I think Nureyev performed at the 1989 Wellington Festival of the Arts, but I suppose it could have been 1986. My mum bought A Reserve tickets. She was a huge fan of Nureyev. We were living in Raumati Beach at that time so my mother organised a hotel in town for the night so that we wouldn’t have to do the one hour drive back home afterwards. My mother also made a dress for the occasion. At the time I knew that the night Nureyev performed in Wellington was important for my mother, but looking back on it now I realise it was very, very important, and I’m glad I went.
When I was a kid I would sometimes watch documentaries taped off the TV about Nureyev and Fonteyn that my mum had recorded. I think the first few times I watched these I didn’t really understand the appeal of Nureyev. In fact it wasn’t until a few years after Nureyev’s performance in New Zealand that I watched these videos again and his magnificence struck me with its full force. It is one of the great misnomers that male ballet dancers are all feeble poofters. If you take the time to watch this very short clip you will see an athlete at the absolute pinnacle of his physical prowess. How do you manage to do such a series of impossible feats and make it appear so effortless, as if you are sort of floating, as if spinning around and around and around and stopping perfectly still is something any fool could do?
Strangely, the two moments I first realised that I liked Nureyev weren’t really about his dancing. One was from a time that he and Fonteyn were pursued by the media for some perceived indiscretion and Nureyev maintained a playful silence with the journalists who were calling for him to answer their questions. Under the camera glare he had a steady insouciance, and even managed a wink. The other moment that converted me to him was a moment of acting. At the end of the ballet Romeo and Juliet there is a scene where Romeo tries to dance with the dead Juliet. It is painful and heart-rending to watch. I vividly remember Nureyev in the role of Romeo pulling the lifeless body of Juliet across the stage with his face upturned to the heavens. There was such a look of haunted pain and incomprehension in Nureyev’s face it was impossible to believe that he wasn’t Romeo.
One thing that my mother gave me was a sense that men could be beautiful, creative and artistic. I have always been unhappy that most people in New Zealand, even now, feel uncomfortable with any kind of male role model who is not a sportsman, or an outdoors adventurer, or a laconic, slightly dour type. Colin Meads, Ed Hillary, Jonah Lomu or Barry Crump are “real men” and poofs in tights are, well, poofs in tights. I am happy that I don’t believe this.
I try to show my students beautiful things when I can. I try and play them songs they mightn’t have heard. Soon I am going to attempt to play a piece of Purcell, Dido’s Lament, to my Classics class. It’ll probably bomb, but it’s worth the effort. Even if students make fun of this kind of thing at the time, a few of them usually comment on it years later. I used to play Strange Fruit by Billie Holiday when I did the black civil rights topic. Funny the number of students who have mentioned that song to me in the years afterwards. Somedays I guess I feel like giving them something outside their comfort zone and jazz, ballet, and opera are generally far outside their comfort zones.
My mother and I had seats in the Michael Fowler Centre that were in the front row, and at one point in the final dance Nureyev came right to the edge of the stage in front of us. We could have reached out and touched him. I remember that his legs were extraordinarily solid, and that he was absolutely drenched in sweat. He gave the impression of a body under tremendous strain. The show itself was made up of shorter pieces that were modern, and I suppose that a lot of people were disappointed. I was 16 and didn’t know much about dance (still don’t), but I enjoyed it. I enjoyed the fact of actually seeing Nureyev perform in the flesh, and of being so close I could see that strain and sweat.
It was my mother’s birthday last week and I mentioned to her that you can find all kinds of things on youtube nowadays that she might like. Here are some little pieces of Nureyev for you, mum. Thanks for taking me to the ballet when I was a young ungrateful kid, and putting up with me squirming in my seat next to yours, and thanks for taking me to see Nureyev.