Rudolf Nureyev and Erik Bruhn – Passion, Art and Rivalry

In order to bring the ballet to you for Christmas when the theatres were closed, join me and Irina Klyagin – a Russian ballet scholar who looks after Harvard University’s extensive theatre collection at the Houghton Library – to discuss the love story between two titans of the dance world, Rudolf Nureyev and Erik Bruhn...

Holly: Hello darlings and welcome back to the Christmas special of Past Loves – the weekly history podcast that explores affection, infatuation and attachment across time to bring you the lighter side of history and touch your romance to daily life. And as this is the time to spread a little joy, I thought that there was no better way to mark the festive season than with a love story that has left its mark through the ages. I’m Holly, your true romantic host and aptly named for this Christmas Special. 2020 has been a year and a half and one of the great sadnesses has been the closure of the theatres, which I know this year will mean that many of you will be having to skip the tradition of going to the ballet at Christmas. So I thought that it was only right for this special festive episode to take to the stage and discuss a great love story from the world of dance.

The thought of going to the ballet at Christmas always reminds me of when my brother bought tickets to see The Nutcracker with his then girlfriend and when he came home, all he could say to me was ‘they didn’t even talk. How was I meant to know what was happening?’ I just love the idea of him sitting through The Nutcracker, deathly bored because he couldn’t work out what was going on and for some reason, I think he was expecting them to explain the ballet. I don’t know. But that story always makes me smile. And as my brother won’t be coming home for Christmas this year from Copenhagen – actually the home of one half of the couple today – I wanted to give him a special mention, because he will be part of our festive celebrations in every way, if only in spirit and this one is his magical first experience of the ballet. I don’t think you’ll ever repeat it. 

Anyway, on to the couple for today. Little Drummer Boy drum roll, Rudolf Nureyev and Erik Bruhn. So I’m joined by the absolutely glorious Russian ballet scholar, who looks after Harvard University’s extensive theatre collection at the Houghton Library, Irina Klyagin to discuss a love story between two titans of the ballet world. They revolutionised the world of dance with their own specific ways, Rudi as the Russian fire to Erik’s Danish ice. The very famous quote by Rudi about Erik is: “he’s so cold he’s like ice, you touch it, and it burns you.” From this episode, you’ll gain an insight into how these two ballet dancers came together to create one of the most iconic periods in the history of ballet. They really are an example of opposites attract, and I love in particular, just how obsessed with meeting Erik that Rudolf was when he defected. It’s like he knew that Erik was where he needed to be. Their love story in this way really is one of the ages and the beauty of it is there is such a wealth of videos of them dancing, that you can really get a sense of what they were like on stage and what they were like together. I mean, Erik’s dance style is probably my favourite, because he’s just very majestic. But I think it’s really hard not to fall in love with Rudi. Here’s how Erik did just that with the iconic love story between Erik Bruhn, Rudolf Nureyev. 

Welcome Irina, and thank you so much for joining me today.

Irina: Very nice to be asked Holly. 

Holly: So we’re going to talk about two incredible people, Rudolf Nureyev and Erik Bruhn, and I thought we should start with Nureyev. He was born in 1938. How would you describe him as a person?

Irina: I think I would say he was a law unto himself. I think he was so unique in his approach to life. He had such a sense of his importance, either as a person or as a dancer, that he’s almost unequalled in the dance world, and probably among people in general. Yeah, it’s a very rare, it’s a very rare self-centredness and sense of personal worth.

Holly: He’s definitely a character, is perhaps the very PC way to say it. And I think that’s really clear in his dance style as well. Can you describe that a little bit more for me? 

Irina: Yes he was, certainly by training, he was a classical dancer. He definitely went far beyond the definition of classical. Although he was trained in a certain vocabulary, his ability to exaggerate without making it a caricature was unique, and he was bigger than life. He really rebelled against the restrained control that male dancing had traditionally exhibited in the 20th Century, especially in the Soviet Union. That was traditionally men were somewhat in the background and ballerina was the centre stage of production and performance. He really wanted all the attention on him, he thought he was worthy of that attention. He wanted every movement to be as big as possible. So the minute he was on stage, I think, nobody was able to look at anyone else and that’s how he wanted it.

Holly: Definitely. Almost his first audience was his rather dramatic birth, which I think you can imbue with a lot of romanticism in itself. Can you describe what happened on that fateful day in March?

