe Magazine, Dance Teacher, Diablo Magazine, the San Jose Mercury News, the Contra Costa Times, KALW (91.7 FM) and the KQED website.