Rudolf Nureyev defected to the West in 1961 and later that same year he danced with Margot Fonteyn for the first time, and the following year he joined The Royal Ballet. In 1963, the BBC asked the great Tamara Karsavina to comment on the new Russian dancer and compare him with her Ballets Russes partner Vaslav Nijinsky.
Karsavina and Nijinsky had joined Diaghilev's troupe for its first season in 1909, with Karsavina continuing the collaboration with Diaghilev well into the 1920s.
Karsavina left Russia in 1918, just as the Bolsheviks launched the Red Terror at the beginning of the Russian Civil War. She was married to English diplomat Henry James Bruce and they moved to London. She became an important force in British ballet helping to found the Royal Academy of Dance in 1920 and the Camargo Society in 1930. When Ninette de Valois created the Vic-Wells Ballet in 1931 (which became the Sadler's Wells Ballet in 1939 and The Royal Ballet in 1956) her Ballets Russes colleague, Karsavina, became a key advisor.
Karsavina had been taught by Enrico Cecchetti and she in turn coached Margot Fonteyn. De Valois and Marie Rambert were also former colleagues of Cecchetti and the Cecchetti ‘style' became the foundation of British ballet. Karsavina passed on many of the roles she had created, including Petrushka, Le Spectre de la Rose and The Firebird, to Fonteyn and others.
Karsavina was 78 at the time of her 1963 interview with Carl Wildman for BBC ‘Network Three', the precursor of Radio 3.
Some who have seen Nijinsky were of the opinion that Nureyev was the heir to the Nijinsky greatness. Of course, as regards technique a standard of comparison can be established. But the actual greatness depends on the way the artist uses his technique and the power with which he projects his personality.
So, was Nureyev's power of projection as great as Nijinsky's?
I who have seen both can honestly say it is. It seems to me that Nureyev's range is wider because of the mobility of his features in dramatics, but this makes me think that it might be caution or just snobbery on the part of people who have not seen Nijinsky and yet say that Nureyev is no Nijinsky.
Karsavina had seen both men as Albrecht in Giselle.
Here I can't avoid comparison. While Nureyev's dancing is superlative, Nijinsky's interpretation of the role made a deeper impression on me.
I wonder if it was not the present tendency of the Russian Ballet towards elimination of mime gestures out of dramatic scenes which may have influenced Nureyev to be sparing of gesture. It seems to me that he missed the great opportunity of expressing grief and contrition at Giselle's grave in emotional gestures; Nijinsky's acting of the scene was more poignant.
Whereas Nureyev was articulate and witty, dancing was Nijinsky's only effective method of communication. In her memoir Theatre Street, Karsavina wrote,
Nijinsky had no gift of precise thought, still less that of expressing his ideas in adequate words. Were he called upon to issue a manifesto of his new creed, for his dear life he could not have given a clearer statement that the one he had given to explain his wonderful capacity for soaring in the air. Certainly, at the rehearsals of Jeux he was at a loss to explain what he wanted of me. And it was far from easy to learn the part by mechanical process of imitating the postures as demonstrated by him.
When comparing the two men for the BBC, she said, wisely,
Remember too that most of Nijinsky's parts were created for him to bring into relief his special qualities. And, of course, Nijinsky is judged over his whole career ….
In 1963, at the time of this interview, Nureyev was 25; at that age, Nijinsky's career was already over.
Nureyev is only just beginning, at least in the West.
She described Nureyev's qualities thus:
First and foremost, the pure line of his attitudes tending upwards which confer a rare elegance; it can be seen not only in the dancing but also in the way he moves on the stage. The technique on a virtuoso level is there of course, but he uses it as a means to expressiveness. He's also very musical and has a quality I have seldom before seen in such a degree: his ability to accelerate or slow down his pirouettes in absolute obedience to the rhythm. His jump is excellent and his leaps propel him through the air imparting an exhilarating dynamic quality, in a way the French so aptly describe as “devouring space”. Dévorer l'espace.
I noticed that particularly in Giselle and Swan Lake. To sum up he is an example of what, from time immemorial, has been called a danseur noble.
The interviewer asked for her to explain the difference between danseur noble and demi-caractère?
The word ‘character' is self-explanatory. But I'll give you a concrete instance. Viktor Rona – the Hungarian who took part in the Gala Matinee of the Royal Academy – Rona is a representative of the demi-caractère kind. He comes from the same school as Nureyev and executes the same steps, but whereas everything Nureyev dances has lyricism, Rona gives the impression of joie de vivre; one is almost abstract like pure music, the other earthy-of the earth we love.
Karsavina was a founding member of the Royal Academy of Dance, and for its gala Rona had danced a pas de deux from Khachaturian's ballet Gayane with Margot Fonteyn.
A very witty and original dance with a slight Caucasian flavour. The ballet itself is based on the theme of collective farming, but the enchantingly coy courtship of a Commissar may even gain from being taken out of its context.
Original? New steps?
Not exactly new steps. Rather the way in which they are used. For instance, when Margot accompanies her dance with a delightful pantomime with the hands, closing and opening them in front of her face as if peeping through a yashmak, or when Rona leaps upwards touching his toes with his hands while in mid-air.
Undoubtedly Nureyev could dance this pas de deux as Rona could dance some of Nureyev's parts, but they would be neither's cup of tea… I mean neither would do of their best in a part which did not fit well with their particular quality.
Nureyev is slimly built but of great muscular strength, of which the spectator remains unaware because it is only used as an invisible spring to his leap. Rona is taller, broad-shouldered-his strength I would call vigour, it attracts attention to a tour de force.
I think that physical build may even determine the style and the stage personality of a dancer.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano') about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman's Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia' column for Dancing Times magazine.