Irina: Yes, you’re absolutely right. That was as dramatic entrances as probably could be. His family – his mother with his two eldest sisters – was on the train to join the father who was in the army and it was a two week train journey. She was in the last stage of her pregnancy. Nobody knows for sure he was carried to term but most likely, almost, I don’t think he was considered a premature baby. But in a way, he even used an expression that he was shaken out of his mother’s womb by the rocking of the train. So he made an appearance into the world in a little train compartment during that journey. His sisters left vivid recollections of how they you know, they were taken out of the compartment and didn’t know what was going on and then suddenly were introduced to their little brother. And because the family, they were Tartars and his father really wanted a son, his wife actually deceived him once having given birth to a girl, she actually sent a telegram to him that it was a boy because she knew how much a boy was wanted. So when he received a second telegram that boy was born, he didn’t believe it. 

Holly: No, it was like the boy who cried wolf.

Irina: So yes, they were travelling to the Far East, to the actually to the Far East region of Russia and to Ufa, which is a city in the Urals, very close. That’s how he always remembered himself as a somebody who was being born on a train and being a nomad essentially by birth. I think he justified his restlessness and his desire to move around by that very dramatic event at the beginning of his life.

Holly: Absolutely. I mean, there is like this romanticism about it, but blimey, that must have been hard work for his poor mother.

Irina: I have no doubt that it was. She was very lucky that it was a lucky and uncomplicated so she had a healthy baby.

Holly: Absolutely. And it must have been quite a hard life for him in his childhood.

Irina: Very. The family was very poor, only his father had a job and, you know, nobody in the Soviet Union was paid really that much. His father was a security guard at a military facility. He had two sisters and he had hand-me-down clothes that were actually girls clothes and his mother would alter things for him but he remembered wearing dresses, which was actually about half a century previously a fashion for children to be dressed as girls but no longer in the 1930s in the Soviet Union, and he didn’t have his own pair of shoes and sometimes they had to alternate wearing shoes to be outside. They very small 16 square metres room for the whole family. Although being a boy, he was really the centre of all the female attention and his mother was very proud of him. But at the same time, he felt not necessarily stigma of being so poor because many families around were also as poor. But nonetheless, he felt like he was lacking many things and he, he became very rebellious and quite wild as a sense of protection. Many children do that, I guess.

Holly: I guess that’s true. I mean, I think you can see his personality starting to come through.

Irina: Yes. One of his vivid recollections was about being carried on his mother’s back to school because he had only one good pair of shoes, and it was so muddy outside that she couldn’t risk him muddying them for school.

Holly: Oh, because his mother was also very pivotal in his entrance into the world of ballet. What’s the story there?

Irina: Somewhat unwittingly – and it’s probably a feature of many famous dancers’ biography – but when he was seven, his mother managed to acquire a one single ticket for the New Year’s Eve performance of The Song of the Crane – a ballet based on the national Bashkirian…well it’s a fairy tale, an legend. But using that single ticket, she somehow managed to sneak her whole family into the performance, you know that that’s happened many times. And, you know, you know, someone who works in theatre, so they wait for an opportune moment and sneak you in. That was, as he claimed later, when he saw what was going on stage. The song of the crane was sometimes called the Swan Lake of the Bashkiria. So it was the one of the most important performances for the company based on the national epic. And there and then he knew that that’s what he wanted to do for the rest of his life. Many, many children probably think that after their first encounter, but he’s the one who followed up on that dream. Also, his eldest sister was taking dance lessons in the local children’s club, and he remembered, you know, putting the costumes that she brought home on the bed and looking at them and straightening them and caressing them. The silkiness of the fabric was very dear to him and dreaming about being in the beautiful world of glitter and fairy tales and magical possibilities. And from then on, he was taken to a dance studio where he had encountered his first teacher who saw something special in him. 

Holly: Who was that?

Irina: It was Anna Udaltsova who was a dancer from St. Petersburg, who with her husband, who was exiled and found herself in the Urals, in Bashkiria, and really devoted a lot of time to him and told him stories and made him really passionate about his talent and ability. And she was instrumental in him deciding to study dance seriously.

Holly: Yeah, because to do that he needed to go to Leningrad as it was at the time. So what happened when he went there?

Irina: He did go there as a teenager, which was much, much later than most children entered the school – that’s usually between the ages of 8, 9 or 10 that you start studying. He was 15 going on 16 and he looked awkward. He was very conscious of being a provincial, a very, that is definitely stigma in the Soviet Union. There is Moscow and Leningrad and everything is a province.

