The Mad Russian and the Dane, Tales of Rudolf Nureyev and Erik Bruhn
Part 3 – Interviewing Rudi
By Neal Weaver
Meanwhile, changes were afoot at Dance Magazine. The advertising manager, Bill Como, had been fretting for years over the fact that the limited scope that a magazine devoted solely to dance had to attract advertisers. He wanted a broader based, general entertainment magazine, and certainly I found the idea appealing. I made up long lists of story ideas, and we discussed the possibilities carefully before approaching Jean Gordon.
Rather to our surprise, she was quite open to the idea, and felt that the owner of the magazine, Rudolf Orthwine, would be also. He had wanted to launch an entertainment magazine years before, and had registered the name After Dark. Suddenly, we were launching a new magazine. The old Ballroom Dance Magazine was seeming more and more outdated in the age of rock, so it was decided to use it as a vehicle of change. It would be called Ballroom Dance Magazine, incorporating After Dark, the entertainment magazine. Over a period of a few months, the Ballroom title would be increasingly smaller, and After Dark increasingly larger, till finally the Ballroom part was dropped altogether.
I was concerned about the elderly editor of Ballroom, Helen Wicks Reed, who was a former ballroom dance teacher, and I didn’t want to put her out of a job, particularly as her husband was unemployed and Jean Gordon had taken him on as a replacement for our elderly mail-room guy, who had fallen ill. Jean Gordon loved to humiliate him by making him sweep the office or do other menial jobs when visitors were present. Helen probably could have stayed on in some capacity, but she was indignant at being superseded, and attempted to raise a rebellion among her dance teacher subscribers. She hadn’t realized that her correspondence with them would elicit replies that Jean Gordon would see before she did. She had signed her own death warrant. She was a nice lady, but she was regarded as dispensable.
At first it was not easy to persuade the Broadway press people that they should provide house seats for critics writing for Ballroom Dance Magazine. But our early issues coincided with the opening of Hair on Broadway, and it was the hot ticket in town. We gave it a lavish spread, with a review by me and lots of production photos. And that got us a considerable amount of attention. I made it onto the second night list of theatre critics, and was invited to more and more movie screenings as well. But what we really needed was some substantial stories that would get us taken seriously. I kept thinking that what we needed was an interview with Nureyev. His defection to the West while on tour in Paris with Russia’s Kirov Ballet had been an international event, his spectacular performances on the Bell Telephone Hour, and his appearances with major dance companies had raised him to the first rank of celebrities. If we could get an interview with him, it would really put us on the map. But how to accomplish it? I felt I had established a relationship of sorts with him, but I doubted it was enough to get me past the protective web that surrounded him.
Bill Como went from Advertising Manager to editor of After Dark, and I was only feature editor. And though we did rely to some extent on freelancers, for the first few months it was just Bill and me, and art director Neil Appelbaum putting together the whole magazine. I was writing theater and movie reviews, feature stories, photo captions, news stories, and so forth. So much, in fact, that I had to use several pseudonyms. My standard pen name was Ted Flagg (derived from the names of two characters in my play War Games), but I also got a kick out of signing myself James Mavor Morrell, which was the name of the pastor husband in George Bernard Shaw’s play Candida, which no one ever caught onto.
Bill agreed that an interview with Nureyev was just what we needed, but I didn’t know how to go about getting it. He notoriously refused interviews, and had given only one, with Clive Barnes of the New York Times. Bill put me in touch with Olga Maynard, who was a West Coast dance critic and the West Coast critic for Dance Magazine. She said that the way to get his attention in a crowd was to speak to him very quietly. Everybody yelled at him, and he ignored them. When she had spoken quietly, he gave her his attention, and when he learned who she was, he surprised her by producing a clipping of her review of his work from his wallet, and said he wanted to discuss it with her.
So I went to hang-out with the stage-door Johnnies outside the stage door in the bowels of the Met. (One of them, interestingly enough, was a minor porn-star.) When he came out everybody was yelling “Rudi, Rudi, Rudi!” As he passed me I said quietly, “Mr. Nureyev.” He stopped and said “Yes?” I don’t remember the details, but I assume I reminded him of who I was and asked him for an interview. I don’t recall if he agreed, or referred me to his manager, Chris Allen. But whatever happened, I was set up with an interview before the last Sunday matinee of his production of The Nutcracker.
On the Sunday in question, I went to the Met and was admitted without question. I was frankly terrified. I’d never done an interview with anybody, and now here I was, facing an interview with an international superstar. I think I had been told already by some one that I could interview him, but I was forbidden to use any quotes. I had also arranged to see his Nutcracker prior to the interview so I could talk about it. It was darker than most productions, with a rather Freudian scene in which Clara’s family turned into ominous looking bats. But it was still joyous, and beautiful to behold.
