Why Rudolf Nureyev never learned French.


With Margot Fonteyn in 1963. Freedom at last.

Last Christmas, a dear friend gave me Elena Tchernichova‘s Dancing on Water: A Life in Ballet, from the Kirov to the ABT. I’ve finally gotten round to reading it, and the book is a fine antidote to this dispiriting election season. What better way to pass the time than to read about a young girl mastering her developpé on eight counts, or the differences in technique between the leading Soviet dancers of the twentieth century, or the distinctive styles of its choreographers? Tchernichova eventually defected to the West, where she became ballet mistress for the American Ballet Theater from 1978 to 1990, and “the most important behind-the-scenes force for change in ballet today,” according to Vogue magazine.

I’m about halfway through, and am enjoying her memories of the insolent and magnetic young dancer at the Vaganova Institute, Rudolf Nureyev, the son of Tatar Muslims who was born on the trans-Siberian railway in Irkutsk. He defected to the West in 1961, despite KGB efforts to stop him.

tchernichovaI have my own memories of the rebellious Tatar artiste. The reading brought me back to a moment some decades earlier, when I first saw Nureyev onstage in 1978 in London, performing the lead role in his own choreography for Prokofiev‘s Romeo and Juliet. I was absolutely enthralled, and despite my penury, went to see the production a second time.

But here’s the anecdote Tchernichova related that stayed with me, explaining the reason he never learned French,  although he lived in France for years:

In adulthood, Rudi Nureyev was fond of recalling how, soon after graduating from Vaganova, he had found someone to teach him English. He made rapid progress, and so he decided to try French as well. He located an old lady who agreed to instruct him on a quid pro quo basis in which he would clean her room in a rambling communal apartment. She didn’t have a bathroom in her own small room, and one of his duties would have been emptying her chamber pot. “I was already a ballerina,” Rudi recalled, “and I thought, No way do I pick up somebody else’s shit! And you know what?” he said to me, decades later in his Paris apartment, overlooking the Louvre, “I still don’t know French. If you want to learn something, you have to eat shit.

A film clip from that production that captivated me so fully decades ago in London – but filmed a few years later, in Milan.

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