Holly:…and everything else.

Irina: …and everything else. Yes. But he was certainly undertrained. But he was physically very powerful and he was very lucky to be noticed and taken under his wing by the one of the greatest teachers of the time, Alexander Pushkin, the man of the same name as the greatest Russian poet of the 19th Century. He was also a great teacher, and from the very beginning, Nureyev decided that he is a loner or he’s not going to learn all the ways, he’s there to dance and he is not going to take anything that he doesn’t like. His temper was wild and it was Alexander Pushkin, who was sometimes able to control his outbursts and he would tell him go and do pirouettes, it will calm you down. He quarrelled with almost every teacher and it was mainly thanks to Alexander Pushkin that he was never punished too severely or was not expelled.

The White Crow (2019) dramatises Nureyev’s life

Holly: Yeah, he’s one of those extremely formative teachers who they’re the ones who paved the way for his future

Irina: He also really managed to bring to the fore everything that was Nureyev’s strength and complete his training and show him how to work on his witnesses and how to fill in the gaps in his training.

Holly: So he made this name for himself as a very bright star in the Soviet Union. And in the spring of 1961, they went on tour to Paris and London and this is how Rudolf ended up defecting to the West. Can you join those dots together for me please?

Irina: These are the two dots that are so extremely important to join, because that was unheard of. There were in the history of the Soviet Union, certainly political defectors and those stories were never made public. They always happened in the background and we actually learned about them only much later. But it was unheard of for a member of a dance company or theatre company, even to dream of defecting. Apparently, as it turned out, Nureyev had had that thought before he even discussed it with his friends, ‘what would they think if he stayed in the West?’ Most of them were horrified, and no one took him seriously. But on that particular tour in Paris, Nureyev was so hungry for new experiences, for meeting people, both old Russian immigrants and Parisians and other people. Every company, every Soviet company on tour, had members of the KGB assigned to them as sort of watchdogs and they were all followed and watched. They were supposed to ask permission for every outing after the performance that was not scheduled as a group activity. Nureyev never did that and he actually threw all the rules to the wind. He did what he wanted. His friends would take him to bars, restaurants, nightclubs, he would attend performances that he was not supposed to see. He was meeting friends of his new friends. He was he really was misbehaving terribly.

Holly: Having a fabulous time.

Irina: His behaviour resulted that when the company was gathering at the airport for the next leg of their international tour, he was taken aside by a KGB officer and told that he’s urgently needed in the Kremlin for a special performance in front of a foreign guest and everybody knew, including Nureyev, that that was the end, that he is not only not continuing on the journey. Chances are he would never be permitted to go abroad again, and quite possibly, he would actually be sent to some provincial company and expelled from there. So he panicked, but had presence enough to make a call to his Parisian friend who arrived at the airport rushed to the airport against the time and met Nureyev of at the bar of the two KGB officers sitting next to him and hugging him and pretending to give him a very warm farewell whispered that there were two police officers standing nearby and all he had to do was to walk the few steps and claim that he would like to ask for political asylum. And that’s what Nureyev did. I don’t know what he felt inside. But he did it. There was a fight when the KGB officers were trying to physically tear him away from the police officers and maybe that’s what helped the police officers to take it seriously. And that was it.

Holly: I mean, honestly, it’s kind of like mythical that moment, is just so so significant.

Irina: Significant for his life, significant for the life of the company, because the director of the company, the artistic director of the Kirov ballet, and many of the fellow dancers actually suffered drastically, they were not allowed to go abroad after that. Opinion, of course, for the Soviet Union, he was a traitor. He was actually sentenced and the sentence actually stayed with him – a jail sentence – until he came back in the late 1980s and it was only cancelled shortly before his arrival, because it was never revoked. But that was understandable. But not everyone in the West actually greeted him and were really approved of his defection, because also several critics in the West felt that he had betrayed his own company that trained him. For many people, it was very difficult. It was impossible to envision what kind of environment he experienced, and how confining he found the company and the the roles that was that were given to him. You can’t imagine what life is like in a foreign country. 

Holly: Especially at the time when it was the cold war

Irina: Both countries (France, England) the Soviet Union, it was really a completely mysterious world for the West. But it is interesting that the sentiment that the sentiment that the Soviet Union is evil wasn’t really altogether there yet. So not everyone thought that what he did was a heroic act or a leap for freedom

Holly: Because one of the things he said he wanted to do after he defected was to study with Erik Bruhn. 

