THE INTERVIEW had been proceeding in the sweltering New York heat for about an hour and a half, as Rudolf Nureyev sipped a coke and munched a cheeseburger ("extremely rare").
Seated as he was, near a sidewalk window in O'Neal's Baloon (a cafe hangout for Lincoln Center regulars), ballet's original "superstar" had been interrupted roughly every three minutes by autograph seekers, all of whom he accommodated graciously. The last question put to him involved his withdrawal from a scheduled Metropolitan Opera debut next year, for which he was to choreograph a new version of Jean Cocteau's "Parade."
But Nureyev decided to sign off with a song. Grinning mischievously in reply to the query, he crooned, "And that's where we're gong to stop!," to an impromptu tune that sounded like a shampoo jingle. And that, indeed, was the signal for his departure. Before he left, however, he managed to cover a considerable terrain, bounding from topic to topic with unflagging energy, and taking in everything from his interpretation of roles as a current guest artist with the Berlin Ballet, to his plans for new productions, to working with George Balanchine, to the sudden cancellation of his tour with the Paris Opera Ballet earlier this year, to upcoming television shows with Julie Andrews and the Joffrey Ballet.
Earlier that afternoon, Nureyev had danced the leading male role in his own production of "The Nutcracker," one of the two full-length works (featured in the repertory of the Berlin Ballet during its visit to the Metropolitan Opera House. He also had been appearing as Prince Myshkin in Valery Panov's mammoth, 3-hour ballet, "The Idiot," based on the Dostoevsky novel and using music by Dmitri Shostakovich culled from various scores. In addition, Nureyev was to dance in Hans Van manen's "Five Tangos" and Birgit Cullber's "Miss Julie." He'll be repeating all these performances in Washington over the next fortnight starting Wednesday evening, when the Berlin Ballet opens a two week engagement at the Kennedy Center Opera House with "The Idiot."
In "The Idiot," Nureyev alternates in the role of Prince Myshkin with Vladimir Gelvan, who danced the part in the Berlin premiere. Choreographer Panov calls the work a "drama ballet," as opposed to a "pure" ballet, to emphasize its fundamentally theatrical nature. The monumental scale of the production has very few parallels in ballet history, although massive ballets on philosophically portentous themes using all the most flamboyant resources of stagecraft are more common in Russia than elsewhere, and this is the tradition from which Panov emerged. All the same "The Idiot" dwarfs most comparable works in its sheer dimensions -- not just duration, but in the scope of its settings, its 18 scene changes, the use of 16 film projectors, and a cast that includes four dogs, about a hundred dancers, children and extras.
"It's an attractive role," Nureyev says about the part of the wise-fool who is the central character of "The Idiot." "Anyone who comes from Russia would wallow in the idea of being Prince Myshkin. He's a unique figure in literature. Dostoevsky set out to create a totally perfect man, free of ordinary human selfishness and vice -- who else in literature is perfect like this? Don Quixote, maybe, but he's a comic character. Dostoevsky wrote the novel abroad, where he became very disenchanted with Western life -- he was trying to show Russia that the way to be saved was through Christ.
"The allusion to Christ is indirect, though -- it's in the way Myshkin takes everyone's sins on his shoulders, his humility, his empathy with those who suffer. But, unlike Christ, Myshkin doesn't bear a cross, and he doesn't preach. He has visions, though, which some just before his epileptic seizures, in which he sees everything with extra clarity. It's easy to see why he's a favorite Russian character."
The ballet, Nureyev feels, has a somewhat different emphasis. "The ballet stresses melodrama," he says. "Prince Myshkin is a man from limbo who appears on the scene, an innocent, a seer, and he gets involved with the two women, Nastasya and Aglaya. He's manipulated, manhandled by them, and is unable to consummate a marriage with either -- this indecision in his undoing, and he succumbs to madness. The final scene, in which he dangles from a great bell, can be understood as a call to Russia to the path of faith. But maybe it's just an effect, I don't know."
Nureyev's satisfaction in the part derives mainly from its histrionic aspects. "There's no point in pretending that the ballet approaches in any small measure the complexities of Dostoevsky," he says. "Yes, it might be possible to convey this kind of psychological intricacy and motivation in dance, but one would have to draw upon a contemporary idiom such as those of Graham or Rudi van Dantzig. In this ballet, though the role of Myshkin is appealing, it isn't substantiated by the choreography."
Panov, who himself dances the role of the "heavy," Nastasya's violent lover, Rogozhin (eventually he will assay the part of Myshkin too, as he intended from the start), has made a number of concessions to Nureyev, allowing the dancer to interpolate material of his own. "There were no steps, no steps!," Nureyev maintains. "I thought that if we were taking this to New York, one would have to make a minimum attempt at choreography. Panov was quite amenable to my suggestions, in fact. Of course, dancers are always making suggestions to choreographers -- wouldn't this be better with the right leg, how about a pirouette here, and so forth -- even to Mr. Balanchine. And choreographers have to take into consideration the specific body in front of them, and the mind as well -- the dancer must be convinced about a role, if he is to do it convincingly."
