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Flash First Person, 9-19: 'That was Rudy for you!'
Working with -- and dancing for -- Nureyev
By Marcello Angelini
Copyright 2012 Marcello Angelini
Marcello Angelini, artistic director of the Tulsa Ballet, worked with Rudolf Nureyev for over eleven years, frequently alternating with him in principal roles, as a guest artist invited by Nureyev in companies where his works were being staged, in ballets choreographed by Nureyev, and in companies in which Nureyev was guesting. To help fill out the man celebrated in the new exhibition Rudolf Nureyev: A Life, opening October 6 at the de Young Museum in San Francisco, Dance Insider editor and publisher Paul Ben-Itzak posed Angelini several questions about Nureyev's legacy and his most piquant memories working with him. To see our feature - gallery on the exhibition, subscribers can click here.)
What is Nureyev's greatest legacy to you personally, and professionally?
I don't know where to start. Imagine that in my first professional performance I danced the Wolf in "The Sleeping Beauty" while Rudolf was the Prince.... I then kept meeting him wherever I went, whether in Berlin or with Northern Ballet Theater or in the various opera houses in Italy and, by age 23, I was alternating with Rudolf in ballets like "The Sleeping Beauty," "The Nutcracker," "Miss Julie," "Coppelia," "The Lesson," "Spectre de la Rose," and many others.
Rudolf was a living contradiction, on one side extremely disciplined, never spending a day without taking class and always challenging himself (probably to prove that he was not getting old... never changing a step from a solo he had danced twenty years ago). On the other hand, he was the most undisciplined person ever, arriving late at the theater and always making an audience wait at least half an hour before he was ready to start. I think the legacy he left with me is his unrelenting quest for perfection. He was always pushing himself and people around him to achieve not only their best but to master what was probably well beyond what we thought were our limits. Personally, I will never forget his piercing eyes watching me dance from the wings when I was doing his roles. He would try to crack you but if you stood up and accepted the challenge you would gain his respect.
If you could impart to your company the most essential precepts or practices you learned from him, what would they be?
Never give up, never give in, always push and expand upon your limits, mediocrity is not an option and work can achieve everything. Even (in his case), transforming a marginally talented body into the best dancer of his era!
Do you have one particular memory of interacting with / working with him that still stands out vividly?
I can write a book of stories about the old son of a gun.... I'll give you two.
|Left: Rudolf Nureyev in "La Bayadere," Palais Garnier, 1974. Photograph by André Chino. Courtesy CNCS. Right: Rudolf Nureyev in Murray Louis's "Moments," with the Murray Louis Dance Company, 1977. Photograph © Francette Levieux. From the exhibition "Rudolf Nureyev: A Life."
The first one happened in Manchester, with Northern Ballet Theater. We were alternating in "Coppelia" and he had to learn our version. He arrived late from somewhere else and proceeded to get in the studio as soon as his plane landed. That was around 7 p.m., after our work day had ended.
At 9 p.m. the phone rings and it's the director of the company informing me that Rudolf has kicked out the ballet masters and wants me to go teach him the role of Franz. I was not surprised.... I should say that the same thing happened many other times with "Miss Julie" and "The Lesson." So, between one cuss and another, I head back to the building, where Rudolf is waiting for me.
We go through Act One, which was similar to what he knew. Then we get to Act Three and he asks me, "Show me the solo." By this time it's about 10:30 p.m.. I oblige and start showing him the steps, lightly dancing them. Now he gets up and says, "I didn't say mark the solo. Show me." Okay, I should have known. I thought, let's play the game. So, I proceed to show him the solo, pushing as hard as I could and with a lot of pride: It was a solo I basically choreographed for myself with every trick in the book. I finish with a bit of a smile on my face, thinking: "He'll never be able to do it!" He comes up to me and says something like, "You young 'blaspheme,' when I was your age I could dance this solo with one arm tied behind my back. Get the ____ out of here." Turns out that I had to dance the opening night as he was still unsure of a couple of things. I also did the next day's matinee and then headed home. Again, I get a call during the show from the director: "Rudolf wants you to do the Lord of the Manor in Act Three." 'Are you kidding?' I thought. 'Why? He just sits on stage and marries them at the end of act three. Why me? I am not even an understudy.' Nevertheless, I headed to the theater, put on the wig and sat on stage. Here comes Rudolf for the solo, winks at me and proceeds to do EXACTLY the same solo I showed him, albeit changing the order of the steps -- putting the hardest combinations at the front end. He finishes, bows and comes to sit on the bench. And then he says: "You see, I am still better than you." Me: "Rudolf, did you drag me here for this?" Rudolf: "Yes." He stood up and left with a big smile on his face!
Episode #2 of a long list: We are now in Naples, at the San Carlo Opera House, where he called me to dance the prince in his "Cinderella" with the Teatro San Carlo as a guest. However, every time throughout the last two weeks of the rehearsal period, when he came to town to put the production on stage, when we got to my solos he would either call for Pausa (break) or walk away. Every time! I knew he was doing it on purpose to make me nervous.... That went on until the opening night. I should add that in his version, he was still dancing the role of the Producer, which is really the Fairy Godmother in the original story. So, he is on stage during the entire three acts of the ballet, including the solos. As I walk on stage to start the solo from upstage left, I see Rudolf coming on from downstage right with a chair and a cigar in his mouth and as I prepare he yells, "Now you show me boy!" I danced like a lion and I have the entire incident on tape.... I did make a point to finish two feet from him though. As I knelt after the last jump I challenged him, "Your turn now old man." He cussed, stood up, and left. But then, in Act Three, he started making up stuff, asking me to partner him, and proceeding to stick his darn cigar in my eyes at least a dozen times.... That was Rudy for you!!!!