The Mad Russian and the Great Dane, Tales of Rudolf Nureyev and Erik Bruhn
Part 2: More Rudi
By Neal Weaver
For Part 1, read here.
I went to the Hurok office and picked up the Nureyev photo file, as requested. The pictures did not seem all that remarkable to me, but if that was what he wanted, so be it. And meanwhile, I’d arranged to get tickets to see the ballet Paradise Lost. I loved it, but the critics hated it, dismissing it as a frivolous piece of pop culture, but I didn’t think it was that at all.
The piece began with Nureyev’s character being born. Wearing only white tights, and draped with miniature Christmas lights, he seemed to slowly become conscious, shaking off the string of lights, and discovering his body, experimenting to see what it could do. I found it a charming interlude, revealing what I called Nureyev’s goofy side.
Then Fonteyn appeared, and he was immediately attracted. They had an erotic pas de deux, overtly sexual, and indicating a seduction. Then, he broke free and began looking for new adventures. Behind them the corps de ballet was playing the erotically charged denizens of the permissive society, rolling on the floor and changing partners frequently and promiscuously. He joined their erotic games for a while, as Fonteyn watched him from afar. Then the chorus changed its identity, becoming the inexorable force of primitive morality, not about to let him get away with his irresponsible dalliance. They picked up Fonteyn and lowered her into his arms.
Commitment shy, he struggled fiercely to break free, but she grasped him round his thighs. Desperate to escape, he raced across the full vast width of the Met stage, dragging her on her knees. (How she did that without wrecking her knees is a mystery.) The piece came to a rather shocking end with Nureyev leaping into the red mouth of a pair of lip-sticked lips on the wall of the set—finally consumed by the heedless hedonism of a voluptuous society. And Fonteyn was left alone, shattered and bereft. It seemed to me a sternly moral work, but the critics were not ready for that in the Swinging Sixties, and it was soon dropped from the repertoire.
I presented myself at the Met at the appointed time — before a Sunday matinee — but no word had been left to let me in. And Rudi had not yet arrived. I sat down on a bench to wait for him, and shortly he breezed in, imperiously, indicating to the doorman that I was indeed his guest, and signaling me to follow him to his dressing-room. He was wearing an intimidatingly stylish military great-coat of grey wool: sharply tailored at the waist and upper torso, but with skirts that flared out below the waist. It was the kind of garment that, even if you put it on over even the grungiest outfit, made you appear to be a figure of high style. He was also accompanied by a handsome, cheek-bony young man, who I assumed was his current boyfriend, or boy toy, or whatever.
He immediately got down to business, not bothering to introduce the young man. He took the file of photographs from me, thumbed through them quickly and angrily, and announced that the picture he wanted us to use was not there. He then, quick as a flash, took the pile of expensive photos and ripped them in half. This was serious business. These weren’t valueless photo copies; they were original photo prints by name photographers, with a lot of expensive retouching.
I was so furious that my intimidation vanished. When other people get angry, they may yell. I just get dangerously quiet. I said, “Mr. Nureyev, I borrowed those photos at your request, and I am responsible for them!”
He reacted like a dog that has been chastised for misbehavior. He couldn’t look at me, and retreated to his clothes closet, his tail between his legs. He knelt down and began furiously but pointlessly sorting through the shoes. In muffled tones, he said, “It’s all right. I will return the photos to Mr. Frankenstein myself.” The man in question was, I think, named Frankenheimer. Then Rudi gave me a copy of the souvenir program, with the photo he liked so much. I didn’t like it at all. But clearly he wanted to be presented as a serious artist, not as a pretty boy or a sex-symbol.
He said he would personally get me the photo in question, and call me when he got it. And I departed, with mixed feelings. I’d managed not to be too intimidated by him, but the photo he wanted me to use was far less appealing than the Zoe Dominick picture, and I was sure it wouldn’t sell nearly as well. On an impulse, I went straight to the office, which was deserted on a Sunday, and sat down at the typewriter, determined to make one last effort to persuade him to let us use the Dominick picture.
