Rudolf Nureyev a Soviet spy? Such a notion seems incredible to friends and admirers of the legendary ballet dancer, known for his rebellious nature, who was denounced by the Kremlin as a traitor after his 1961 defection. But it was taken seriously enough by the FBI to open an espionage investigation into Nureyev in 1964, according to recently declassified documents.

Nureyev biographer Diane Solway describes the investigation as a "Keystone Kops affair" that says more about the FBI of J. Edgar Hoover than about the man who captivated audiences in America and Europe with his gravity-defying leaps and turns. She points out that Nureyev lived in terror of the Soviet KGB at the very time he was being investigated by the FBI, and that both organizations took a similarly disapproving view of his openly homosexual life.

The FBI investigation into Nureyev was triggered by the discovery in a California hotel room of a cryptic note addressed to the dancer that could variously be interpreted as an espionage assignment, a lovers' tryst or a KGB disinformation effort. It petered out after a few months as inquiries in four cities failed to produce any concrete information against the ballet dancer. Nureyev again attracted the attention of the FBI in an apparently unrelated espionage investigation in 1972, the details of which remain secret.

The FBI released 160 pages of heavily edited files on Nureyev earlier this month, posting them on its Web site (www.fbi.gov) in response to a Freedom of Information Act request filed by Solway in 1993, the year of Nureyev's death from AIDS. The release of the files came too late for inclusion in her 1998 biography of Nureyev, which draws extensively on declassified Soviet Communist Party documents.

"It took me less than a year to get the [Russian] file on Nureyev. When I got it, in 1994, it was completely uncensored and acknowledged mistakes at the highest level," says Solway. By contrast, she says, it took the FBI six years to produce details of its own "lame-duck investigation" into Nureyev, and much of the material is blacked out.

Among the more startling signs of FBI sloppiness in the Nureyev investigation is an assertion by the bureau's San Francisco office that the dancer defected in Paris on June 6, 1963, while touring with Leningrad's Kirov Ballet. In fact, Nureyev's celebrated "leap to freedom" took place at Le Bourget airport on June 16, 1961, when he appealed to French police for political asylum after wrestling with two KGB thugs who had been assigned to keep a close eye on him. The incident was reported with banner headlines around the world.

The FBI files show that the bureau first became interested in Nureyev in March 1964 with the discovery of a note hidden behind a wall plaque in Room 110 of the Hyatt House hotel in Salinas, Calif. The note read, "Nureyev--I made contact with the agent at M.L.S. and he agreed that we should wait before we attempt to 3689001427. I hope you find the note as you requested. I put it here on 7-19. I really don't approve of your hiding place, it is rather conspicuous."

Assuming that the initials "M.L.S." stood for Monterey Language School--a U.S. Army facility and possible Soviet espionage target--the FBI investigated anyone who could have had access to the hotel room. While Nureyev had performed with the British Royal Ballet in Los Angeles, there was no evidence that he had ever visited Salinas. Attention then switched to possible homosexual contacts.

FBI agents who interviewed one former occupant of Room 110 reported "a strong odor of cheap toilet water" in his apartment. "His manner appeared effeminate," the report continued. "When given the opportunity to indicate that he was or was not a homosexual, [name deleted] evaded the issue. It was also noted that there was only one bed in the apartment shared by two males."

The FBI files note that Nureyev seemed "extremely tense" when interviewed about the espionage allegations in August 1964, but details of the interview have not been released. Biographer Solway believes that the dancer was "terrified" of being sent back to the Soviet Union. "The irony is that he was paranoid about being shadowed by the KGB and was terrified when people got too close to him. It now turns out that it was probably the FBI that followed him. In the end, he trusted nobody."

"It is ludicrous to think that he could have been a spy," Solway adds. "He was completely self-obsessed--and only interested in dancing."

CAPTION: Terrified of being returned to Russia, Rudolf Nureyev feared the KGB was after him. It may have been the FBI.

CAPTION: Rudolf Nureyev, known for his gravity-defying leaps in such works as "Romeo and Juliet," was afraid of the KGB but actually was being investigated by the FBI.