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Former dancer JEFFERY TAYLOR reflects on his friendship with Rudolf Nureyev and his extraordinary foibles on the 76th anniversary of his birth

RUDOLF NUREYEV born 17 March 1938, died 6 January 1993. Nureyev was a leading dancer in St Petersburg’s Kirov (now Mariinsky) Ballet company when he defected to the West in 1961 in his celebrated leap to freedom and joined London’s Royal Ballet. Nureyev revolutionised male classical ballet dancing in the West.

During the starry, stormy and illustrious career of ballet legend Rudolf Nureyev, many a young dancer of either sex was seen hobbling about the wings of theatres around the world rubbing a posterior, thigh or shin and calling the damnation of Satan down on the flamboyant star.

As well as a talent claimed by some to knock the legendary Vaslav Nijinsky into a cocked pointe shoe, Nureyev’s ability to suffer fools was rock bottom and a vicious kick was the certain consequence for any dancer who obstructed him on stage.

His performance tantrums were matched by off-stage idiosyncrasies which included an utter disdain for personal hygiene. When possible in class with other dancers he enjoyed a practise barre of his own, not from respect but as everybody else’s escape mechanism from his unwashed, odiferous habits.

What hell his female partners went through I leave to your imagination. His hatred of journalists in general and critics in particular, knew no bounds and when in 1990 I was commissioned to interview this apparently out-of-control force of nature in Italy prior to his appearance in that year’s Edinburgh Festival, I blanched.

I waited in Naples for my photographer, Peter. He was half a day late and we missed the interview. Was I relieved or devastated? Before I could make up my mind, Peter pulled up in a car he had rented and declared: “Hop in, we’re going to follow him and do the interview at his favourite spa.”

After a white knuckle drive along gravel roads with a mountain on one side and a 10,000 foot drop on the other plus an exhausted photographer frequently nodding off at the wheel, we arrived in one piece. We bribed a receptionist and that night I pushed under  a grovelling letter of apology under the door of Nureyev’s room and humbly begged for an interview.

The next morning my phone rang and I was told Mr Nureyev was waiting for me on the terrace. He was utterly charming. With no trace of his monster alter ego he chatted away with an irresistible amiability and good humour and played games for Peter’s pictures on the terrace’s wall you can see behind us in the photograph.

We could not stop him doing his dangerous monkey impersonations in the trees. Both Peter and I were entranced. Asked if he ever rues the day he defected, he replied, “I will never regret for one instant walking over to those gendarmes in Paris and asking for asylum. I had nightmares for years,” he added “but no regrets.”

My last contact with the man I came to love and respect off stage as well as on, was during the last days of his life in December, 1992. Peter and I were assigned to stand on the pavement outside his apartment building on the Quai D’Orsay in Paris and when the car bringing Nureyev home from hospital to die stopped at the gates, the plan was for me to open the car door and ask the fading Nureyev for a quote while Peter took a picture.

We’d been alerted when the car left the hospital and we were given a constant progress report. However, when we were told that the car with its dying passenger was just around the corner from where we were, I turned to Peter and said, “Sorry Peter, but I just cannot do this.” As a former dancer myself, I had come to realise how lucky I was to have been alive at the same time as Rudolf Nureyev and to witness his life changing talent.

To impose myself in such a way on a dying hero was simply beyond me. To his eternal credit, Peter replied without hesitation, “I understand perfectly, mate. You cut along, I’ll sort this out.” I turned and walked away as the car reached the pavement. I caught a glimpse of Nureyev slumped in the back seat wearing, if my memory serves me, the turban he adopted in his latter years. Peter did a wonderful job with Nureyev as well as earning a permanent place in my heart as a true friend.

Jeffery Taylor is dance critic and arts feature writer of the Sunday Express and also Vice-President of the Critics’ Circle