Dancing in the grave

31 October 2013 | By Caitlyn Lehmann

Marie Taglioni, yes ... but the wrong one!
Marie Taglioni, yes ... but the wrong one!
Rudolf Nureyev's grave
Rudolf Nureyev's grave
Anna Pavlova's ashes
Anna Pavlova's ashes
Vaslav Nijinsky's grave
Vaslav Nijinsky's grave

Caitlyn Lehmann takes us on an ever-so-slightly spooky tour around the final resting places of the world’s most famous dancers.

As a canny Renaissance statesman observed, “Fame and tranquility can never be bedfellows.” When you’re seriously famous, you can expect some serious traffic to intrude on your eternal repose. For countless visitors to Paris, no tour of the city’s sights is complete without a wander through the Montmartre Cemetery, where a veritable who’s who of artists and intellectuals (and the odd public executioner) awaits the tourists’ salutations. There you’ll find the hapless Emma Livry, the young Romantic ballerina who died of burns after her costume caught the opera’s gaslights; and legendary father-and-son duo Gaetan and Auguste Vestris, who brought ballet-mania to 18th-century London.

Vaslav Nijinsky, his grave adorned by a doleful bronze Petrushka, is a Johnny-come-lately by comparison. The ill-fated artist of the Ballets Russes died, in fact, not in Paris but in London in the spring of 1950. And there he might have remained had not the French been ‘orrified by this mortal lapse in good taste. So three years after settling in at St Marylebone Cemetery, up Nijinsky came for his final journey to Montmartre. Paris, so the French insisted, had always been his spiritual home.

A posthumous jeté across the Channel was also planned for the globe-trotting superstar Anna Pavlova. Although forced into exile by the Soviet Revolution, Pavlova (it was claimed) uttered a dying wish to return to her homeland, sparking multiple rounds of Anglo-Russian negotiations, many mountains of paperwork and no end of angst for her surviving relations. The most recent attempt to move her was in 2001, when arrangements were made for her ashes to travel from London to Moscow. Still, there’s nothing like a last-minute row over visas and spools of red tape to bring the best laid plans unstuck. So the ballerina remains at Golders Green Crematorium, where her urn is flanked by a porcelain swan and ballerina figurine – but not by her pointe shoes. Those were pinched many years ago by an unscrupulous admirer.

By and large, though, the late and great of the ballet fraternity are more likely to collect pointe shoes than to lose them. All around the world, the memorials and graves of celebrated dancers and choreographers attract offerings of cast-off ballet slippers, and none more so than that of the iconic Romantic ballerina, Marie Taglioni. In Montmartre Cemetery, Taglioni’s grave regularly accumulates a pile of mouldering pointe shoes, thoughtfully left by appreciative demoiselles de la danse. There’s just one problem: this is not the grave of Marie Taglioni, aka la Sylphide. It’s Marie Taglioni aka Sophie Karsten. But luckily Karsten is the ballerina’s mother, so we don’t suppose she minds fielding tributes on her illustrious daughter’s behalf.

Our Taglioni is actually buried across town at the Père Lachaise Cemetery. And speaking of that locale, there’s another dancer you might know there: Isadora Duncan. Poor Isadora! A pioneer of modern dance, she’s my pick for the “Most Misunderstood in Death as in Life” Award. Impulsive, intrepid and a brilliant self-publicist, she raised eyebrows with her freestyle dancing in flowing Grecian tunics and shocked conservative American audiences with her “red” politics and the irregularities of her private life. Here at least she’s reunited with her two small children, who drowned with their nanny in the Seine in a freak car accident in 1913. Cars weren’t lucky for the family, it seems: Isadora died while riding in an open sports car. Her long, floating scarf wrapped around the axle of the passenger-side wheel, strangling her.

Curiously, Isadora seems today to be increasingly feted within ballet circles and it’s been rather unsettling her slumbers. Surrounded by graffiti, her memorial plaque bears the words École de Ballet de l’Opéra de Paris (which I can only conclude means the Paris Opera Ballet School sponsored the memorial) and people will keep leaving her their pointe shoes. What philistinism is this? “Ugly and against nature“. That’s what Isadora thought of ballet. Not for Isadora the corseted tutu. Not for Isadora those preposterous, abominable pointe shoes!

Yet there is one dancer for whom fame and tranquility do seem happily reconciled – one dancer whose monument both invites and resists the gawk of onlookers (much like the man himself). The tomb of Rudolf Nureyev, in the Russian cemetery at Sainte-Geneviève-des-bois, near Paris, is among the world’s most sumptuous. So lifelike as to be mistaken for the real thing, it’s in the shape an oriental kilim rug, like the ones Nureyev collected for his residences. Designed by the dancer’s friend and collaborator, celebrated Italian set designer Ezio Frigerio, the rug was unveiled in 1996 and is a mosaic of thousands of gold, turquoise and burgundy tiles. It’s the perfect symbol of Nureyev’s eastern origins, his itinerancy, theatricality and profound love of beauty.