broadsideblog

Dancing at Lincoln Center with Rudolf Nureyev — my true story

In art, beauty, culture, entertainment, History, journalism on February 8, 2014 at 1:29 pm

By Caitlin Kelly

A new museum has opened — 20 years after the death, in 1993 of AIDS, of 20th-century ballet’s most famed male dancer since Nijinksy, fellow Russian Rudolf Nureyev. The museum is not in Paris, where he’d wanted it to be, but in Moulins, a three-hour train ride from the capital.

English: Nurevey in his dressing room

English: Nurevey in his dressing room (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A report from The New York Times:

Centre National du Costume de Scène is in the Quartier Villars, an elegantly proportioned 18th-century barracks, renovated and extended after a near-brush with demolition in 1984. After the French government approved the idea of creating an archive for costumes belonging to the Paris Opera, the Comédie Française and the Bibliothèque Nationale, it took almost another decade to renovate the premises and add a section to contain and conserve the vast holdings. The government contributed around 80 percent of the renovation budget needed to install the collection (about $787,000), with the remainder coming from the museum and the foundation.

“It’s an international and important name that clearly draws people here,” Ms. Pinasa said. “The first few weeks have been very good.”

The collection is shown in three large rooms set apart from the museum’s main exhibition space; they were designed by Ezio Frigerio, who created sets for several of Nureyev’s productions. The first room is decorated with painted stage flats and offers spotlighted costumes in glass booths. Some were Nureyev’s own, most touchingly a simple pale blue doublet worn soon after his 1961 defection to the West, in “The Nutcracker.” There are also costumes from the ballets he staged, notably Hanae Mori’s 1920s-style outfit for Sylvie Guillem in “Cinderella,” an enchantment of pale-pink pleated silk, feathers and sequins, and the gold-embroidered blue-green silk tunic that is the warrior-hero Solor’s costume in the Nureyev production of “La Bayadère.”

I had the unlikely — and extraordinary — opportunity to share a stage with Nureyev for eight performances by the National Ballet of Canada in “Sleeping Beauty”, a classic, lush production.

I was then a young, ambitious Toronto-based journalist who knew the publicity director for the National Ballet after writing a magazine profile of one of their dancers. I’d studied ballet for many years, so I understood and loved that world. One day Marcia, (still a dear friend  decades later), called up and said: “How’d you like to come and be an extra with us in New York City at Lincoln Center with Nureyev?”

Who could possibly say no?

I was maybe 23 or 24 years old and had only performed, as an actress, in summer camp musicals. I had taken ballet classes for years and had auditioned (unsuccessfully) for Canada’s National Ballet School. I had never done pointe work, (not required as an extra), nor had I ever performed dance for anyone.

But what a story! I was game.

The Globe and Mail, Canada’s national daily, wanted the piece, and paid my travel expenses and we stayed across the street at the Empire Hotel, (featured in a great song by Canadian singer Joni Mitchell.)

As an extra — a “super”, (short for supernumerary, the civilians who are hired locally by ballet and opera companies to fill stages with bodies in costume) — I’d be needed for every performance.

I was chosen as one of four Ladies in Black, who presage the entrance of the witch Carabosse, who is not invited to Aurora’s 16th. party and who, furious, then casts a spell on everyone — creating the Sleeping Beauty who is Princess Aurora.

We had a few very basic rehearsals, like the artistic director impatiently humming the score, (which I barely knew!) while waving his arms at us distractedly in one of the Center’s rehearsal halls. Supers aren’t worth much attention when you’ve got principals to direct, and a corps de ballet and, oh yeah, Nureyev.

So I didn’t get a dress rehearsal, nor did I see or try on my costume or shoes until half an hour before opening night curtain. The shoes were so tight I could barely walk. My wig, with enormous buns over both ears, resembled a head of garlic. The dress weighed a ton, and I knew was worth a lot of money and I must not, on any account, damage it.

