RUDOLF NUREYEV, dancer extraordinary, was attired for his Watergate suite interview in an olive-drab fatigue outfit - open shirt with epaulets,Greek seaman's cap, bloused trousers, boots. Admidst the deluxe surroundings, it was a reminder of his Russian upbringing in hunger-ridden poverty, his childhood home a single grubby room that housed three families.
The costume also seemed suited to his expression, which was part quizzical, part defiant. He'd been a scrapper, a rebel from the start - a troublemaker at the Kirov Ballet, the first of the defectors from Russia in 1961, and a persistently unconventional artist who used the freedom the West afforded him to continually break new ground.
Now he sat a waiting questions like a tiger lying in wait for prey, a jungle creature who enjoyes sparring with an adversary, guarding his flanks, pressing for advantage. Nureyev has developed an instinctive wariness; he's been through the media mill too many times not to be sensitive about traps. The innermost part of him retreats to a secret place, hidden entirely from view except for a stark stillness that sometimes envelops him.
Nureyev is not only a fighter but an eternal nomad. Born in a railway car in Mongolia 40 years ago, he has not stopped moving since. His passionate obsession with dance has become one of the modern legends of the art. There's been an air of quest about his whole career, and his life style as well - a Faustian yearning that pushes him on and on in search of ever-beckoning, ever-shifting ideals.
In 1974, in a program entitled "Nureyev and Friends" at New York's Uris Theater, he danced 34 performances in a row, appearing in all four ballets of the program each time. This has increasingly become his normal pattern. Most recently, after a similar marathon, at the Metropolitan Opera House, his whirlwind has landed him back in Washington, where he's appearing every evening and matinee for two weeks as guest artist with the London Festival Ballet at the Kennedy Center.
The just concluding first week has been devoted to the latest of his innovative accomplishments - his own first full-length original ballet production, a version of "Romeo and Juliet" to the celebrated Prokofiev score that he created for the London troupe last year. Like everything else he's touched, it bears a distinctly personal stamp, in this case a rather grim aura of fatality that sets it apart from the many other ballet versions.
"I had hoped to do it for the Royal Ballet, about three or four years ago," he said. "I asked, why don't we take it to Paris and I'll dance it there. But they weren't buying it, and Paris, it seems, didn't want the Royal Ballet in their opera house. Anyway, I thought, I need a new romantic vehicle for myself, and I find the Cranko version unsatisfying; there's nothing to do but do one myself. I proposed to do it for the Berline Opera Ballet, but they were considering the lavrovsky production at the time. I think that is a very fine production, and felt the West should definitely see it.
"But they ended up doing another, different Russian production, so I missed my chance again. In the meantime, I had been reading many criticisms of the various 'Romeo and Juliet' ballets, I had re-read the play itself and was steeped in the Renaissance background of the drama, so I was very eager to bring forward my own ideas about it. Then the London Festival Ballet agreed to have me stage it. I did all the preliminary planning while I was shooting the 'Valentino' movie. Then we mounted the whole thing in five week of rehearsal."
Nureyev had very definite notions about emphasis and tone he wanted to convey. "The central thing," he said, "was the concept of fate, of chance, which ruled the lives of those people of Verona, who believed firmly in supernatural forces. Of course, I wanted to focus on the lovers, but I saw them racing not only toward each other, across the barriers of hatred that separated them, but also toward death.
"Death is an ever-present motif in Shakespeare's text. Three times in the course of the play, for instance, Juliet refers to death as her true spouse; in one scene she calls upon death, rather than Romeo, to take her maidenhead. This, of course, was the source of my scene in the ballet where the apparition of death ravishes Juliet. It occured to me too, about the poison in the play, there is the same love-death duality. Poison can be lethal, but it also has medicinal uses. The poison in the play brings death to the lovers, but it also unites the feuding families."
In an attempt to come closer to Shakespeare, Nureyev has also made Mercutio a much more complex and ambivalent character than in most other versions, and has given Benvolio more individuality as well. Romeo too, of course, came in for much rethinking.
"When I danced Romeo in the MacMillan version wtih the Royal Ballet," Nureyev recalled, "he had to be very straightforward. In that version he assimilates much of the character of Mercutio in the play - he's a winner, from the start, and as boisterous as his companions. But I saw him as a much weaker, more indecisive person, in the beginning at least, and this posed a difficult problem of making Romeo 'boring' but interesting at the same time. I felt I had to show his character developing, there had to be a progression, rather than presenting him full-blown right away."
The effects of this sort of cogitation impart to Nureyev's "Romeo and Juliet" the feeling that it is not just another romantic diversion, but more nearly a meditation on the universals of human love and conflict.
Just before the interview, Nureyev had been briefly glimpsed rehearsing in a Kennedy Center studio, not with one of the London Festival Ballet primas, but, surprisingly, with Gelsey Kirkland of American Ballet Theatre.
