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.