Lounging at the beach, by the pool, waiting in an airport, or relaxing on the porch, this summer has provided ample opportunities to catch up on some great (dance) reading. Here are some highlights:
Perpetual Motion: The Public and Private Lives of Rudolf Nureyev
Otis Stuart writes a fully engaging account of Nureyev’s life and death. Nureyev’s fascinating transformation from Tatar pauper to the world’s most famous ballet star provides insight into the life and work of this phenomenal artist. I particularly enjoyed this read, especially the accounts of Nureyev’s training, defection, and vast body of work. Numerous anecdotes reference Nureyev’s infamous temper and some of the outbursts are downright ridiculous, including dropping female partners onstage, kicking dancers in the corps de ballet in the ass, and dumping a bucket of ice water on Ron Protas’ head.
Stuart sheds light on Nureyev’s admiration for Kirov colleague Yuri Soloviev, claiming Nureyev made unwanted advances toward the married Soloviev while the men roomed together on the company’s 1961 tour to Paris. According to Stuart, Solviev alerted Russian authorities of Nureyev’s homosexual advances, and that this is the true reason the KGB detained Nureyev at the Paris airport to be flown back to Moscow, while the rest of the company traveled on to London. Fearing criminal prosecution in Moscow (homosexuals received 5 years of hard labor), Nureyev found his only escape in defection. For the rest of his life, Nureyev spoke very highly of Soloviev in the press. Sadly, Soloviev was found dead in 1977, presumably a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head.
The sensation and spectacle that surrounded Nureyev in the 1960’s and 1970’s is documented in detail. Of particular interest is Nureyev’s exploration of modern dance in the 1970’s and early 1980’s. In 1975, Martha Graham’s creation of the ballet Lucifer for Nureyev (with Margot Fonteyn!) created quite a stir in the dance world. I have always been fascinated by the collaboration of Graham, Halston, and Nureyev and have had interesting conversations with teachers and colleagues about that event. Nureyev returned to the Graham company over the years performing Phaedra’s Dream in 1984 and the preacher in Appalachian Spring (with Baryshnikov) in 1987.
This book is also a reminder of Nureyev’s greatness not only as a dancer, but as a creative mind. Nureyev’s artistic direction of the Paris Opera in the 1980’s revealed his many talents as an artistic director, rehearsal director, and choreographer. Particularly of interest is his 1986 staging of Cinderella in 1930’s Hollywood. Perpetual Motion is a great balance of historical facts and dishy anecdotes that spark a renewed interest in Nureyev’s life and work.
Modern Bodies: Dance and American Modernism from Martha Graham to Alvin Ailey
Julia L. Foulkes
Julia Foulkes writes one of the best cultural studies on American modern dance I have recently read. She diligently researches and lays out how the modern dance movement was distinct from other artistic genres through the groups of people it attracted: white women (many of whom were Jewish), gay men, and African American men and women. Foulkes devotes ample space to each subset and analyzes social dynamics that shaped and challenged these groups of artists. By placing modern dance at the edges of society, Foulkes illuminates systems of power and privilege in areas I hadn’t contemplated before.
One of my favorite passages contemplates the manner in which the costumes of classical ballet fragment the female body into pointe shoes, tights, tutus, and corsets while early the modern dancers preferred bare feet and single pieces of fabric that present the body as a whole. To me, this fragmenting of the female body into sections through costuming renders the ballerina objectified, paralleling the ways she is an object in many stories of the classical ballet. Foulkes formulates that in modern dance, women gain a type of subjectivity which is reflected in their choice of a costume that keeps the body in one piece, which restores a sense of physical embodiment and humanity. The early modern dancer frequently chooses the human subject or some variation such as a human thought, concept, or emotion as a thematic venture. The ballerina is frequently non-human, but rather a swan, a ghost, a fairy, or a doll. The articulation of this idea through costuming is one that is very interesting to me and one that I would like to pursue further.