February 28, 2010

A Collector’s Tale

Bruce Chatwin’s exotic voyages have given us delightful travel as in Patagonia and Songlines. In his wanderings, the writer collected myths, legends, and disparate cultural blocks, which he built into the masonry of his own, unique narrations. In his novel Utz, alchemy, cabala, and metaphysical pursuits are the components of a strange tale, at whose center lies a priceless collection of exquisite porcelains.

Researching the nature of compulsive collecting, the nameless narrator of Utz travels in 1967 to Prague-“the most mysterious of European cities”-where he meets the equally mysterious Utz, a part-Jewish German expatriate whose way of life is peculiarly wedded to the Meissen porcelains he has lovingly collected.

What is the strange power of these delightful pieces-Harlequin, Pulcinella, Scaramouche, and scores of others? (He knows he could never succeed in smuggling them to the West.) Utz himself has a metaphysical explanation for the potency of porcelain: it is a kind of philosopher’s stone, ”a magical and talismanic substance…the antidote to decay.”

And who is the enigmatic Utz, whose maid is also his wife? Utz is physically nondescript, yet he has many mistresses. Allowed to make annual trips to the spa at Vichy, he could defect, but he is repelled by the banality of the abundance that he sees there. Utz chooses to remain in Prague, to grovel and “live within the lie.”

The final mystery is the most unsettling: before his death, Utz destroys his precious porcelains. Is he smashing his idols?, the narrator wonders. Is he spiting the state, which would have inherited the collection? Is he disgusted with the compromise he made to remain in Prague?

Chatwin meditates in his travel books on man as wanderer. In his fiction, by contrast, he writes about people who stay put. Abel and Cain are for him the archetypes of two classes of people; in In Patagonia he writes of “Abel, the wanderer” and “Cain, the hoarder of property.” Utz is clearly one of the latter. As wryly humorous as Utz’s Harlequin, as enigmatic as Prague, this compact novel is itself a finely wrought miniature, fired in Chatwin’s original and alluring imagination.


February 14, 2010

HIS life, THE life:

The Nureyev family of the small town of Ufa in the Soviet republic of Bashkiria was so poor that at the age of five little Rudik had no shoes; he was carried to school by his mother on her back. Fifty-two years later, at a packed auction at Christie’s in New York, a single pair of Rudolf Nureyev’s used ballet slippers sold for more than $9,000.

John Dryden called dancing “the poetry of the foot,” and rarely before had a pair of feet so defined, and symbolized, this poetry. Every male ballet dancer for the past five decades has been dancing in the space charted by Nureyev’s well-worn shoes and foot.

On June 16, 1961, Nureyev defected in Paris, and fame was thrust upon the 23-year-old dancer in a worldwide news frenzy. Despite rumors, there is ample evidence that Nureyev’s defection was not a premeditated act but a spontaneous one, made in impossible circumstances. He took “six steps exactly” (the famed “leap to freedom” was, in fact, a short walk) away from the K.G.B. agents guarding him and toward two undercover French policemen who were waiting. When the agents grabbed their man, one of the Parisian officials, in a wonderful moment of French diplomacy, said indignantly, “Ne le touchez pas — nous sommes en France.” (“Don’t touch him — we are in France.”) The deed was done.

He danced with most of the eminent ballerinas of his time, from Natalia Dudinskaya, Yvette Chauviré and Carla Fracci to Lynn Seymour, Natalia Makarova and Sylvie Guillem. And then there was Margot Fonteyn.

Eight months after his defection, they danced together for the first time, in “Giselle”

— then in everything, with Ashton’s “Marguerite and Armand” (based on “La Dame aux Camélias” by Dumas fils) defining them forever. Thus began a partnership that will be remembered as perhaps the greatest in all dance history, not least for its erotic Oedipal overtones. Dame Margot Fonteyn was beautiful, enamored of her young lion, with a profound passion lurking behind the ladylike exterior — and, at 42, old enough to be his mother. He was wild, and impetuous. Audiences treated them like rock stars, waiting in lines for days for tickets, scalping them at record prices, and showering them with never ending curtain calls.