Despite all this, Nureyev finds "The Idiot" a rewarding challenge. "It isn't subtle, but it is dramatic. The basic situations of the story are clearly outlined. As for the characterization, you have to dig into yourself to create it. All in all, I find the role a great opportunity for acting." He says, however, that he has no interest in attempting the other major male role, of Rogozhin. "First I would have to find a Myshkin finer than myself!"
The mention of Balanchine led him to remark that the latter's "Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme," created for Nureyev at the New York City Opera, enjoyed a much greater triumph in Paris and London than it did in this country. "You think this is a reflection on the public here?" he asked rhetorically. Getting no answer, he smiled his most tigerish smile and admonished an imaginary populace with: "Well, shape up!"
Nureyev's "Nutcracker " dates from 1967, when he first staged it for the Royal Swedish Ballet -- for England's Royal Ballet the following year, Nicholas Georgiadis created the colossal settings the Berlin troupe now uses. One of the distinctive aspects of the version is Nureyev's identification of Drosselmeyer, the mysterious toymaker and father-figure, with the handsome Nutcracker Prince who escorts young Clara to an enchanted kingdom. Nureyev finds a rationale for this treatment within the original E.T.A. Hoffmann fairy tale.
"There's a passage in Hoffmann," he says, "in which the toy Nutcracker has come to life and is doing battle with the army of rats who invade Clara's dream. He chops off the seven heads of the Rat King, and gathers the seven crowns, at which point, Clara faints. Then, later on, while she's recovering, Drosselmeyer comes to see her, and she sees his watch chain, which has the seven crowns of the Rat King -- again she faints. It's a clear indication of a link between Drosselmeyer, the Nutcracker and the Prince. Maybe there's something Jungian about it -- a sense of reincarnation, perhaps."
It doesn't seem possible that next year will mark the 20th anniversary of Nureyev's historic defection from the Kirov Ballet, though it is certainly true that not a single blade of grass has grown under those celebrated feet. More than any one individual, he has been responsible for the vast growth in the popularity of ballet. He's danced with every potential partner from Margot Fonteyn to Miss Piggy; he's traded quips with Ed Sullivan and Dick Cavett; he's made a commercial feature film -- "Valentino" -- for which his performance alone received critical praise; he's staged his own productions of almost all the Russian ballet classics of the 19th century; and despite George Balanchne's much touted aversion to superstardom, Nureyev actually got the unpredictable choreographer to create a new role specially for him.
Asked about plans for the future, Nureyev said he hopes to do a production of "Romeo and Juliet" for La Scala soon. "There are a lot of casseroles in my kitchen, though," he added, "and if one undercooks or overcooks, I switch the heat to another." One thing he doesn't want to do, unlike some of his former compatriots, is to form or direct a company of his own. "I want to dance," he says emphatically. "I'm still at a stage where I want not to direct but be directed." Another "casserole," however, is a series of performances of his recent ballet "Manfred," which the London Festival Ballet will undertake next spring. This raised the subject of the cancellation of the Paris Opera Ballet visit scheduled last April for New York and Washington ("Manfred," premiered in Paris, was one of the ballets set for the tour). Nureyev has a somewhat different explanation for the disruption than the one given out at the time, according to which the company dancers objected to Nureyev monopolizing the troupe's principal male roles. "It was all due to a fight between two directors of the Paris Opera -- the outgoing Rolf Liebermann and the incoming Bernard Lefort, he asserted. "The poor dancers, who were so upset, were victims of their own foolishness -- they were duped into a silly mistake. Seven or eight years ago, I had proposed to Jurok to bring the Paris Opera Ballet to this country on a tour, but Liebermann blocked it. Now Lefort does the same thing to Liebermann."
Nureyev has a number of television projects in the works as well. Last week he joined costar Julie Andrews at the Merriweather Post Pavilion in Columbia, Md., for the taping of an hour-long special in the Cbs "fEstival of Lively Arts for Young People" series -- an introduction to dance in which Nureyev performs excerpts from "Swan Lake" and "La Sylphide," partnering Eva Evdokimova, and also appears with Andrews in some Broadway dancing (not to be outdone by Baryshnikov, one presumes). He's also involved in a public TV effort to record the Joffrey Ballet's recent Diaghilev tribute, which would include his performances in "Spectre de la Rose," "Petrushka," and "Afternoon of a Faun."
Nureyev has his own 3/4 inch video recorder, which he uses often to tape programs off the air for his own delectation -- such things as "Shakespeare, Pinter, opera, rare films." On the other hand, he hasn't yet seen the six-part series, "The Magic of Dance," produced by Margot Fonteyn last year (scheduled for airing in this country soon), in which he participated as a dancer. "I have no courage to look at myself," he says drily, "only those things I have directed myself."