IF DANCER Rudolf Nureyev had had nothing else going for him but his face, he would still have ended up a superstar, one somehow surmises.
The eyes, at once alert, guarded, quizzical and aglow with vital intensity. The mouth, the perfectly bowed lips with the faint scar exotically skewing their symmetry. The upward arching brows, the flared nostrils and the high, roseate, exquisitely sculpted cheekbones evoking visions of thundering, sensual, Tartar ancestors.
Nureyev, in New York with the Boston Ballet earlier this year, had just finished performing the lead role of Basilio in his own production of the Russian classic, "Don Quixote." It's one of the contexts in which we'll see him again this week, as guest artist with the Zurich Ballet at the Kennedy Center Opera House--his first appearance here in three years.
That night he had danced himself to a frazzle in a three-hour, four-act ballet, in a role made all the more exorbitantly taxing by the fact that he had designed it himself for himself--the choreography is based on the Petipa tradition, but fleshed out with Nureyev's characteristically challenging histrionic and technical flourishes. He had, moreover, a frightful cold--his features were red and misty with catarrh, and the conversation was interrupted every few minutes by a wracking cough.
Typically, he was dancing in every performance of the run, by then well into its second week. This is an unusual strain on a dancer, especially one in his mid-forties, but it sells tickets.
"Yes," he said, "I will be dancing every performance at the Kennedy Center, and yes, there is a commercial side to that. But I think the Zurich company will be very effectively exposed as well."
Before sitting down for an interview, he received a few admirers for congratulations, among them Alexandra Danilova, the celebrated retired ballerina and Balanchine associate, and Peggy Lyman, a leading dancer with the Martha Graham company; after the interview, he was to scoot off to dinner (hence, well after 1 a.m.) with associates and friends. And the next morning, he'd be back warming up, rehearsing and getting ready for the succeeding night's rigors. This has been Nureyev's obsessive, punishing life style since his precedent-shattering defection from the Soviet Union's Kirov Ballet in Paris in 1961.
The Zurich Ballet programs at the Kennedy Center will display many of Nureyev's sides--Nureyev as a preserver and purveyor of Russian balletic history will be manifest in his production of "Don Quixote"; his original choreography will be shown in the American premiere of "Manfred," based on Byron's epic poetry; and as a dancer, he will appear as the hero of both ballets, the one comic-romantic, the other tragic-romantic, both on the grand scale.
About his "Manfred" he remarked, "There's a marvelous book by Mario Praz called 'The Romantic Agony.' In a way, this ballet should have that title; the main personage is a high-strung character in the grip of a terrible guilt. It prevents him from savoring all the important aspects of his life, patriotism, friendship, love. Only in battle is he able to escape the tyranny of guilt, only in death can he find freedom."
By coincidence, Nureyev can be viewed locally on the movie screen, in the new James Toback film "Exposed," costarring Nastassia Kinski. He described the filming experience as "pleasurable and stimulating," and remarked that the leading lady Michelle Phillips in "Valentino," his last screen role, "was much too brash for the role, and not at all comparable to Nastassia Kinski. My greatest satisfaction was in working with this very gifted actress, in a much more intimate kind of script and framework . . . Some day, maybe in four or five years, I'd love to direct a film myself. I think I really understand the medium."
In a sense, Washington will also be seeing a new Nureyev, at a critical juncture in his life and art. In March, he passed his 45th birthday--it's been 22 years since his bolt from the Kirov--and last November he accepted, for the first time, the directorship of a major international ballet company, the Paris Opera Ballet, a post he will formally assume in September.
The stability and focus of the Paris situation will be something quite new in Nureyev's life--a kind of steady base he hasn't seemed inclined toward until now. "I run to Boston to direct and stage a ballet, then I run to Zurich or someplace else and do it again," he said. "Perhaps it's better to bring it all home in the same job, in one place. Maybe it's finally time to bring all the eggs together in one basket and hatch them together."