John Martin, the dance critic for The New York Times, was less than approving. “She has gone,” he wrote, “to the grand ball with a gigolo.”

“Everything I have,” Nureyev said, “the legs have danced for.” At his death, in 1993, he left an estate worth $21 million — an unprecedented fortune in a scandalously underpaid profession, and a sign of his unparalleled fame. During a career of more than 30 years, those not very long legs carried this astonishing man across the stages of the world.

-photograph Richard Avedon

Nureyev was never, technically, the best classical male dancer of his era — Mikhail Baryshnikov was more agile, Peter Martins was more fluid, Fernando Bujones had better line and feet, and others were superior partners — but he led the way for them all. In his jumps, with the look-at-me preparations that signaled a heroic event (which they usually were), his turns (always a little hopping and hair-raising), his lavish, yearning reaches and his magnificent presence, he was without question the most spirited dancer. His magnetic allure made him omnipotent. He didn’t walk onto the stage. He strutted with the air of a prince and a prowler, the pride in his own beauty offset by a knowing humor. He owned his audience before he even started dancing. Energy made flesh, he brought sex to ballet like no one had before — or has since. In doing so he brought the classical art form to which he indentured himself an audience of millions who might otherwise not have been interested. In this alone, his legacy is lasting and enormous.

Julie Kavanagh, a British dance journalist who trained as a dancer and the author of “Secret Muses: The Life of Frederick Ashton,” has written a superbly researched biography of Nureyev, 14 years after his death and nine years after publication of the one other significant biography, by the American writer Diane Solway. Solway’s biography was subtitled “His Life.” Kavanagh’s, with the grandiosity of authorization by the two foundations that bear Nureyev’s name, is subtitled “The Life.”

His life, The life: either way, it was an extraordinary one.

Nureyev referred to his childhood as his “potato period,” when that vegetable was the main sustenance and “six people and a dog” lived in one room, freezing throughout the long, bitter winters. “At night,” he said, “I could never stretch out completely.” Needs born in deprivation will rarely be satisfied by any reality, and the whole globe could not, in the end, accommodate this ravenous man’s need to “stretch out.”

I remember watching him, with a woolen cap on his head to keep the heat in the furnace, standing at the barre with such focused concentration that his tendu almost seared the floor, making him the center of the room. He was possessed, lacking the filter of self-possession coveted by most dancers.

Accepted into the Kirov Ballet in 1958, he immediately began to make a mark, as both a dancer and a very bad boy. During his debut in “Don Quixote,” the last intermission extended to almost an hour while he refused to finish the ballet wearing the short trousers he likened to “lampshades.” He had seen photographs of Western dancers and, like them, wanted to wear just tights. And Nureyev in tights was a sight to see — no wonder they wanted him to keep the lampshades on.

Money became an obsession —He rarely picked up a tab, often had no cash on him and early on set new standards for fees for his performances. He established a residence in Monaco and offshore foundations in Luxembourg and Liechtenstein; he hated paying taxes. By the end of his life, he had seven properties: an apartment on the Quai Voltaire in Paris, a house outside London, an apartment in the Dakota in New York, a villa in the South of France, a house on St. Barts, an 18th-century farm in Virginia and Li Galli, three small islands in the Mediterranean on the Amalfi Coast that had belonged to Léonide Massine. He amassed a sizable collection of paintings, antique furniture and numerous Turkish kilims, reminders of his childhood. He could never get enough of anything — space, applause, money, sex.

His dislocation was complete.

Nureyev was his own man at all times, unusual in a profession where obedience to a higher order are central to the art itself.

When he defected, Nureyev stated that he had two goals: to study with Bruhn, and to work with George Balanchine. Both dreams were, in their fashion, fulfilled, but be careful, as they say, what you wish for. He called Bruhn, the love of his life — “he’s so cold he’s like ice; you touch it and it burns you.” Their affair was marked by intense love, relentless competition, long distances and other lovers. Some of Bruhn’s tormented love letters, while moving in their misery they do the sensitive dancer, writing in a language not his own, no service.

