Ballet superstars light up the stage in Nureyev Legend and Legacy, a tribute gala being performed at Theatre Royal Drury Lane in London this month.
Soviet-born dancer, choreographer and director Rudolf Nureyev is one of the most recognisable names in ballet. His life story is well known and he has inspired countless male dancers.
He trained at the Vaganova Choreographic Institute in Leningrad before joining the Kirov (now Mariinsky) Ballet in 1958. His career highlights included a long stint as a guest artist with the Royal Ballet from 1962 until the mid-1970s, as well as famed performances with renowned ballerinas, such as Margot Fonteyn. His televised appearances introduced ballet to millions of people and he established a foundation that still supports promising young dancers today. He also set a new standard as artistic director of the Paris Opera Ballet, where he nurtured the likes of Sylvie Guillem and commissioned innovative works by visionary choreographers, including William Forsythe.
Nureyev danced with infectious joy and wild abandon, showcasing rapid turns and an explosive jump. He radiated personality and spontaneity, which made him a celebrity beyond dance. He is a legend who left behind a legacy and this gala, which is not associated with any particular anniversary, passionately expresses that dance fans do not need an excuse to celebrate him. We simply must.
The programme, curated by former Royal Ballet principal Nehemiah Kish, comprises nine classical ballet excerpts that were significant for Nureyev. These satisfyingly varied pieces are performed by a sparkling selection of today’s leading dancers. Live music is played by 40 musicians from the Royal Ballet Sinfonia, conducted upstage by David Briskin (musical director of the National Ballet of Canada). Beautiful costumes are either on loan from ballet companies or have been created by dancer-turned-designer Natalie Stewart.
Ralph Fiennes (director of The White Crow, the 2018 biopic that chronicles Nureyev’s dramatic defection) and Dame Monica Mason (former Royal Ballet director and one of Nureyev’s stage partners) open proceedings with heartfelt introductions. Further context is provided by a montage of photographs and footage of the gala’s dancers reflecting on Nureyev’s impact.
The fun-sized format of a gala means audiences should get to dip into assorted ballets, delight in seeing lots of talented dancers shine brightly, and demonstrate their admiration by clapping and cheering in response to bravura displays. Nureyev Legend and Legacy delivers. This is a fitting tribute that will appeal to balletomanes and a general audience.
“You live as long as you dance.”
Rudolf Nureyev (1938–1993)
The opening piece is the second act entr’acte solo from Nureyev’s production of The Sleeping Beauty (1966, after Marius Petipa). As the ultimate expression of the classical style, The Sleeping Beauty was a key work in Nureyev’s career. He is specifically admired for imbuing this solo with freshness, intensity and humanity. It focuses the audience’s attention on the prince during a moment of contemplation, elevating the role of the male dancer way beyond that of a support to the female ballerina. Germain Louvet of the Paris Opera Ballet was lined up to dance this solo (with Guillaume Côté of the National Ballet of Canada performing on 12 September), but injury means he has now been replaced by Guillaume Côté for all performances. Tackled sensitively, albeit noticeably shakily, the solo made for a surprisingly tentative start to press night. Perhaps a result of the lack of narrative context and the proximity of the musicians (who sit at the back of the shallow stage, softly illuminated by a warm amber glow), which theatregoers must swiftly acclimatise to. Might this solo be more successful if positioned later in the programme?
Next up is a pas de deux from Gayane, included because this Russian ballet (by Nina Anisimova, one of Soviet ballet’s first female choreographers) afforded Nureyev one of his first principal roles at the Kirov. The style of the ballet, which has a narrative centred around romance and kidnap, suited his folk dance roots. Staged for Nureyev Legend and Legacy by Nehemiah Kish and Elena Glurjidze, the pas de deux is danced by Oleg Ivenko (who played Nureyev in The White Crow) and Maia Makhateli (Dutch National Ballet). He swaggers showily, she skitters and sways playfully. Their quicksilver springs and rotations are exhilarating.
Excerpt three is the third act pas de deux from La Bayadère, which Nureyev was dancing with the Kirov when he defected in Paris in 1961 and went on to stage for the Royal Ballet in 1963. Iana Salenko (Berlin State Ballet) and Xander Parish (the British dancer, formerly of the Royal Ballet, who left his position at the Mariinsky Ballet after the Russian invasion of Ukraine) float through their private Kingdom of the Shades.
