The Nureyev Exhibit in San Francisco

Rudolf Nureyev at his defection from Soviet Union 1961. Courtesy of

I’d waited months to see this celebrated event at the de Young Museum, and so one day shortly before it closed, I trekked over to San Francisco to view the Nureyev Exhibit. A sense of awe filled me as I walked toward the somewhat narrow opening to the exhibit, and then realized it had been designed to make one feel as if you were part of the production on stage or backstage waiting in the wings.

The entrance was marked by 4 spotlights pointing the way to the exhibit opening. Once through, I entered an almost magical world filled with some of his most opulent costumes (and those of his partners and fellow cast) marking his major ballets displayed in windows behind scrim. Along with videos set up and running of La Bayedère, Don Quixote and one in particular that caught my eye was a large screen with a continuous clip from Pierre Jordan’s 1972 film “Un danseur” (I Am a Dancer) of Nureyev in practice executing series after series of astounding jumps. Well worth the visit – one of the highlights (for me) was seeing how small Margot Fonteyn’s toe shoes really were!

Here are clips from what others had to say about the exhibit:

From  “Lots of beautiful costumes, photographs, and filmed ballet clips spanning Nureyev’s career await. Most of the exhibit is laid out in groups of costumes from various ballets, each backed by a small scrim that makes you feel like you’re walking backstage and onstage, as if wandering through several set pieces…”

And, San Francisco Classical Voice (by Janice Berman):  “Rudolf Nureyev’s career was as extraordinary as the fact that many people no longer know about it. That will likely be remedied with the de Young Museum’s new exhibit, “Rudolf Nureyev: A Life in Dance,” which opened on Saturday, displaying 80 costumes from France, primarily doublets and tutus by famous designers, that he and his partners wore, along with performance photos.

Nureyev, who leapt into view in 1961, was the first dance superstar. His fan base created the phenomenon known as Rudimania. And he had a will, or some might say a whim, of iron.

He was a dancer both gifted and driven. He danced stunningly, then competently, and finally relentlessly, well beyond the moment when he should have stopped. He professed indifference to the critics who said the world’s greatest dancer was in the process of taking it all back. “I don’t want anybody, anytime, to tell me I should go away,” he told me once. “It’s not their life. I don’t tell them to go back to Harvard to study English.”

He was a famously mercurial dance director with a detailed knowledge of the great classical ballets from Imperial Russia. He brought them to the Paris Opera Ballet, where he was artistic director from 1983 to 1989, beginning with La bayadère, which, like other works he staged, was reproduced in other classical companies around the world. He revitalized the career of Royal Ballet prima ballerina assoluta Margot Fonteyn, twice his age, whose stardom, in exchange, helped bring him international prominence. They shared an artistic and personal (how personal, nobody seems to know) partnership that lasted 17 years.

So this exhibit, like Nureyev, transcends the narrative of a life cut short. His tombstone, at Saint-Genevieve-des-Bois cemetery near Paris, was created by Ezio Frigerio, who designed Nureyev’s final production of La bayadère for the Paris Opera Ballet. It’s a mosaic rendition of an oriental carpet, its folds draped over a traveler’s trunk.”

Finally, highlights from review in the Los Angeles Times (by Liesl Bradner):  “The exhibition features photographs, videos and other ephemera, but the stars of the show are 70 exquisite costumes from the ballets Nureyev danced in and choreographed, including “Swan Lake,” “The Nutcracker” and “Romeo and Juliet.” The opulent wardrobe pieces, valued from $45,000 to $95,000, are a testament to his obsession with detail.

He was incredibly particular when it came to his costumes. He knew exactly which fabrics to use,” said curator Jill D’Alessandro. “He believed the costume needed to finish the movement, so when the dancer stops, the costume should continue to move and float, like in Ginger Rogers’ feather number in his favorite scene from ‘Top Hat.’”

Rudolf Nureyev was often quoted as saying “you live as long as you dance”…this exquisite exhibit shows us the passion by which he lived.

