Icons / November 2015

Lord of the Dance

When ballet prodigy Rudolf Nureyev made a snap decision to defect from his native Soviet Russia, his already rarefied existence became a roller coaster ride of high-kicking, hissy-fitting and rampant…

Given his professional reputation, it was not the most elegant of moments, nor the most graceful way to break into the global consciousness. It is June 1961, and a 23-year-old ballet dancer is preparing to board a flight back to the USSR from Paris. Suddenly, he steps aside from his group and announces that he is not getting on the plane - he has decided to stay in France. His colleagues plead with him. He refuses.

A kerfuffle ensues with the group's Soviet handlers, and the young Rudolf Nureyev throws himself at airport security, exclaiming, 'Protect me!' His KGB handlers try to wrestle him back into line. 'Don't touch him - we are in France,' counters a coolly diplomatic French official. Nureyev is taken into custody, where he asks for political asylum, and so, makes what the ensuing media frenzy dubs his 'leap to freedom'. The rest of the group fly home. He must now make a new one for himself.

Had that unsightly scene in an otherwise humdrum departures lounge not occurred, Nureyev would perhaps not have become the superstar he did, feted as much for his movie-star charisma and Mount Rushmore bones (though, as the ill-advised attempt to actually play Rudolph Valentino in one biopic suggested, not for his acting) as his ability to dance.

Yes, within the ballet world, he would have been admired as a major talent - he had been made one of the Kirov Opera Ballet's featured soloists in 1958, when he had only just turned 20. And, certainly, the prodigy's defection was a serious blow to the company, not to mention Soviet propaganda - Nureyev being one of the first major cultural figures to flee the USSR (the following year, the Soviet authorities considered a covert operation to break one or both of his legs). But ballet is, to put it kindly, a minority interest - few of its stars escaped that elite arty bubble's gravitational pull, even fewer than before global mass media. Who knows if his worldwide celebrity would have followed if that moment at Paris-Le Bourget Airport hadn't occurred?

In 1998, secret KGB documents were temporarily declassified and revealed that, although the dancer's discontent was known to the authorities - the Kirov's artistic directors and the Soviet Embassy in Paris had actually ignored two KGB directives to return Nureyev to the Motherland 13 days before the scheduled departure - he actually had no plans to defect. Remarkably, given what he would be leaving behind, not least his family, he made the decision on the spot.

There was a certain amount of luck involved, too: the French border control chief Nureyev was first taken to following his cries for help was one Gregory Alexinsky, who happened to be a White Russian hostile to the Soviet regime. In Nureyev, however, he would not find a political ally: Nureyev had been motivated to escape to the West, less out of any distaste for the Soviet system than by a desire to dance. Perhaps that distaste grew: the Soviets did not permit him to see his mother again until she was on her deathbed, and even then, only thanks to the intervention of the French President. Later in life, he would spend a great deal of time hiding away in an underground mausoleum he had built, one covered in tiles that spelled out his mother's name.

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Josh Sims

Josh Sims is a writer on menswear, design and much else for the likes of Wallpaper, CNN, Robb Report and The Times. He's the author of several books on menswear, the latest 'The Details', published by Laurence King. He lives in London, has two small children and is permanently exhausted.