His three-year contract with the company calls for him to devote 180 working days a year--virtually six months--to Paris; the rest of the time he'll be free to dance and pursue other projects. With the Paris troupe, he's also committed to at least 30 performances a year. "I have promised, too, a minimum of one new production per year. I already have in mind three premieres--one by myself, one by a modern choreographer, perhaps Rudi van Dantzig, and one by a French choreographer. I'd also love to have Merce Cunningham involved, and Paul Taylor. But what the first new production will be, I can't say yet.
"I believe the change should be one of the head, not the body, of the company. I don't want to be pushing the dancers around. I would like to help them achieve better working conditions and bring in a greater variety of choreographers to work with than in the past. I also feel some classics should be restored to the repertory--the works of Petipa, particularly, are lacking.
"Paris also has the facilities to televise at least one ballet a year. I'm very much against, though, doing TV 'live,' direct from the stage--it's almost impossible to get the quality as it should be, and the results are more likely to turn the public off than on."MARGOT FONTEYN, the great British ballerina whose career Nureyev magically resuscitated in their now legendary partnership, once described the effect of Nureyev's arrival in the West:
"It was when ballet in the West had just settled down to comfortable activity and satisfying recognition that Rudolf Nureyev arrived, supersonically it seemed, from Russia, and nothing in dance was ever quite the same as it had been before. The temperature rose. The age of women's lib became in dance the age of men's lib, and the age of superpowers became the age of superstars. Thus came to an end one hundred years that could be summed up in a caricature of 1860 captioned, 'The disagreeable thing about ballerinas is that they sometimes bring along a male dancer with them' . . . Unquestionably, the idea of a dancer with the attraction of a pop singer brought teen-agers to the ballet in droves, and by his example, dancers still in training raised their sights at the prospect of a world in which they might become superstars too. The standard of virtuosity rose, literally, by leaps and bounds."
As Fonteyn further observed, that was only the beginning of the Nureyev jetstream. He caused the word "charisma" to become a cliche' of the ballet vocabulary. He completely rehabilitated the image of the male dancer. And he restored Fonteyn's youthfulness (she was 43 when they first danced together).
But there was also Nureyev the insatiable, Faustian seeker after new, more exalted and different species of artistic experience. He had ballets created for him by everyone, including Ashton and MacMillan to Petit, Tetley, van Dantzig, Bejart and Murray Louis. He once and for all demolished the iron curtain that had separated classical ballet and modern dance, when Martha Graham, high priestess of the modern realm, made a work for him to dance with her own troupe. Even George Balanchine, with his notorious animadversion to superstardom, fashioned a lead role for him in "Le Bourgeois Gentilhomme," in a 1979 production for the New York City Opera. Nureyev staged new, controversial versions of traditional Russian classics and choreographed original ballets for companies all over the map. He danced and acted in movies. And he danced with partners ranging from Fonteyn, Antoinette Sibley, Marcia Haydee, Cynthia Gregory and Gelsey Kirkland to Miss Piggy.
Until recently, Nureyev was a more or less stateless wanderer; asked what he considered his place of residence, he mentioned a house he has in Monte Carlo, "sunny and beautiful," but quickly added that he's actually there "very seldom," and only for "very short spells." Last year, the Austrian government conferred citizenship upon Nureyev and it meant much to him. "I'm proud of it; it was exceedingly kind and generous of them. This was the first country I ever visited in the West, in 1958, with a small troupe from the Kirov. We played the Raimund Theater, with piano accompaniment, and it was the first time I saw Roland Petit; he danced in his 'Cyrano de Bergerac,' and I loved the ballet, it was so very new and strange to me."
He's danced in Vienna often, and created his first original ballet, "Tancredi," with a commissioned score by Hans Werner Henze, for the Vienna State Opera Ballet in 1966; he's also staged versions of "Swan Lake," "Don Quixote," and "The Sleeping Beauty" for the same company. Still, sticking to the Paris helm for half a year at a time will be the closest he's ever come to "settling down."
Nevertheless, one remembers that he was born on a train, to the life and instincts of a nomad. The last thing he said about Paris was, "Of course, I'm also planning to do a lot of traveling with the company, too."
The one constant you can count on in Nureyev's life is that, in one sense or another, he'll always be on the move.