Russian dancer and choreographer. A soloist with the Kirov Ballet, he defected to the West during a visit to Paris in 1961. Mainly associated with the Royal Ballet (London) and as Margot Fonteyn's principal partner, he was one of the most brilliant dancers of the 1960s and 1970s. Nureyev danced in such roles as Prince Siegfried in Swan Lake and Armand in Marguerite and Armand, which was created especially for Fonteyn and Nureyev. He also danced and acted in films and on television and choreographed several ballets. It was due to his enormous impact on the ballet world that the male dancer's role was elevated to the equivalent of the ballerina's.
Nureyev was a Tatar. He was born near Lake Baikal, on a train journey, and grew up in Ufa in extreme poverty. A love of folk dancing and the sight of professional dancers at the town's small opera house led to lessons with Anna Udeltsova, who had been a member of the Diaghilev Ballet. At the age of 17 he entered the famous Vaganova Institute (also known as the Kirov Ballet School) in St Petersburg in the class of Aleksandr Pushkin, a brilliant teacher. Just three years later he joined the Kirov Ballet as a soloist, dancing with Natalya Dudinskaya, its top prima ballerina, for his first engagement.
In 1961 the Kirov Ballet was in Paris on its first important tour of the West. Nureyev was highly praised but his socializing with French friends incurred the displeasure of the Soviet officials, who told him he had to return. Sensing that he would never again be allowed to leave the Soviet Union, he slipped his escort at Le Bourget Airport and sought political asylum – and a new career. In November 1961 he made his London debut at a gala in aid of the Royal Academy of Dancing with Poème Tragique, a short solo composed for him by Frederick Ashton, the director of the Royal Ballet, and this led to an invitation to partner Margot Fonteyn, the academy's president, in Giselle at Covent Garden. Thus began the legendary partnership and a new lease of artistic life for Fonteyn, who was 19 years his senior.
As well as dancing in the classics of the 19th century, he created many roles in modern works, most notably with Fonteyn in Ashton's Marguerite and Armand, first performed at Covent Garden 1963. He choreographed and staged ballets for nearly all the major companies, reviving works from the Russian repertoire like The Sleeping Beauty, The Nutcracker, and Raymonda. In 1983 he was appointed director of the Ballet at the Opéra in Paris, revitalized it, and gave much encouragement to young dancers. He appeared many times on TV and in films, including the feature I Am a Dancer, shown first in 1972. As a result of his tragically becoming a victim of AIDS, his physical powers inevitably declined but he was determined to continue working. He took up the new challenge of conducting in his last years and conducted (with considerable success) orchestras in Europe and the USA. His last appearance was a very emotional one at the Paris Opéra where he had been staging La Bayadère.
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