I was left on my own to find my way to his star dressing room. I knocked, and a voice said, “Come in.” I entered the room only to discover that he was seated on the floor, wearing nothing but a dance belt, and preparing to put on a pair of tights. And sitting across the room from him was the same cheek-bony young man I’d seen with him before. Great! Not only was I doing my first ever interview, but I’d have to do it with an intimidatingly handsome audience.
I was embarrassed by his near-nudity and turned discreetly away. My embarrassment seemed to embarrass him, and he began struggling with the tights as if he’d never seen a pair before. And he began babbling nervously about how he was getting fat—which was absurd. He didn’t have one extra ounce on him. He finally got into the tights and stood up, still not introducing the cheek-bony one. He looked around, then gestured toward a small tabouret on which there was a tangle of tights and ballet slippers, as if to say, “Sit down.” Then he looked confused and said, “Oh, that’s not a chair.” He took the things from the tabouret and flung them in the closet, and placed a chair for me, by the window and right by his dressing table. The sun was coming in the window so he tried to adjust the venetian blind. But on the window sill was a large vase of roses, and one of the roses caught in the blind. The vase was tipped over on my head, dousing me and leaving me with a lapful of roses.
He was totally mortified, as he tried to clean up the mess. I kept saying, “It’s okay. I’m wash-and-wear.” But inwardly I was rejoicing. After this he’d be totally eager to co-operate. He sat down and began applying his makeup. I apologized about taking up his time just before a performance, when he needed to prepare. He said never mind, that was not a problem. He was trembling so much he could barely do his makeup, and I realized that he was more afraid of me than I was of him. For, though he was quite erudite, about music, art, dance and literature, he was self-conscious about having little formal education, and intimidated by anyone he feared might be his intellectual superior.
I told him I had seen his Nutcracker, and enjoyed it very much. He said, “Who did you see?” Meaning, who did you see in my role? I mentioned the dancer who was sort of third in the pecking order. He said, “It’s a shame that you couldn’t at least have been (Anthony) Dowell.” (Later he and Dowell danced a tango together in the movie Valentino.)
I don’t remember a lot of the interview. But I do recall asking about a quote in the newspapers to the effect that he’d love to be in Hair. He said, “Yes, if I could sing, if I could dance. But they are all so talented.” That was about the only quote I wound up using.
I remembered the charming section of the ballet, danced by children, in 18th Century costumes, in a toy-theatre set. I said, “You must be very fond of children.” He looked alarmed, as if he thought I was accusing him of pedophilia. He said, “Why do you say that?” I said, “Because you give them such lovely things to do.” He still looked frightened. I said, “Relax, I’m on your side!” And I was, too, though that’s probably against journalistic protocol.
So the interview proceeded, but suddenly all my questions seemed beside the point. I felt I knew what his answers had to be—if he was a real artist, and that he certainly was, there was only one possible answer. I felt the need to get out of his hair and let him get ready for his performance. Just then, there was a knock at the door, and ballerina Maria Tallchief and her young daughter Elise walked in. She’d just flown in (from Cuba?) to see the last performance of his Nutcracker in NYC. He was clearly delighted to see them, and adored them both. But Elise didn’t seem to know who he was. She’d been very little when last he’d seen her. “Oh, Elise! You don’t remember me!” he said, seemingly crushed. I didn’t want to intrude on their reunion, so I quietly crept away. (Later, I would hear more about Rudi’s relations with Maria from Erik Bruhn.) Lydia Joel spoke contemptuously about his distress that the little girl didn’t remember him. “So childish!” she said. But I found it touching.
So now I had the interview, such as it was, and had to figure out how to write it up without using any quotes.
I did sneak in a couple of harmless quotes, but largely had to confine myself to giving my impressions of the man. I took on all the critics who’d found him arrogant and impossible to deal with, and tried to present his side: people who dealt with him sensitively got sensitive results. I said that, unlike many male dancers, he served his ballerinas loyally and self-effacingly because he wanted to, and not because he lacked the gumption to do anything else. And I said that as a dancer, he was exciting because he was so volatile that one felt he could blow the whole ballet convention out of the water if he wanted to. I guess my interview read rather like a love-letter to him, and in a sense it was. But it apparently rankled Clive Barnes, who was no longer the only one to interview Rudi. He commented on the fact, in print, rather grouchily.
I didn’t know how the piece landed with him (it was close to his ideal interview—full of pictures and few significant words). But it served to put After Dark on the map, and it proved to be an open sesame. I was soon invited to do an interview with Erik Bruhn.