The Other Side of Nureyev

A signed memento from Nureyev himself

The other afternoon I immersed myself in two Nureyev films, The White Crow and Nureyev, at the NY Institute of Technology. I was trying to fill the gap left by the closing of the Lincoln Plaza Cinema across the street. It was some salve to learn the details of one of his absurdly theatrical moments. At Le Bourget Airport in 1961, Nureyev refused to board the plane to Moscow, knowing that he would be “sanctioned” because of his rebellious behavior, stepping out of line was not tolerated by the Soviets. This characterization in White Moon was consistent with my experience of Rudy.

My first encounter with “Rudy” was backstage at the Metropolitan Opera House. This was summer 1971. I was working for Sol Hurok as an assistant administrator. Sol brought the Royal Ballet, starring Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn, to the Met. In my office, just below the orchestra level, I was finishing some paperwork between the afternoon and evening performance when Nureyev, 33, stormed in, with Wally, his companion, in tow.

“I am not dancing tonight,” he announced.

“Rudy… What happened?” I asked.

“My masseur didn’t come. There’s no way I can perform!”

It was a hot summer weekend long before the era of cell phones, Internet searches, or even answering machines. Not surprisingly, I had no luck finding a masseur. When I broke the news to him, Rudy looked at me mischievously. “What about you?” he asked. A few minutes later, Wally returned to my office carrying the massage table. 

Rudy perched himself on it. I could see that his back muscles were tight from lifting 85-pound ballerinas; but the only experience I’d had with massage was working the knots out of my own muscles after playing basketball. Still, what choice did I have? I started to massage him. 

After a few minutes, Rudy asked Wally to go get some sandwiches. I immediately objected. Rudy had a well-earned reputation for seducing anyone who came across his path, and I was already in a compromised position. I knew people would take note of Wally’s absence and jump to conclusions.

“If anyone leaves this room, it’s going to be me!” I told them.

The massage lasted 45 minutes with five-minute breaks to relieve the pain in my hands. Finally, King Rudolf declared that he was prepared to claim the stage. He seemed to think he had given me a gift by letting me massage him, but I had muscle pain for days. I hadn’t exerted myself that much since doing manual labor at the kibbutz where I spent six months back in Israel in 1963. On the positive side, he gave me a signed photograph of him with Margot Fonteyn before he left.

Twenty years later, in July 1992, I saw him again. I was invited to the Festival delle Ville Vesuviane, south of Naples, to—I believe—Nureyev’s last performance. An invited audience of 200 gathered in awe. Sadly Nureyev could barely stand, let alone dance L’après-midi d’un faune.  It was painful for his adoring fans, and a poignant fulfillment of his credo: “I will dance until I die.” 

He was able to return to Li Galli, a tiny private archipelago of three atolls off Italy’s Amalfi Coast. It’d been dubbed “the dance island,” not just because it’s shaped like a jumping dolphin, but because it was where Rudoph isolated himself in his final months. (You can now rent it for a mere $100,000 for the week.)

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