The pas de deux from Flower Festival In Genzano, a one-act ballet by Danish choreographer August Bournonville, comes next. This joyous piece, which sweetly portrays flirtatious young lovers, references Nureyev’s fascination – and relationship – with Danish dancer and choreographer Erik Bruhn (whose version of this pas de deux Nureyev danced with American ballerina Maria Tallchief in 1962). English National Ballet’s brilliantly buoyant Francesco Gabriele Frola and Hamburg Ballet’s Ida Praetorius (last-minute replacement for ENB’s unwell Emma Hawes) charm in this romantic ode to simpler times. A dainty, fleet-footed delight.
Act one of Nureyev Legend and Legacy closes with the pas de six from Vakhtang Chabukiani’s Laurencia, which Nureyev staged with the Royal Ballet for a television special in 1964. It has been exclusively prepared for this gala by Natalia Osipova. She dances bold, irrepressible choreography (the story follows a Spanish peasant girl who leads villagers into an uprising so there are liberated leaps, speedy turns and fiery flourishes aplenty) with fellow Royal Ballet dancers Cesar Corrales (standing in for Marcelino Sambé), Yuhui Choe, Marianna Tsembenhoi, Benjamin Ella and Daichi Ikarashi.
Following the interval there is a return to The Sleeping Beauty with the glorious grand pas de deux. Royal Ballet principal Vadim Muntagirov, who received a scholarship from the Rudolf Nureyev Foundation to study at the Royal Ballet School, partners English National Ballet principal Natascha Mair. Together, they provide pure lines, poise and precisely plunging fish dives.
Swapping a fairytale wedding for the spirit realm, the next offering is the pas de deux from act two of Giselle. Nureyev is renowned for the depth and despair he brought to the character of Albrecht. Margot Fonteyn invited him to dance the role at one of the annual Royal Academy of Dance fundraising galas and he gave her interpretation of Giselle a new lease of life. They went on to form the most famous dance partnership in the world, captivating not only ballet aficionados but also the general public for two decades. Royal Ballet principals Francesca Hayward and William Bracewell are exquisite in their portrayal: she is effortlessly ethereal, he is elegantly emotional. Breathtaking.
The penultimate piece in Nureyev Legend and Legacy is the Don Juan pas de deux, danced by Alina Cojocaru and Hamburg Ballet principal Alexandr Trusch. This excerpt has not been seen in London since Nureyev last performed it with Margot Fonteyn nearly 50 years ago. It is a long and sombre piece that depicts the Angel of Death visiting Don Juan. The accompaniment incorporates a solemn chant and startling silence. The movement screams anguish.
The big finish comes courtesy of the flamboyant Le Corsaire pas de deux, an extract of the Petipa ballet that was one of Nureyev’s early crowd-pleasers as a student and graduate dancer. Nureyev and Fonteyn danced this pas de deux together for the first time in November 1962 and rumour has it that whenever they performed it the applause and curtain call lasted longer than the performance! Royal Ballet principals Yasmine Naghdi and Cesar Corrales tear up the stage with a treasure trove of swashbuckling party tricks.
Mindful of Nureyev’s immense influence popularising ballet with new audiences, Nehemiah Kish is joining forces with Marquee TV (the equivalent of Netflix for the arts) to make the performances as accessible as possible. Whether you are dazzled by the ballet stars live in London or watch from the comfort of home, this gala is a wonderful opportunity to celebrate a legend and be wowed by some of the incredible dancers keeping his legacy alive.
Running time: approximately 2 hours, including one interval. (Err on the side of caution when it comes to travel plans as delays before each act on opening night meant this suggested running time was exceeded by about thirty minutes.)
*Production photography by Andrej Uspenski.
Nureyev Legend and Legacy continues at Theatre Royal Drury Lane with performances on Monday 12 September 2022 (2pm and 7.30pm). Visit nureyevlegendandlegacy.com and follow @NureyevGala or #NureyevGala for more information.
The gala will be available to stream on Marquee TV, on a pay-per-view basis, from Friday 16 to Monday 26 September. Marquee TV subscribers will be able to watch the performance as part of their subscription from October.
Georgina Butler is an editor, a dance writer and a ballet teacher.