Brainy Quotes, Brainy Dancers

Recently I came across Brainy Quote, a website devoted to famous people and their “brainy” quotes. Looking up famous dancers, here are some of my favorites…

There is a vitality, a life force, an energy, a quickening, that is translated through you into action, and because there is only one of you in all time, this expression is unique.
Martha Graham

Great dancers are not great because of their technique, they are great because of their passion.
Martha Graham

Even though I am a professional, and I know what the steps are, I don’t quite know how I’m going to do them, because I haven’t lived that moment yet. I always feel very insecure and I get very excited.
Suzanne Farrell

I got started dancing because I knew it was one way to meet girls.
Gene Kelly

I danced with passion to spite the music.
Gelsey Kirkland

We were all novices. We really were. We didn’t know a goddamn thing about doing a show.
Jerome Robbins

To dance is to be out of yourself. Larger, more beautiful, more powerful. This is power, it is glory on earth and it is yours for the taking.
Agnes de Mille

The truest expression of a people is in its dances and its music. Bodies never lie.
Agnes de Mille

The universe lies before you on the floor, in the air, in the mysterious bodies of your dancers, in your mind. From this voyage no one returns poor or weary.
Agnes de Mille

God gives talent. Work transforms talent into genius.
Anna Pavlova

The ballet is a purely female thing; it is a woman, a garden of beautiful flowers, and man is the gardener.
George Balanchine

One is born to be a great dancer.
George Balanchine

Great artists are people who find the way to be themselves in their art. Any sort of pretension induces mediocrity in art and life alike.
Margot Fonteyn

My dance classes were open to anybody, my only stipulation was that they had to come to the class every day.
Merce Cunningham

I really reject that kind of comparison that says, Oh, he is the best. This is the second best. There is no such thing.
Mikhail Baryshnikov

The creative process is not controlled by a switch you can simply turn on or off; it’s with you all the time.
Alvin Ailey

The dancer’s body is simply the luminous manifestation of the soul.
Isadora Duncan

A pas de deux is a dialogue of love. How can there be conversation if one partner is dumb?
Rudolf Nureyev

My feet are dogs.
Rudolf Nureyev

Dance every performance as if it were your last.
Erik Bruhn

Ballet: Artistry vs. Technique

Margot Fonteyn, considered by some the greatest classical ballerina of the 20th Century, and certainly immortalized by her partnership with Rudolf Nureyev, has often been the subject of the controversy:  artistry vs. technique.

With this in mind, I found a fascinating article written on this subject by Marisa Wright, someone who worked at the Royal Academy of Dancing while Margot Fonteyn was still dancing in the 60’s and very early 70’s. Here are excerpts of her article, (which can be found in it’s entirety by clicking here.)

Was Margot Fonteyn the greatest ballerina of the 20th century? I think so. It’s a great pity current generations have no way to judge her greatness.

I say that because even though it’s well worth seeing the recordings of Fonteyn dancing, they don’t do her justice. For one thing, most recordings were made during the Nureyev years, when she was already past normal retirement age for a ballerina. For another, her great gift was her incredible charisma, which the camera doesn’t fully capture.

There’s no denying that today’s ballerinas have better technique and a much greater repertoire of tricks than Margot Fonteyn. But ask any audience after her performance, and chances are very few of them could analyze her technique. They simply knew they had seen a phenomenon.

Margot Fonteyn had such a presence you could sense her, even before you could see her. That charisma flooded over the footlights to her audience. Watching Fonteyn dance, you were simply mesmerised.

My first experience of that charisma wasn’t at a ballet performance. It was in the hall at the Royal Academy of Dancing, at a prize-giving. While the General Manager was speaking, I felt a sudden change in the air. Without prompting, everyone in the audience turned to look at the back of the room (she had arrived late).

There, quietly, Fonteyn was entering the hall. The GM motioned for her to come forward and take her place in the reserved seats. I watched her walk down the aisle. I have never seen such penetrating black eyes. It was amazing how such a tiny, unassuming person could fill the room so effortlessly!

