A Diamond in the Rough:
Rudolf Nureyev Around 1960
Through the eyes of an artist: Jean-Guillaume Bart, étoile (principal) of the Paris Opera Ballet and choreographer
This newly released footage shows young Rudolf Nureyev in one of his first performances of Swan Lake when he was in his early twenties. He appears donning a blonde wig, which attests to how the stereotype of the Prince was perceived in the Soviet ballet tradition.
The choreography significantly differs from what we are used to seeing nowadays, including on Russian stages like the Mariinsky’s, but it is almost identical to the version that was danced by Konstantin Sergeyev as recorded in a 1953 film. An icon of the then-Kirov Ballet (known now as the Mariinsky) in the 1940s, Sergeyev staged new versions of Marius Petipa’s great ballets, among which his 1950 Swan Lake, which inspired Nureyev in his own production of the piece.
The film shows an impeccably coordinated, technically sound young Nureyev, who is a credit to the wonderful teaching of his beloved master, Alexander Pushkin. The combinations recall virtuoso class exercises, which call for great mastery of the classical technique, like the double cabrioles in arabesque on both sides in the coda, crossing the stage diagonally doing fouettés attitude towards upstage, the double tours en l’air which Nureyev will later incorporate in Rothbart’s variation, and the devilishly hard opening of the variation, with its double cabriole ouverte front, landing in first arabesque plié.
Nureyev leaps across the stage effortlessly: he barely seems to touch the ground, like his inspiration, Sergeyev, who was a model for his generation. The pirouettes are extremely fast and done in a high passé (above the knee, which was unusual at the time), in what would become Nureyev’s signature style, which characterized him throughout his career. The idiosyncrasies of his dancing style are already perceptible: his animal-like energy, his feline bounds, the peculiar physicality which made him an overnight sensation during his Parisian tour in 1961.
Nureyev appears as a diamond in the rough in the video; it’s worth noting here that many Soviet balletomanes only considered him as a demi-caractère dancer, even years after he defected from the USSR. His physique and style didn’t fit what was expected of a danseur noble, a label which was used rather for his contemporaries Yuri Soloviev or Nikita Dolgushin. Nureyev resented this discriminatory typecasting all his life, which partly explains his fascination for these danseurs nobles, with their harmonious, elongated lines.
His defection to the West and insatiable hunger for new experiences were a major factor in his physical and stylistic transformation. If we compare this video to the footage of his 1966 Swan Lake for the Vienna Opera Ballet, it is striking to see how much his style and physique have changed. In a few years, while he has retained the elevation of his youth, his legs have grown longer and lither, his port de bras have become more elegant, and his energy is more precisely channeled.
Working in London with Frederick Ashton and Kenneth MacMillan, as well as in Copenhagen with his lover Erik Bruhn, and going to the United States several times have opened new horizons for Nureyev, and shaped his style and choreographic vision. He seemed to challenge himself in his choreographic innovations, searching for an absolute ideal like his prince Siegfried – a character he revisited to give him more psychological depth.
Jean-Guillaume Bart studied at the Paris Opera Ballet School before joining the Paris Opera Ballet as a corps member in 1988. He became an étoile, or principal, in 2000, following a performance of Sleeping Beauty. Renowned choreographers like Rudolf Nureyev, George Balanchine, Jerome Robbins, John Neumeier, Maurice Béjart, William Forsythe, and Jiri Kylian selected him to dance in their repertoire productions, and he became ballet master for the Paris Opera Ballet in 2008. In addition to teaching at the Paris Conservatory (CNSMDP) from 2012 to 2016, Bart also regularly coaches Paris Opera soloists in the great roles of the repertoire.
He has choreographed several pieces for the students of the POB School and the CNSMDP as well as other young dancers, and staged productions such as Le Corsaire (2006), La Source for the Paris Opera Ballet (2011), Sleeping Beauty (2016-17), and La Boite à joujoux (The Toy Box, Stockholm, 2022).