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Rudolf Nureyev’s art and style are gorgeously revived in Calif. museum exhibit

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SAN FRANCISCO — Imagine the police surprise when, during a routine 1967 raid on a party in the Haight-Ashbury district, they hauled in not only weed and hippies but also two of the world’s most celebrated ballet dancers.

Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn — he in a coat and tie, she in a glamorous white fur — landed in jail after their rooftop arrest. They were just hours removed from the Opera House where they had performed with the Royal Ballet in Roland Petit’s “Paradise Lost,” a work created especially for them.

But while their late-night spree of frugging and bongo playing with a group of fans they’d met backstage was cut short, Nureyev didn’t go silently into the pokey. According to one witness, he “put on quite a show” as he was led to the police van.

The yellowed newspaper clipping about the arrest, displayed in “Rudolf Nureyev: A Life in Dance,” through Feb. 17, 2013, at the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park, leaves the details of the ballet star’s flamboyant exit to the imagination. But after taking in the high theatricality of his existence illuminated in this exhibit, you can rough in a picture of how Nureyev must have delighted in some playful provocation.

This collection, organized with the Centre National du Costume de Scene in Moulins, France, is more than a parade of about 70 costumes, as well as photographs and film clips from Nureyev’s career. It’s a window into the Russian dancer’s voracious passions. (More’s the pity that this is the show’s only U.S. venue.)

“You live as long as you dance,” Nureyev liked to say. What a salvation dancing must have been for the impoverished Tatar boy growing up in a village near the Urals. If he didn’t always have indoor plumbing or even shoes, folk dancing made up for it. When his natural talent vaulted him from local stages to Leningrad’s Vaganova Academy, the training arm of the esteemed Kirov (now Mariinsky) Ballet, the scrawny youngster was brash enough to boast to his more privileged classmates that one day, he would be the world’s greatest ballet dancer.

On looks alone, Nureyev seemed destined to fulfill his aim. One of the exhibit’s photos, a 1963 profile, invites lingering wonder at his features, ideal for long-range visibility: the broad brow and prominent ski-slope nose descending to pillowy lips; his expressive almond-shaped eyes and thick, dark hair sprouting energetic cowlicks fore and aft. It’s a face with Katharine Hepburn qualities, tilted defiantly at the world, all broad planes and chiseled peaks.

Of course, the great treasure was that leonine body and the soaring flights Nureyev could achieve with it. A 1966 photo from the ballet “Le Jeune Homme et la Mort” draws the eye to the dancer’s broad chest, the great curve of his shoulder and its rolling hills of muscle. With Nureyev’s 1961 defection in Paris — a Soviet public relations disaster, coming just weeks after Yuri Gagarin became the first man in space — affairs on Earth were forever changed.

Before Nureyev, one scarcely took note of male ballet dancers. Ballerinas were the stars. After him, ballet came into balance. He made it sexier and more electrifying, and male dancers everywhere stood a little taller. Technical standards rose, and the male range expanded, as audiences and choreographers reacted to new possibilities.

Offstage, too, Nureyev shook things up. He was a notorious partyer, set fashion trends with his boots, scarves and leather caps, and while he was more or less private about his homosexuality, as the times dictated, it was not a secret. The man was never given to confinement. As his arrest with Fonteyn illustrates, he was thrillingly beyond shaming — rightly so — and when under scrutiny, he’d put on a show.

What survives of this free spirit, since his death in 1993? The artifacts of dance can never substitute for the real thing, but in the face of human mortality one takes what one can get. Films are one thing, but there’s also value in the objects. The tangibles a dance artist leaves behind can conjure the living experience in the mind just as much as any historical relic — chair, painting, suit of armor — can suggest about any given time or event. With its custom-made silk and velvet garments, in an array of rich, vigorous colors, “Rudolf Nureyev: A Life in Dance” offers suggestion and even revelation about the man’s life that I am grateful to have seen.

Nureyev’s partnership with Fonteyn, the aging queen of the Royal Ballet who found a deeply harmonious partnership and renewed career with the fiery young Russian, is illustrated in several displays. One is devoted to the ballet “Marguerite and Armand,” created for the pair by the great Frederick Ashton. The frailness of Fonteyn’s character, a febrile courtesan reliving a hot romance, is echoed in the delicacy of her gowns, with their transparent overlay atop airy ruffles. The look is part belle of the ball, part sylph.

But my favorite evocation of the pair’s closeness (Nureyev said they were “one body, one mind”) is a humble still life. Beside a cardboard shoe box with “Raymonda” scrawled on the cover, a pair of Fonteyn’s satin toe shoes snuggle up against Nureyev’s white leather slippers. The display is oddly moving. Here is the basic equipment, for stars or students. They could be any dancers’ shoes — no obvious luxury here, no mark of distinction to adhere them to a legendary name.

Not so for the rest. Nureyev’s costumes could have been a fantasy king’s couture, made to measure for an extraordinarily slim waist and broad shoulders in silk, velvet and lace. As Cary Grant was with his suits and shirts — sending them back for fractional faults — so was the sharp-eyed ballet star with his stage attire.

Nureyev sought a matador look, with a snug-fitting jacket cut short to lengthen his legs. The armhole seam had to be exactly placed so his movements would not be hindered. He favored details that underscored artistic themes. A silver-blue jacket for his Prince Siegfried from the first act of a 1984 “Swan Lake” echoes the watery locale where the hero meets his true love, with metallic threads flowing over the shoulders like rapids.

For “Don Quixote,” Nureyev preferred a billowing sleeve, as evidenced by a creation from Greek designer Nicholas Georgiadis in rust, wine and gold. The velvet cascades of the women’s dresses, trimmed in coins and tassels, hint at the choreography’s noisy fury.

Nureyev’s creative appetites also ran to refashioning some of ballet’s iconic works. One of his most radical off-script departures was the grandiose 1986 production of “Cinderella” that he choreographed for the Paris Opera Ballet, which he was running at the time. It was set in the 1930s, and the title misfit goes from Depression grimness to Hollywood glamour when she’s discovered by a producer and makes her film debut. For Nureyev’s portrayal of the cigar-chomping producer/fairy godmother, Japanese fashion designer Hanae Mori created a full-cut herringbone wool coat, modeled on an Yves Saint Laurent topper Nureyev had snagged at a Paris flea market.

The exhibit’s largest display is also the most poignant: Tutus from the production of “La Bayadere” that Nureyev staged for the Paris Opera Ballet in 1992 are arrayed like statuary, with the gently sloping skirts that Nureyev preferred as more graceful than the paper-plate stiffness of the Russian style he’d known at the Kirov. As the costumes stand empty, film of the ballet’s “Kingdom of the Shades” scene is projected on the wall behind them. Over and over, dancers in white seem to float across the darkened space in a sequence of meditative choreography meant to evoke the afterlife.

Nureyev oversaw this production while gravely ill with AIDS, and the ballet premiered just three months before his death at 54. What must he have thought as he witnessed its images of eternity, reflecting his eye for the beauty of the body, even as his was failing him?

The physical and the metaphysical swirl together throughout this exhibition. The supple architecture of stage couture, designed for flight and artistic impact, is fascinating to examine up close. It offers a poetic dimension, as well. As the catalogue puts it, “These costumes which dressed his dreams have kept a bit of his memory.” Putting them on view brings the artist closer to us.

These displays made me want to see more collections of dance-related costumes, photos and objets d’art. Those who first touched them may be gone, but what they left behind can still fire the imagination — and remind us of the human spirit behind the art. In Nureyev’s case, it’s especially sweet.

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