Rudolf Nureyev captured my heart

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(Rudolf Nureyev at La Scala 1973. Copyright 1973  E. Kent Oztekin)

We recently went to the Kennedy Center to see Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland performed by the National Ballet of Canada. It was well done. The costumes and special effects were excellent and the whole thing felt surreal, fun, and playful. In my book, the Cheshire Cat stole the show.

I have a long history with dance. I took Burmese dancing lessons in Rangoon when I was five. When I was six we moved to Rye, New York and I took Modern Dance. At seven I started ballet classes in Mexico City, all in Spanish and French which I managed to learn quickly.

I took ballet for six years and loved it. Every year the Bolshoi Ballet would come to Mexico City from Moscow and we often went to see them. It was a highlight of the year. I dreamed of being one of them and dancing so beautifully.

Kathy practicing ballet at age 5.

As a pre-teen I fell in love with Rudolf Nureyev. He was a Tatar born in Irkutsk, just above Mongolia in the Russian Far East, then still the Soviet Union. He had a difficult childhood but was recognized for his abilities as a dancer and managed to work first with the Bolshoi Ballet in Moscow and then to train with at the Kirov Ballet in St Petersburg (Leningrad).

Because he was such a non-conformist, he was not generally chosen to travel abroad. By a twist of fate, in 1961, the Kirov was due to leave on a European tour when the leading man was injured. Nureyev was chosen to replace him. He proved them right by defecting from Russia while in Paris and danced throughout Europe and around the world. He was able to break the mold of the traditional male dancer by taking the choreography beyond just supporting the female dancer and playing more of a leading, partnership role.

I saw him on TV several times and could not believe my eyes as I watched him soar through the air. In 1973 I was in boarding school in Switzerland and I was lucky enough to get tickets to go see him perform solo at La Scala Theater in Milan, Italy. I was amazed by the muscle control the guy had, and by this time he was an old man in dance years. He was 35. He looked like he was hanging suspended in air and came down light as a feather. La Scala was a very small old theater so every seat was good. After the show he came out onto the stage and was presented with red roses. We went right up to him and could see the sweat dripping off his body.

Years later I moved to Moscow, Russia and went to the Bolshoi Theater several times. It was a dream come true for that little girl in me. On one occasion I had been working at the British Embassy for about two years and the Queen of England came on a State visit. One of her events was to go to the Bolshoi so we got tickets through the Embassy and went with her. Our tickets cost us $7.

We had aisle seats in the 14th row and we could see everything perfectly. The ballet was Giselle and it was performed flawlessly. We could see the Queen and Boris Yeltsin, who was President at the time, come and go, and wave. Before the ballet started we were in the theater bar having a glass of champagne with the Brits and one of them was very involved with the visit. He told us that the Queen’s dress had been locked in a room in the Kremlin, where she is staying, and nobody could find a key to the room. They were all panicking and calling the airport to see if they could get a replacement in time and finally somebody found a key and the day was saved. When we saw her come out into the theater my husband said, “No wonder they locked the door.”  He was not impressed.