The Australian Ballet

Rudolf Nureyev: A Brilliant Life

Rudolf Nureyev transcended the dance world, capturing the imagination of the globe with a force that is reserved for rock stars.

Nureyev WW

Rudolf Nureyev. Photo originally featured in The Australian Women’s Weekly, 13 May, 1962. Caption states: “Russian-born ballet idol Rudolf Nureyev at work on his make-up. He insists on complete solitude before a performance and sits alone in his dressing room. Nureyev – he pronounces his name Nyer-ray-ev – dances for at least seven hours daily”

Born on the Trans-Siberian railway, Nureyev possessed a gift that was too prodigious to be shielded from the west. On a tour of Paris with the Kirov Ballet in 1961 he became the first dancer to defect to the Soviet Union. His was a life spent in exile (or more precisely, fleeing from exile) and ultimately it was ballet that enabled him to leap to freedom.

Rudolf Nureyev: A Brilliant Life documents Nureyev’s rise to international acclaim, describing him as a “comet from an empty land, blazing through the world of art and beauty”. Critics would often jostle for celestial and animal analogies – “a wild animal let loose in a drawing room” – to describe both his persona and his performances.

Nureyev possessed a defiant, impulsive side that stoked newspaper headlines with red-hot intensity throughout his life. He became a pop icon, and was even celebrated on a legendary episode of the Muppets, where he dances the Swine Lake with a heaving, custom-made version of Miss Piggy.

Nureyev helped raise the profile of many international ballet companies. Sir John Tooley of the Rudolf Nureyev Foundation describes Nureyev’s arrival in England in 1961 as a godsend for ballet generally, commenting on his ability to help dancers find another dimension for their performance. Tooley also praises Nureyev for breathing new life into 19th century ballets.

Jack Lang, former French Minister of the Arts, talks of his own aspirations to make The Paris Opera Ballet brilliant and powerful – the world’s leading ballet. “No one but Nureyev had the creativity, the feline energy or the sense of theatre to do that, not to mention his international reputation.” In 1983 Nureyev became director of the company, a provocative appointment considering he was still regarded as a traitor by the soviets.

In 1964 Nureyev danced with Margot Fonteyn in Sydney and Melbourne in The Australian Ballet’s performances of Swan Lake and Giselle, generating huge excitement in Australia. This would be the first of many collaborations with The Australian Ballet both at home and overseas.

Drawing on Nureyev’s own memoirs, A Brilliant Life features interviews with key creatives spliced with footage of Nureyev at work, marking the trajectory of a dancer who transformed art in the west forever.