Irina: He actually used, sorry to interrupt, but he used a rather more vulgar expression? But really, he did.

Holly: And why was he so seemingly obsessed with meeting Erik?

Irina: Erik Bruhn, by that time – he was almost 10 years old – in the West, he’s an already established dancer, and we will talk about him more in a minute. But what’s interesting, he was considered one of the purest classical dancers of his time. His teacher Alexander Pushkin had access to foreign magazines, and he showed Rudi photographs of Erik Bruhn and mentioned him as a very accomplished dancer with a clean technique. And also in the season of 1956/1960, the American Ballet Theatre was where Erik Bruhn at the time was performing, came to Russia and performed at The Bolshoi. Nureyev actually was present at one of the performances given to welcome the company by The Bolshoi theatre. He was in the same auditorium as Erik Bruhn but Erik was unreachable. He couldn’t speak to him because they were all watched. But by the time that Erik was supposed to perform on stage, Nureyev was sent away on a local tour. So he didn’t have a chance to see him on stage and certainly not to speak to him. But a friend of Rudi made a secret tape filming actually of Bruhn dancing. 

Holly: That’s amazing.

Irina: I know, the things that were possible in the Soviet Union, really amazing. And when he watched it, he realised that Erik Bruhn had everything that he himself lacked, but wanted to be. So given this, what his teacher told him or what he saw was his own eyes, he said that ‘if I go ever go there, I will find him and study with him.’ Also, he knew that Erik Bruhn at the time was already studying with a wonderful Russian teacher,  Vera Volkova, who studied at St. Petersburg and then Leningrad but then stayed in the first in Shanghai and then moved to London, and just started teaching at the Danish Royal Ballet five years previously. So he wanted both Erik Bruhn and  Vera Volkova.

Holly: So how did they finally ended up meeting?

Irina: That’s also an interesting story. I’ve heard it told by several journalists that Rudolf Nureyev just showed up one day at the door of Erik Bruhn’s apartment, rang the bell. Erik opened the door…

Holly: Yeah that’s what I’ve heard as well.

Irina: But that’s not exactly true. What happened is that Maria Tallchief, who was a partner of Erik Bruhn’s, they danced together in New York, and they were supposed to dance together again in Copenhagen. Their partnership was very complicated, it was very productive artistically. Their relationships apparently were much went much deeper than just partnership. But there was also a lot of trouble. They quarrelled. At one point, Maria Tallchief actually said to Erik Bruhn: ‘there’s this young Russian who’s just defected, and I’m going and find him and he will be my partner.’ So that was a very interesting prelude to what happens. So Maria Tallchief did go to London and did meet Rudolf and to brought him to Copenhagen and they met at a bar with Erik Bruhn in the Hotel d’Angleterre and it was a very awkward meeting, because it was the first meeting of Maria and Erik after their quarrel, and they were desperately trying to put that aside, and actually Erik remembered behaving rather unnaturally. And Rudolf, remembered hating Erik for his laugh, because that’s what Erik was all the time, but that was the first introduction. And after that, Rudolf came to class, and from that minute on, it was just a new beginning for both of them. It was the beginning of a new story, and a new chapter in both lives. 

Holly: How did Erik respond to this new very intense situation?

Irina: At the time Erik Bruhn was at the height of his career. He was, if you know, ballet critics are very fond of using word ‘God’ describing male dances. But he was really a Danish ballet god. 

Holly: Yeah, I love watching him.

Irina: Yes, he was really unique in every respect. He was incredibly physically gifted. He was a great actor and he personally for himself thought that he had achieved almost everything he was capable of, and he didn’t see any rivals around him. And then suddenly, there appears this young, Russian lion, physically, perfectly built, powerful, passionate, is also looking up at Erik. But Erik actually confessed very shortly after meeting Rudi, that if they were the same age, he would have hated having Rudolf around.

Holly: Too much competition

Irina: Too much competition but it provoked something in Erik. They started learning off each other. Erik Bruhn was the embodiment of the Danish Bournonville school, which is very controlled. The emphasis is on lightness. Erik Bruhn himself said that: ‘it’s considered the Danish dancers do not jump very high, but they seem like never really touch the ground.’ There is this very special quality because of the training, they concentrate the training concentrates on feet and ankles. And with Russian dancers, they have this tremendous elevation there, maybe they make every jump very visible, that you can see the effort, but then they go very high. So this is something that was so contrasting for the two of them that each of them started to try trying to imitate each other.