Since I barely knew the music, I wrote my stage directions on a piece of paper and taped it to the underside of my left wrist, hoping to sneak a glance at it while onstage.

On opening night, so nervous I could barely move, I managed to sweep down the wide staircase on stage, followed dutifully by the other three Ladies in Black — about 10 bars of music too early.

Holy shit.

“You came down too soon,” hissed a dancer pirouetting beside me.

The next night, while I tried to climb back up the same wide staircase at the rear of the stage after all the courtiers had fallen asleep under Carabosse’s spell a supine soldier’s sword got stuck in the thick folds of my gown.

I couldn’t move.

I couldn’t get his sword out of that valuable fabric.

And the orchestra played on, as the principal dancers hissed at me from behind “Hurry up!

Holy shit again.

Another night, as Nureyev, in his role as the Prince, dashed through the sleeping figures trying to see if anyone was awake, he stopped, took my chin in his hands and held my face to the spotlight, to see if I really was asleep.

Holy shit. Holy shit. Holy shit!

My chin in Nureyev’s hand.

And I couldn’t, if I was to remain, as I must, in character, open my eyes.

On another night he grew so furious he kicked a garbage can in the wings so hard his foot bled into his slipper. I swear a lot, but have never heard curses like his.

Off-stage, in the wings, he stood regally apart, sliding leather clogs over his slipper-shod feet.

Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn in La Bayadère.

Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn in La Bayadère. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Today, decades later, it still all feels like a dream — exiting the stage door and being asked for my autograph (“Margot Fonteyn.” Kidding!), putting on my stage make-up every night, sharing space with one of the world’s legendary dancers.

I live in New York now, and every time I walk up those wide steps toward Lincoln Center, to sit in the audience for a ballet or concert, I think…hmmm, let’s do that again!

  1. Wow! What an amazing experience, even though those first two “holy shit” moments must have been flustering at the time!

  2. Well, I used to think you were fancy. Now I think you’re ALL KINDS of fancy! :)

  3. Wonderful post Caitlin!

  4. Not an occasion ever in danger of being forgotten.
    xxx Huge Hugs xxx

  5. What a great story, especially to have him hold your chin in his hands! I studied with the Louisville Ballet when Baryshnikov danced with them, and a friend in the company told me that he went outside during a break and threw a tantrum. Not surprised to hear of Nureyev’s tantrum. I think they become immensely frustrated with their bodies as they age – what they once could do that they can no longer do.

    • Thanks…I saw Nureyev perform in London in later life. It was not a happy sight…

      It’s also the end of their fame, income and identity. French Opera dancers at least get state pensions…

  6. this is an incredible story, caitlin. thanks so much for sharing it.

  7. What an adventure! I just saw Sleeping Beauty at Pacific Northwest Ballet last week, which made it even more fun to read of your experience.

  8. Ahhh, I was wondering when we would get the details of that story! You had mentioned it sometime back in one of your posts and on a comment you left for me… but no details. How appropriate as we are all things Russian this month. What a memory, even tinged with %$#& moments… that makes it all the even better!

    I love that you can now go back to the scene of your experience and re-visit the rush. Thanks for sharing this!

  9. Love this story Caitlin!! Thanks for sharing it. I can totally picture those moments and your thoughts at the time. Good for you for not opening your eyes, however tempting it must have been. At least you were touched by Nureyev!! What a fabulous experience, from beginning to end. :)

  10. […] Then, Saturday evening, I went back to Lincoln Center for the third night in a row, this time to see the Boston Ballet for the first time. I scored excellent seats — third row in the second ring — for $70 each. No, not cheap, but fully worth every penny: excellent sight-lines. full orchestra, terrific dancing, a wide range of choreography — and the timeless beauty of the theater itself, one of my favorites, (and on whose stage I performed as an extra with the National Ballet of Canada in Sleeping Beauty); here’s my blog post about it.) […]

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