He was the first of the postwar ballet superstars, vastly increasing the dance audience. It is no exaggeration to say he burst upon the West, defecting in Paris at age 23 after being ordered back to the U.S.S.R. in the middle of a Kirov Ballet tour. His partnership with Margot Fonteyn, prima ballerina of London's Royal Ballet, was the most famous of the century: her ineffable femininity, his feral grace. She called him "a young lion leaping," and wild he was. His tempers were fearsome, his demands insatiable. Unwilling to settle with one company, he put no limits on his own worth, and in demanding outsize fees and extras, he pointed the way to wealth for other dancers.
He was born hungry. His parents were Tartar peasants from Ufa, in Bashkir near the Ural Mountains. "Our Tartar blood runs faster," he wrote later, "always ready to boil." Especially during World War II his parents and three sisters and he faced extreme privation, living in one room with two other families. From age six, when he saw his first dance performance, he was obsessed by movement. His father hoped his bright son would become a doctor or an engineer.
Against the odds, he clawed his way to Leningrad and the Kirov school at age 17 -- very late to start serious classical training. His sheer will and magnetism won the day. Perhaps because he began by playing catch-up, Nureyev was not considered a natural dancer. He was blessed with a high leap and, in addition to athletic vigor, the noble, generous moves that are nearly impossible to teach. But he lacked, say, the sublime coordination of Mikhail Baryshnikov, and he had to work hard for his technique; a former colleague recalls that he was always looking for someone to teach him how to turn.
Fonteyn spotted him quickly after his 1961 defection. His entry into the Royal Ballet is legendary. No one had ever seen anyone of his primitive, utterly uncompromising power, and they were awestruck. For Fonteyn it was an extension of a great career. For the well-mannered, well-schooled dancers it was a shock. "He was more than temperamental," recalls American Ballet Theater ballet mistress Georgina Parkinson, then a soloist with the Royal. "But when he staged La Bayadere, he came to us as a dancer. He understood our shortcomings and was tireless in helping us and broadening our horizons." That was with the women. To Royal's men, Nureyev was nearly a catastrophe. He took over everything, and other promising careers never fully developed. Later, when Baryshnikov came West, Nureyev was to know similar emotions. The world was, in fact, big enough for two Soviet superstars, but the blazing of a younger version of his own career was not easy for him.
Nureyev danced everywhere in a huge variety of roles, from the full-length classics to modern works by Martha Graham, Paul Taylor and Maurice Bejart, among many others. During the '70s his plasticity began to decline, robbing his performances of their wonderful flow. By the '80s the problem had become severe, but despite the advice of friends and critics he would not quit. He was not, however, just a nomad. In 1983 he became artistic director of the Paris Opera Ballet for six colorful years. Again his temperament made headlines, but Nureyev gave the company a professionalism it had virtually forgotten and nurtured the careers of young dancers who are now stars, among them Sylvie Guillem, Patrick Dupond, Charles Jude and Elisabeth Platel. As Royal's dancers had learned years before, when it came to teaching, he was direct, intelligent and tireless.
He enjoyed his immense success. Since his teens, he had haunted museums, and his taste in art and furnishings was regal and excellent. In New York City his base was an opulent apartment in the Dakota; in Paris, an even grander flat on the Quai Voltaire. Both places became salons whenever he was in town; he loved flamboyant people. The Italian island of Li Galli appealed to him because it not only had been owned by the Russian choreographer Leonid Massine but also had been previously visited by Ulysses: it is the legendary home of the Sirens.
On Oct. 8 he made his final appearance on the stage of the Palais Garnier, home of the Paris Opera Ballet, after a performance of his staging of La Bayadere. He needed dancers' support to stay upright. He was gaunt and emaciated, but the style was defiantly intact -- he was swathed in a huge gold-and-scarlet cape -- and so was the fiery heroism.