Holly: Yeah. In a documentary that I watched, someone said that ‘talent attracts talent’ and I always thought that that was a very nice way of putting what it was like for those two together.

Irina: Talent sometimes actually antagonises talent. 

Holly: Well, true.

Irina: There was both. They really inspired each other. 

Holly: So I think we should talk a little bit about Erik, just so that we can set the scene of him as well. So as you mentioned, he was 10 years older, so he was born in 1928 and he to me seems quite different in terms of personality to Rudi, how would you describe him?

Irina: I’d say that, yes and also, no. It is very interesting that very much like Nureyev, Erik’s upbringing, and his family had nothing to do with art or culture. He was a son of his mother was an owner of a hairdressing salon. His father was actually a former engineer. Interestingly enough, when he was a young engineer, he worked in Russia shortly before the 1917 Revolution and he got married in Russia. His with his wife was the young Polish woman. They escaped Russia in 1917 and they stayed married for quite some time, but then eventually they parted their ways because of the differences. But his father was a very handsome man. Apparently, Erik took after his father’s looks, but somewhat, he found very difficult to find himself. His wife mainly supported him. Erik had three sisters, and a very powerful, strong-willed mother, he felt slightly overwhelmed by the female presence in his family, and he was a very aloof child, even to the point that when he started school, he was so silent and unresponsive, but he certainly was not. It was just something in his family life made him withdraw into himself. To bring him out a little bit, his mother decided to take him to a dance school and in the very few first lessons, it became obvious that physically, he’s perfectly built and naturally gifted for dance movements, to the complete astonishment of himself and everyone else. But he quite enjoyed the physicality of what he was doing. But he was a stone faced boy, he was considered someone who had no acting ability – perhaps not even someone who could feel anything, just a little dancing machine. So that was his very strange beginning and what is very interesting about the difference in their makeup when Rudolf Nureyev realised that he had a talent that became such a powerful force for him and he considered his talent his ticket to the world. He wanted to be in the centre of the world. When Erik Bruhn realised that he had a special talent, it intimidated him to the extent that he thought that he could not cope with it. He felt that the responsibility was overwhelming and tremendous and I think this is one of the major differences between the two. But what I found, although Erik outwardly was he looked extremely novel.

Holly: Yes he did, very aristocratic. 

Irina: Very aristocratic which apparently came from his father who wasn’t an aristocrat, but these genes made him look like that. He was naturally graceful. He had this chiselled beautiful face. He was very controlled and very quiet, never loud and never, never made an ugly gesture and there was a natural grace to everything he did very different from Nureyev. Nureyev’s grace was very animalistic and spontaneous. He likes sudden movements and powerful leaps, but at the same time, apparently, Erik Bruhn was quite rebellious at school. I think that this inability, his inability to express himself and allow himself to show his feelings led to real outbursts, and he was fighting his teachers and he was yelling. So that surprised me deeply because I thought he was just a perfectly harmonious human being. He wasn’t, that harmony came at a price. Yeah, so there was a similar passion for being in control in both of them. I think they expressed it very differently and they certainly understood that talents and their responsibilities very differently.

Holly: So he started dancing, Erik started dancing, at Copenhagen’s Royal Opera House when he was 18. But a really significant moment in his career is what is referred to as the matinee that made history. What is the matinee that made history?

Irina: That is a very interesting story. It’s a very catchy title. 

Holly: It is.

Irina: As a very young dancer, Erik actually requested a leave of absence from the company, which is a very unusual thing to do for the Royal Danish Ballet. But he felt like he wanted more. He had a chance on summer vacation in Europe to see ballets, repertories different from the Danish companies, Bournonville dancers. He suddenly realised that he needs different training and different experiences and, through a series of meetings, he met somebody who was very happy to engage him for the American Ballet Theatre. So very early in his career had a chance unlike many other Danish dancers to dance, not only in his home company, but in the West in London and in America. In 1955, when he was already a soloist, second soloist with American Ballet Theatre (which is not really such a high position, but still he was dancing solo roles), he was picked up as a partner for Alicia Markova, a famous ballerina who started with Diaghilev as a baby ballerina, a very young girl. She was looked upon as a sort of the second incarnation of Anna Pavlova by her likeness and perfect technique and poetic, romantic style. She had a partnership with Anton Dolan, also a former dancer of the Diaghilev Ballet Ruse, and by 1955 Dolan had stopped dancing, but she was still performing and she picked up Erik as her partner for Giselle. Erik never danced Albrecht before. They had very few rehearsals. There’s a wonderful story about their first rehearsal where he was supposed to do his first lift and lifting Alicia Markova as Giselle – and it’s interesting to note that Bournonville Dancing repertory does not include lifts. 

