The immensely gifted ballet star Rudolf Nureyev is the prime focus of Colum McCann’s new novel, Dancer. The picture of Nureyev that many often remember is that of a gifted performer who was also a compulsive egomaniac. McCann, after four exhaustive years researching the performer, shows us the many other shades of a man who knew no other love than dance.
An ethnic Tatar of peasant stock, Rudi Nureyev came from humble beginnings in the Russian republic of Bashkiria. As a young child, Rudi learnt to deal with abuse and other forms of violence just as long as he could dance. His father wanted “more” from his son; the distance between father and son is never more on display than on a fishing trip—Dad enjoys the violence in skinning and piercing the fish. Son would rather have none of it—he prefers the self-imposed violence of dance.
Dancer views its subject through the prisms of many lenses, of people who knew or chanced upon Nureyev in some way. We see Rudi through the eyes of his early ballet teacher, her daughter, a stilt-walker at the Kirov ballet theater, and later, the famed English ballerina Margot Fonteyn, a Chilean dancer and friend, Rudi’s shoemaker, his housekeeper, a fellow gay Manhattanite, even Andy Warhol’s diaries. This constantly shifting focus is a brilliant touch; it illuminates the human behind the myth without resorting to sappy theatrics. The scenes set in Russia capture the starkness of the place. The family and friends Rudi left behind when he famously defected to the West in 1961, are occasionally envious of his celebrity. They are the ones, after all, left to deal with the suspicions of a Cold War government. Mixed with pride at Rudi’s achievements is an understandably selfish dislike of the great performer. He was disliked, says a Russian friend, because of “his betrayal of the very thing we ultimately wanted for our own lives, the realization of desire.” Despite these mixed feelings, when Rudi finally returns to Russia in the end, there is a palpable feeling of resignation amongst his family and friends. Nothing has changed—“there is (still) no soap and the handle of the toilet is broken.”
Of the chorus of voices and characters populating the narrative, the most memorable is Nureyev’s “crude New York friend” Victor Pareci. McCann uses a single sentence thirty pages long to describe the intense gay nightlife that Nureyev and Pareci share. The picture of Manhattan that emerges along with its slice of Nureyev’s promiscuous, philandering lifestyle is raw, pulsating, and strangely illuminating. The scenes between Nureyev and Pareci are some of the most poignant ones in Dancer.
All of Dancer vibrates with Nureyev’s colorful personality. Trying to hold onto a cherished employee who wants to quit, he screams in a way only Nureyev could: “Nobody resigns on me! I fire them!” Despite his high-flying lifestyle, only Nureyev knows the true value of his life. “Whatever loneliness we have had in this world,” he remembers, “will make sense when we are no longer lonely.” That he never got to test the verity of that statement was probably a mixed blessing to the great Rudi—someone on whom “fame fit like a curious coat, new but oddly snug.”
In a recent interview, McCann says: “I doubt the word 'fiction', because I’m not sure it’s the best way to describe what we do. I think the best way is that we’re storytellers. Whether it’s fiction or nonfiction, you’re telling a story.” Dancer is indeed the work of a storyteller who has mastered his craft. In capturing the details of Nureyev’s extraordinary life, McCann has created a tour de force.