The letter I wrote him was spontaneous but carefully crafted. He was a man of enormous perceptions, alert to every nuance and subtlety, which made dealing with him rather Byzantine. And I wrote a letter to out-Byzantine him. I told him I could understand his fondness for the photo, and acknowledging that it did have a certain Beethoven-esque gravitas, but suggesting that it also made him look slightly simian. It was a long letter, full of compliments disguised as insults and veiled insults disguised as compliments. I signed it and dropped it in the mailbox before I could lose my nerve. And I was frankly fearful. If I made him really angry it would put the kibosh on the whole project. I knew he did not like people who gushed and fawned on him, and I thought he respected me for fighting back. But who knew?
At work on Monday, I discussed the situation with Lydia Joel, the editor of Dance Magazine. And she said, “He’s playing with you. Playing hard to get, and making you chase after him and do his bidding. He’s flirting with you!” I was skeptical. Why would a gorgeous man and an international star flirt with the likes of me? But now I think she was right. He was flirting. Maybe he flirted with everybody. Lydia also interpreted his calling the man at the Hurok office Frankenstein as evidence of his well-known (she said) anti-Semitism. I rather thought it was just evidence of his dislike for the Hurok office and everybody in it.
Meanwhile, I waited with trepidation for his response. And it came soon enough. When I returned to the office from lunch the next day, my young assistant Michael told me rather breathlessly that Nureyev’s manager had called and said to tell me that he had acquired the photograph I (he) wanted, and I could pick it up at the Met at my convenience. Michael was clearly spinning some fantasies about me and Mr. Nureyev. “Golly,” he said, “maybe he’ll grab you up and take you away with him.” I assured him that was highly unlikely, and besides I didn’t want to be grabbed up by anybody. But I was nurturing a few fantasies myself, of a sexual fling with the God of the Dance. It never happened, of course, and judging from what I’ve heard from those who did go to bed with him, it probably wouldn’t have been much fun. His casual sex encounters were apparently pretty impersonal and “Slam-bam, Thank you ma’am.” I’m sure it was different with someone like Erik, whom he really cared about.
In any event, I presented myself at the Met before the Sunday matinee, and was received by an entirely different Rudi. He was in a sunny mood, friendly and casual. He was wearing what I later learned was his usual warm-up out-fit: a russet-colored unitard with a tank top, probably made to order, and worn over a mustard colored tee-shirt. Always in fashion was he. He took me on a guided tour of the vast Met stage, stopping to flirt with the girls from the corps who were warming up in a dark corner. We chatted amiably about nothing in particular, and I took the opportunity to tell him how much I liked his autobiography. I’d made a point of never complimenting him on his dancing because I knew he hated gush. He murmured something about “the follies of youth” but he seemed pleased. But finally it was time to get down to business and he led me back to his dressing room.
“Now,” he said, “What about the money?”
My heart sank. The ever stingy Jean Gordon had told me I could only offer him a ridiculous amount: twenty dollars. I hurriedly explained that I knew it was a pitiful figure to offer someone of his talent and magnitude, but I’d only been authorized to pay him twenty dollars.
“Twenty dollars?” he said, incredulously. It was a good thing we were standing at the time, because at that moment I realized that I was considerably taller than he, and that tiny advantage was enough to get me through the moment. He began to play out a farce version of the events, in which I was cast as the big bad businessman out to fleece the poor, helpless little dancer. He wasn’t really angry, and he was having fun. I think he enjoyed the audacity of my offering twenty dollars to a man who commanded ten thousand or more for a single performance.
Then he relented and gave me the photo. The one I hated, but it was the best I could do.
I took the photo, and extended my hand. He looked at it as if it were a dead fish he was being offered, but then he broke into a broad grin and shook my hand. I felt that in some strange way I had been accepted.
I left in a glorious mood, feeling I’d come out of it all as well as possible, even if I didn’t like the picture. I had the curious feeling that I’d made a friend. And this was not to be my last encounter with Rudi.
Next week in Part 3, an interview by the author with Rudolf Nureyev.