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Homage to Rudolf Nureyev

The Star of the Ballet at la Scala

Rudy’s “first time” at the Scala was on 9th October 1965, when Milan audiences finally had the chance to have a close look at the Russian dancer who was the object of all the papers’ enthusiasm and curiosity. Some black and white footage from the archives of the Rai in Milan remain as a testimony to that evening when dame Margot Fonteyn, the queen of British ballet, danced on the magical stage in Romeo and Juliet, together with Nureyev, that Russian dancer who, while on tour, had defected to the West at Le Bourget Airport, Paris.

On 16th September 1966, Nureyev and Fonteyn danced the romantic pas de deux from Marguerite and Armand, created especially for the couple in 1963 by sir Frederick Ashton. Based on Dumas’ La Dame aux Camélias, it was a Traviata reduced to the essential which did not employ Verdi’s music, but piano pieces by Liszt arranged for the orchestra by Humphrey Searle.

A few days later, Nureyev presented himself to the public for the first time as the choreographer / stager of The Sleeping Beauty, with Carla Fracci. It was a sumptuous, imposing version of this famous ballet in considerable contrast with the Kirov Ballet’s original.

On 27th December 1970, following some heated discussions between the star and the Scala Theatre Ballet, a number of fans wrote a letter reminding the then-superintendent Ghiringhelli: “Do not forget that, as well as swear-words and slaps, Nureyev has also taught our dancers a good deal both about technique and about professional conduct, that is, devotion to the art and the spasmodic desire for perfection. Who can ever forget the deafening applause with the curtain still up for the corps de ballet in The Nutcracker, something that happens only rarely?”.

He only worked once with Luciana Savignano and that was in 1968 in the Poem of Ecstasy, choreographed by Roland Petit. The following year the autumn season was again opened by Fonteyn in Giselle, a ballet that Nureyev was to dance regularly at the Scala. The performance of 1971 was a triumph, with one journalist, Lorenzo Arruga of “Il Giorno”, writing: “This old Giselle sends us home happy after taking a breath of dance”.

In 1974, he appeared again with Carla Fracci in Swan Lake. However, in that same year with the success of Maurice Béjart’s deeply moving all-male pas de deux Chant du compagnon errant (Song of a Wayfarer) Nureyev shows the Milan audiences another, more modern side to his complex personality, that of an artist with a thirst for new stimulating choreographic experiences.

In 1980, Rudolf Nureyev was invited to Milan to stage Romeo and Juliet (the last triumphal tour at the Metropolitan in New York is linked to this production), a version which has remained in the archives of the Scala thanks to the Rai television production and the subsequent home video edition released by De Agostini.

In the same year, the Theatre again staged The Nutcracker, made more precious thanks to the presence of Nureyev in two roles: Drosselmeyer, the benevolent genius, and the Prince, his natural projection in Clara’s desires.

However, in the same season Don Quixote made its début at the Scala. It was to be an opening accompanied by heated discussion and debate which, as often happens at the Scala, added a further sense of expectation in the public of the première. Nureyev’s production (which can be found on video performed by the Australian Ballet) was contested by a number of critics who preferred Marius Petipa’s original, and appreciated by others who found in it the dreamlike aura of Cervantes and acknowledged in Nicholas Georgiadis’ beautiful scenery the colours and atmosphere of Goya and Daumier. Rudy saved for himself (and subsequently for Patrick Dupond and Julio Bocca) the role of an arrogant, light-hearted Basil, but despite perhaps losing some of his technical brilliance, as some critics, such as Alberto Testa (“La Repubblica”, 26th September 1980) noted, he still lit up the stage next to Fracci-Kitri dancing the role of his lover for the first time.

In 1988, when he was invited to the Scala to dance in Flemming Flindt’s Bournonville production, of La Sylphide, Nureyev was fifty. The first critical voices, doubts and gossip surrounding the dancer’s increasingly disappointing form were heard among the public.

So, had Milan fallen out of love with Rudolf Nureyev? This was the question being asked by journalists and experts when, in 1989, at the first performance of Flemming Flindt’s The Lesson at the Teatro Lirico, the curtain rose on a half-empty theatre.

Despite the disappointment, Nureyev gave the public and the dancers of the Scala another lesson in style, interpreting perfectly the neurotic and fiendish role of the dance teacher who, after instructing his pupils, kills them.

His obsession with dance and with keeping his place in the history of dance was for him an idea that no critic could shake. Even during his last years, Nureyev, the man and the dancer, unashamedly exhibited his premature old-age: he had an anxiety for life, a neurosis that led him to dance “to his last breath”. “I want to stop, but God won’t let me”, wrote Vaslav Nijinsky in his diary. And, as if unconsciously reliving the legend of his great predecessor, shortly before he died, Rudy said that “life was always a march forward, until a more powerful hand stopped you”.

On 6th January 1993, that hand came, unrelenting but gentle, after caressing him in a slow decline which lasted for months and against which Rudy the Tatar fought like a wounded lion.

The Scala is left with his ballets; dancers are left with the unrepeatable example of a man who, locked in a Faust-like pact, had sold his soul to dance and to liberty.

From a text by Paola Calvetti
in the programme of the Teatro alla Scala
Opera and Ballet Season 2010-2011
Translation by Christopher Owen



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