by Kalliopi Venieri with Vincent Guy
Rudolf & Kalliopi Photo: Giorgos Turkovasilis
Rudi Joins our Company
Once Rudi’s freedom was officially established, the Cuevas company invited him to dance with us in Sleeping Beauty, our new production in Paris. We were waiting for him to join us in rehearsal at the big studio. About 80 of us: pianist, conductor, the dancers, some friends, including Olivier Merlin. Rudi arrived, dressed in black, amazingly fit, strong as a young horse. Dazzled, we all stood up and applauded him as he walked into the studio,
When he started dancing he looked like a black panther, with huge leaps and fantastic spins! Not to mention the beauty of his 22-year-old face! We knew we were watching one of the greatest dancers of the century.
At that time Nureyev and Clara were meeting nearly every day for outings with friends and I was to join them myself several times. We went out with him on Bastille Day, the 14th of July. He was so happy, laughing and eating candy like a child. Another time was at a popular restaurant in Les Halles, the old Paris food market. He was recognised and the entire clientele was staring at us. But Rudolf was crying; he’d just got a letter from his mother begging him to go back to Russia, or she would never see him again.
His first performance with us was a pas de deux, "The Bluebird" from Sleeping Beauty. His debut was in a matinée. As he and his partner walked on stage, there was an enormous noise, whistling and cat-calling. At least one third of the audience, we later found out, was the Soviet contingent, demonstrating against him.
Immediately the rest of the audience started yelling against the Communists, so there was a double barrage. Of course against this monstrous racket it was impossible for poor Rudi and his partner to hear the orchestra. They just managed to mark in the steps. From the wings the rest of us added to the noise shouting: “Go! Go! Go! Rudi, don’t stop!“
By the end of the dance the Communists had added stink bombs full of urine to all that pandemonium; the stage was stinking and dangerously wet, but Rudi did not stop. Finally, the police came and got all the troublemakers out of the theatre, so the rest of the performance went on peacefully enough. What an experience to remember! I see it - and smell it - even now.
Rudolf in rehearsal. Photographer unknown
Saying No to Nureyev
He stayed with our company for about three months, travelling around. During maintenance class and rehearsals I often noticed him looking at me, sometimes staring. Was it my friendship with Clara? Or was he thinking of giving me a chance to dance with him? It turned out he’d told the director, Raymondo de Larrain, I should dance a matinée with him. This put me in a dilemma, as I’d also been invited to the Hamburg Opera as guest ballerina to be coached by George Balanchine, the great choreographer. I chose Balanchine. That was the first time I said "No" to Nureyev.
The other time I said "No" to Rudi was less dignified. It was in Tel Aviv. One afternoon I was watching him rehearse. As he finished dancing, exhausted, he came and flopped down next to me:
“Psst!!” he said, clicking his fingers.
“Go and get me a drink! Now, go!”
I turned, looked at him, shook my head and said:
“No! Absolutely Not!”
Immediately he stood up in front of me and spat full in my face. I walked away and of course left him thirsty.
There he showed the dark side of his character.
A sweeter moment, in Venice. After the performance we emerged from the theatre to find the city blanketed with snow. All the gondolas completely white. We walked to the Piazza San Marco. The sight was so beautiful that, even though we’d just been on stage for four hours, we started dancing again in the middle of the square. Then Rudi appeared among the snowflakes. His face pale, he said to us: “It was so cold in my hotel room I had to come outside and walk to get warm!” He found it funny that we were dancing madly on the white virgin snow in San Marco Square. And the flakes kept falling on the statues, the bridges, the palaces of Venice.
Kalliopi in rehearsal Photo: Siegfried Regeling, reworked by Vincent Guy
Dancer by Colum McCann is a novel telling Rudolf’s whole life story. And a thorough factual version is Nureyev, a Biography by Peter Watson, who happens to be a friend of Vincent’s from schooldays.
Originally published on the website Edinburgh Music Review