On this day March 17: Rudolf Nureyev

Rudolf Nureyev march 17

Born on March 17, 1938, on the Trans-Siberian train, Rudolf Nureyev became a global superstar after defecting from the Soviet Union to the west in 1961. 

Scroll down if you just want to watch him dance.

Times certainly change. In my youth, leading ballet dancers were as much household names as movie stars, rock gods and world leaders. Not any more.

But Nureyev had something of the rock god about him. Charismatic, good-looking and sexually provocative, the dancer made good newspaper copy, was a popular chat show guest and understood the value of promotion. He attracted new audiences to the ballet by stunts like dancing with Miss Piggy on The Muppet Show.

His spectacular physique didn’t hurt either. Nureyev understood sex appeal and once held up a performance for 40 minutes while he argued to wear tights instead of trousers.

The boy from a backwoods Russian province no one ever heard of never shied from an argument. He earned fame for his volatility. (Volatility: a convenient word for writers like me who don’t know enough to delve into allegations of unforgivable temper tantrums and bullying.)

The dancer attributed his anger issues to his heritage.

“I cannot define exactly what it means to me to be a Tatar, and not a Russian, but I feel this difference in myself. Our Tatar blood flows somehow faster and is always ready to boil.”

Defecting to the west

Nureyev learned folk dance as a child and later took ballet lessons. He enrolled in a major ballet school as a 17-year-old and within 3 years, joined the Kirov Ballet as a principal dancer. In 1961, he defected to the west during a tour to Paris and London. KGB agents tried to send him home after following him to Parisien gay bars and — justifiably concerned about being imprisoned by the Communist regime — he refused.

His defection made world headlines.

Rudolf Nureyev performed in Australia several times. After first making a private visit in 1961, he returned to dance the following year. Headlines claimed the dancer tearfully begged Qantas to list him on the flight manifesto under a false name, fearing a KGB abduction. Nureyev returned again after forming his famous dance partnership with Prima Ballerina Dame Margot Fonteyn. In 1971, he toured with Sir Robert Helpmann in Don Quixote.

Rudolf Nureyev
Rudolf Nureyev & Dame Margot Fonteyn pictured by the Women’s Weekly leaving a Sydney performance.

We want Rudi… In the nudie…

In 1977, Nureyev starred as Latin Lover Rudolph Valentino in Ken Russell’s loosely biographical Valentino. Although critically panned, the movie did receive substantial attention for the star’s fleeting but explicit nude scenes. The Canberra Times noted that Nureyev squired Princess Margaret to the London premiere.

“Sex scenes showing the sinewy body of Rudolf Nureyev — all of it — are part of the ballet star’s first film, Valentino, which he watched last night together with Princess Margaret.”

The nude scenes inspired chants of ‘We want Rudi… In the nudie’ before some future ballet performances.

Although the dancer expressed ‘misgivings about the explicit scenes”, it was not his first foray into full-frontal nudity. Anyone who ever searched the internet for ‘male celebrity nudes’ has seen the Richard Avedon pic of Rudi with a semi. Just a month after the dancer’s defection, he posed nude for the bisexual photographer during a night of heavy drinking in Paris. Nureyev returned the next day and asked for the negatives and Avedon agreed but failed to turn over the film still in the camera.

The photo in mass-circulation shows Rudolf Nureyev with his arms by his sides. Avedon later recalled that he took the photos as Nureyev danced nude and: “As his arms rose, so did his penis.”

Strange. It is certainly common for some men to become aroused when they throw their legs in the air but arms? Anyway, that explains the slight excitement visible in the pic.


Rudolf Nureyev enjoyed relationships with Danish dancer Erik Bruhn, film directer Wallace Potts and dancer and writer Robert Tracy. He also had a short fling with movie star Tab Hunter. He told Robert Tracy of relationships with three different women early in his career. Besides his relationships, he also enjoyed casual sex and often patronised gay sex-on-premise venues.

Nureyev tested positive for HIV in 1984. However, he kept working almost until his admission to a Paris hospital in late 1992. He died from AIDS complications on January 6, 1993.

The critic Martin Bernheimer said, “When Rudolf Nureyev first burst upon the West his bravura flights and brooding charismatic personality virtually obliterated everyone else on the stage — including the ballerina…

“At his lofty best he was a serious probing artist At his willful worst he could be infuriatingly narcissistic Even at his worst however he all but dared the viewer not to watch him and by inference not to love him.”

Read More:

I. A. R. Wylie, March 16 <— On this day —> March 18, Wilfred Owen

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