100 Dance Treasures

Rudolf Nureyev Menu

Rudolf Nureyev in the pas de deux from Le Corsaire (1963), one of his signature
works and one that introduced him to American audiences.

One of the most celebrated male dancers of the twentieth century, Rudolf Nureyev (1938-1993) was born in Siberia. He grew up in Ufa, where he began dancing with a children's folk troupe, and against almost insuperable odds won admission to the Vaganova Choreographic Institute and eventually a place in the Kirov Ballet. In 1961, while on tour with the company in Paris, he asked for political asylum. He was the first Soviet dancer to defect—and thanks to his "leap to freedom," as the press called it, an overnight celebrity. He made his New York debut with Sonia Arova, but it was his magical partnership with Margot Fonteyn, a highlight of Britain's Royal Ballet's many tours of the 1960s, that captured American hearts. He was an exotically beautiful man, a virtuoso with the passion of a Byronic hero and the charisma of a rock star. He staged masterpieces of the nineteenth-century Russian repertory, such as the third act of Raymonda and the Kingdom of the Shades scene from La Bayadère. He danced for television and in films, and more than 250 live performances a year—an astonishing tally. From 1983 until he died of AIDS in 1993, he was artistic director of the Paris Opera Ballet.

Learn more in Rudolf Nureyev, an essay by Michelle Potter.

Rudolf Nureyev, Photo courtesy of New York Public Library Pictured: Rudolf Nureyev in a studio shot capturing the charismatic physical presence that took the dance-going public by storm.(Photograph from the Dance Division, New York Public Library for the Performing Arts, Astor, Lenox, and Tilden Foundations.)