The Balanchine connection was also a tortured affair. Nureyev had pursued Balanchine from the beginning, even going so far as to offer him two months a year of his time while most other choreographers were allotted only days. But this wasn’t really Balanchine’s style. He wanted all your time; he wanted, if you were lucky, your life. “When you are tired of playing at being a prince,” Balanchine famously told him, “come to me.” But the poor Tatar boy never tired of being the prince, and therein lies the essence of why these two huge figures in 20th-century ballet, from the same mother, the Kirov, were never to merge onstage. Though both lived by Balanchine’s philosophy — “More! More! What are you waiting for?” — they represented polar opposites in terms of ethics and thus aesthetics. Balanchine celebrated women (and the Divine), and Nureyev celebrated himself.

In 1984, Nureyev was diagnosed with H.I.V. He lived and danced for nine more years, never publicly acknowledging his illness, despite the rumors. In 1987, when Nureyev’s mother was dying, François Mitterrand — times had changed — helped the dancer secure a 36-hour visa. Nureyev had not seen his mother for 26 years. After the long trip to Ufa, he found her curled up in pain on an old ottoman in an empty room. She had had a stroke and did not open her eyes or speak. He stayed less than 10 minutes. After he left, his mother murmured, “It was Rudik.” Never allowed to travel, Farida had missed seeing her only son’s glorious career in the West. The Soviet government, he later said, had delivered the “last blow.”

It is near impossible (unless you are Paul Valéry or Edwin Denby) to render the three dimensions of a dancer’s performance, however transcendent, as convincingly or dramatically as a dancer’s bad behavior in the wings. With Nureyev, the offstage offenses were as numerous as the onstage miracles, which all too often received banal descriptions. “Rudolf projected a powerful physical allure,” Kavanagh writes of his performance in “The Sleeping Beauty,” “most apparent in the hunting scene, where bedecked in lace and satin, he stalked the stage with real aristocratic command.”

“He has a marvelous engine inside him, like a Rolls-Royce,” Frederick Ashton said. “I feel he’s a mixture of a Tartar, a faun and a kind of lost urchin. He’s the Rimbaud of the Steppes.” But amid all the reportage Kavanagh offers little of her own illumination of his genius, and amongst the foliage, the great sequoia is lost.

In his final years, Nureyev insisted on literally, excruciatingly, dying before our eyes, giving performances so ragged and inept that audiences whistled and demanded refunds — which suggests something besides simple flouting of the cardinal rule that performers should know when to retire gracefully. He was ill, but the stage was his only real home, so he stayed there. He demanded, somehow, that we see the suffering human behind the Dionysian god. He continued to the end in that transparent recklessness that was his deepest gift as a dancer. Nureyev, like Maria Callas (as Clive Barnes once noted), popularized and changed his art form forever, with a combination of technique, dedication and respect for its tradition, while simultaneously blowing it wide open with a kind of divine individual desperation.

He spent much of the last months of his life on Li Galli, and was found one day lying on the floor in an echo of his childhood, sleeping on one of his kilims and eating potatoes. In the end, he was the loneliest man in the world.

“They pay us,” Nureyev once said, “for our fear.” Sure, vanity, self-indulgence and cruelty ran rampant throughout his short, tempestuous life. But he faced death with defiance. In daring to be so vehemently, disobediently alive, he faced it, for us, every time he stepped onstage. Great dancing, unlike good dancing, is an experience of beauty laced with pity, a haunted happening in the shadow of our transience. Dancers are willing slaves to the time and gravity that rule us all, and dancing is mortality in motion.

even Rudolf, was not paid enough for this courage.

I am reading...

  • scribble, scribble, scribble, Simon Schama
  • Julia's Cats, Patricia Barey and Therese Burson
  • London, Edward Rutherfurd
  • I'll Drink to That, Betty Halbreich