This was in preparation, he let on afterwards, for his September appearances at the Met with ABT in that company's production of "Don Quixote," staged by his no less celebrated compatriot, Mikhail Baryshnikov. Seeing Kirkland and Nureyev together, even in practice clothes, brought back to me memories of their magical first pairing, in the "Corsaire" pas de deux at an ABT gala in 1975. This in turn prompted curiosity about the chemistry of Nureyev's ballet partnerships in general. With Margot Fonteyn, for example, who once said of him, "Rudolph really made me believe I was a beautiful young princess, and that he loved me so much he'd die for me."
"With her that wasn't difficult," he said, flashing an involuntary smile. "But that kind of rapport doesn't come often. Yes, I have found it, with dancers like Lynn Seymour, Carla Fracci and Merle Park; it happened with Makarova, in 'Giselle'; with Pat Ruanne in my own 'Romeo and Juliet'.
"With Cynthia Gregory, now that was extraordinary! Physically and temperamentally we were so different. But in the 'Raymonda' I did with her, and recently, in 'Swan Lake' (which I'll do again with her at the met next month), by sheer good will and desire, she made it work. The funny thing was, I'd always found her rather a cold person, but then suddenly such a warmth exuded from her it brought tears to your eyes."
With "Romeo and Juliet" behind him, Nureyev has a new ballet project simmering in his brain, and it came about through one of his Washington "connections." The last time I was here, Rostropovich showed me a script he'd come by on Byron's 'Manfred' and said I must do it. I read it and didn't like it; I fought it at first, but then I kept coming back to it and finally came up with a new angle, a way I could do it, so I'm sort of planning that out now. Rostropovich said he'll conduct it anywhere I put it on."
The role of Byron's soul-wracked solitary and his flirtation with the demonic world would seem ideal for Nureyev. The movie screen may also yet lure him to new ventures again, even after the unkindly critical reception for Ken Russell's "Valentino," in which he starred (most reviewers exempted Nureyev from the pan - "Vital Nureyev Upstages 'Valentino,'" the New York Times headline ran, for example).
"I don't regret having done 'Valentino,'" he said. "On the contrary, I would have regretted not having taken the opportunity. But I do find that one has an extraordinary sense of void after doing a film. It is as if this great machine has rolled over you and left you behind, or under the wheels. It's very different from ballet; the theater, with a live audience, is always somehow a source of regeneration, no matter how the performance went."
Yes, he'd like to do another movie, but he's not sure American entrepreneurs consider him "that marketable a commodity." He'd still be interested in playing Nijinsky on screen - "now that we've revived him and there are all these projects, Baryshnikov with his own production company, Herbert Ross talking about a Nijinsky film. After all, we're getting three 'Dracula' pictures aren't we? Why not Nijinsky too? But just to do a film to do a film, that would be no fun; it would have to be of some artistic merit."
The mention of Baryshnikov made one wonder about his reaction to the latter's rejoining the New York City Ballet under George Balanchine. The reply was terse, but not altogether unrevealing: "It doesn't affect me one way or the other."
The notorious pace of Nureyev's career, the ceaseless round of performances, productions and tours is entirely a matter of conscious choice.
"That's what I enjoy," he said. "I'm here on earth to do things. I don't want to waste my life. If I'm a dancer, I must dance to the maximum. If I'm a choreographer, I must choreograph until I'm totally empty."
He once said that he dances best when he's tired. "It's true, that's when the anxiety goes, and when one is accustomed to the stage, the lighting, the steps. With a certain amount of fatigue, peace comes, and sort of evens everything out. Sure, I still have fears when I go out on stage, I am nervous, but it is a productive kind of fear. If you go on stage with no tension, no contradiction, it doesn't happen, the performance doesn't communicate, it loses excitement and freshness."
At present, Nureyev has no plans to change his migratory existence, performing with a large number of companies across the globe.
"Sure," he said, "sometimes I think it would be nice to settle down in one spot. But if I were to stay with one company, I couldn't perform as often as I would like, you see. I've also thought it would be good someday to have a company of my own at my disposal. On the other hand, if I had to run a company, it would take so much energy, and right now I would rather concentrate on dancing."
One subject outside dancing that has strongly engaged Nureyev's attention has been his efforts to arrange for Western visits from close family members in Russia. His face takes on a pitiably melancholic look when asked about the success of his attempts, which have been strenuously supported by people in the artistic community, as well as notables of government. "The KGB tells my mother and my sister they'll never let them out, and apparently it is because of who I am and what I have done," he said. Is he still trying despite the discouragement? "Yes," he said, very quietly.
If, at an age when most male dancers might be thinking of retiring from the stage, Nureyev has any deep concerns about the waning of his physical powers, he surely gives no sign of it. "Naturally, like anyone else, I have fears and fantasies about what will happen when my technique goes, when I can't dance anymore, about which way in life I'll go, this way or that. To fight those fears, I've mounted classical ballet productions, those which would keep me in shape, and it's proven a very good remedy - 'Don Quixote,' 'Swan Lake,' Sleeping Beauty,' and so on, these have kept me in very good shape.
"It's true I'm reluctant to do too much choreography, wasting hours with something I might be able to do later when I've stopped dancing. And if I had another life I might explore some other art for a change, stick to music, become a pianist, perhaps. But right now all I know is that I have to do what must be done to fulfill myself - as a dancer."