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.