I did see Fonteyn dance, in June 1971 at a Gala Performance arranged by Richard Buckle. Here is what I had to say about her performance:

“Fonteyn was out of this world. She wore a Romantic tutu in shimmering purple. I scarcely noticed her footwork. All I could see were those beautiful, beautiful arms, rippling and flowing, curving and extending – sheer poetry! She could have bourree’d the whole time and still captivated me with those arms.”

….”Fonteyn and Nureyev provided the grand finale [from Sleeping Beauty]. And what a finale! Her face looks so young, as they say Pavlova’s always did. Even though it was only the pas de deux, she gave a complete and convincing picture of the young, newly-in-love Princess Aurora. It was an experience.”

Giselle — then and now

50 years ago in February of 1962, in their first performance of Giselle, the partnership of Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev was born and ballet became a household name. Inspired by a beautiful tribute to that legendary partnership from The Sheila Variations, titled “We only lived when we danced”, here is a collection of famous partnerings taken from the Act II pas de deux of Giselle from the past to the present day.

“I’ve found the perfect partner.” — Margot Fonteyn

“We become one body. One soul. We moved in one way. It was very complementary, every arm movement, every head movement. There were no more cultural gaps; age difference; we’ve been absorbed in characterization. We became the part. And public was enthralled.” — Rudolf Nureyev

Margot Fonteyn and Rudolf Nureyev, Giselle February 1962


Carla Fracci and Erik Bruhn, Giselle 1969


Alessandra Ferri and Mikhail Baryshnikov, Giselle 1986


Polina Semionova and Vladimir Shklyarov, Giselle 2008


…and a video collection of still photographs from Giselle


What makes Ballet look effortless?

Ballet, to me, is the telling of a story, the emotions of it through line of the body, the movements, the gestures set to music. The controlled and contained movements give it that effortless, ethereal quality that captivates. Ballet dancers study for years to master and attain the physical abilities necessary to achieve this look and feel.

Thinking back of who some of the great Ballet stars were at the time I was growing up:  names come to mind like Rudolf Nureyev, Margot Fonteyn, Natalia Makarova, Mikhail Baryshnikov to name just a few. What was it about their dancing that lead them to fame – what were the qualities of the way they moved that gave them that effortless grace, that spontaneity of movement that also captured the emotion of the dance  – what were the physics of it in play that made it seem so effortless?

In her new book, “Apollo’s Angels:  A History of Ballet”, author Jennifer Homans describes ballet this way:  “At the origins of ballet lay two ideas:  the formal mathematical precision of the human body and the universality of human gesture”.

Perhaps one way this formal, mathematical precision of the body can be described – is that it’s the push pull movement between one end of a limb (or one end of the entire body) pushing or pulling in the opposite direction of the other end – so that the extension of this other end lengthens it into the illusion of infinity – the lengthening of that line into what’s called “extension”. And, all the while, the body is trained so that it’s strong enough to be held in place while the limbs accomplish these movements or are held still.

I asked one of my teachers, Sally Miramon, of The Alonzo King Lines Dance Center in San Francisco, to comment on this. Here’s what Sally had to say about this:

“There are many reasons for ballet dances to appear effortless and graceful. As a teacher, or choreographer, the dancer must have at least the following 5 elements:

1) Musicality – The ability to fit a dance to the music being played, by relating the dance to the music’s rhythm, melody, and mood.

2) Technical control/ training to execute movement with the proper timing and required spatial range

3) Core strength to hold the body in place from which the limbs move or are held

4) A sense of personal body lines that look best for your body type

5) Coordination within ones body and working with others.

All of the 5 comes from daily training and the ability to change and try something new. The body is constantly changing as a result of the type of training and rehearsals undertaken. Knowledge of how ones body reacts to fatigue, illness and etc., is important as it will determine what one needs to do to execute dance steps under different situations. This can only come with training and practice.”

This, I think, is a good, all-round explanation of why Ballet looks seemingly effortless. And, for those of us who’ve taken Ballet for any length of time all know — it takes time, focus, determination and dedication to achieve that look.