Holly: Oh okay.

Irina: It’s not something that they do especially in the traditional Bournonville original ballets. So that requires a completely different training of the strength of the back, there’s a huge strain for the knees and, and also Alicia Markova – this is a little bit gossipy, but Alicia Markova being extremely light and very slight, never helped her partners to lift her. She had a reputation of only around 90 pounds, at the same time, heavy as a stone. And so to his complete horror, when she said ‘now lift’, he tried and he couldn’t lift her. 

Holly: That must have come as such a shock

Irina: That’s it. ‘I really, I don’t know, I should stop dancing. I could not do that.’ But you know, then they tried again, and she know there was a certain preparation that she did that he missed the first time and it did work out but they had only a few days. So at the same time, there was another conflict in the background because the director of the ABT company Lucia Chase didn’t want to promote him and actually threatened him that if he keeps insisting on being prompted, he wouldn’t dance on Albrecht was Alicia Markova. So it was a really very tumultuous week, even slightly less than a week that he was trying to rehearse this very complex role and also is uncertain about his future, and is very, very subconscious about dancing with the Alicia Markova. But in the end, it all works out and he performs his first Albrecht, and at the end of the performance, there’s an explosion of applause. The reviews that come out the next day are absolutely astonishing. They astonished him. He really couldn’t believe that it was happening. “The Matinee That Made History” was the title of answer written by PW Manchester wonderful British critic and then she said that “there’s this new God” – here it comes. She claimed that not only his technique was flawless, he also his acting was deep and moving and profound, something that was really he was really praised for.

Holly: Yeah, he’d found that emotion.

Irina: Yes. Also another extremely touching thing – because he’s arrived, he’s definitely arrived – he was a well known dancer whose style was considered very pure. He was considered very talented, but he was a star. Yeah. And Clive Barnes wrote that ‘it was a very touching moment, watching how the greatest Giselle of today [and Alicia Markova was certainly considered the greatest Giselle of her time] was handing over a sacred trust to the Albrecht of tomorrow.’ I thought it was a wonderful thing to say.

Holly: That is!

Irina: So that made him one of the most important male dancers of his generation.

Holly: So I think we should return to putting them back together, Erik and Rudolf, what was it like in the early days of that relationship?

Irina: From what both of them…Rudolf Nureyev was much more eloquent on their relationship and how they met than Erik Bruhn who was a rather reserved person…apparently, Nureyev was half prepared to fall in love with Erik from what he saw of him as a dancer. He deeply deeply, truly profound fell in love is Erik when he met him, he was absolutely blown away. It was the first seriously deep attachment of his life. Erik Bruhn was also tremendously impressed. For Erik, it was also deep love. Both of them being so unique in their physical gifts, in their passion for their art. There are several wonderful shots of them taking classes together and you can see the two of them side by side, extremely different, but also both so precise, and perfect in their movements, especially when they make the same movement, you can see what they both said that they would do the same movement, and they see both how similar and how different they are and they would learn off each other. So the combination of their personal passion, of their passion for their art, and their deep understanding of their, you know, they had a world together. It is very rare in any relationship when the physical comes together with spiritual, emotional and professional. So it was initially for both of them, it was perfect. It was becoming overwhelming very quickly. But even that initial feeling of the enormity they’ve both enjoyed tremendously.

Holly: Yeah. Didn’t they live with Erik’s mother for a little bit?

Irina: They did it is very difficult to understand…well, people will never really that naïve, I think his mother quite understood what was going on. Erik wrote that his mother never liked Rudolf and that he disliked his mother tremendously, that it was, you know, hate at the first sight. But not much was said, or it wasn’t talked about that he was just staying with Erik’s family when they when they live together in London and again, even in the first biography of Erik Bruhn, John Gruen writes about the partnership but he makes it so neutral that I don’t think any inexperienced reader would not reader anything into it except for their dancing, partnership, learning of each other and being passionate friends who care for each other deeply. So not I don’t think it was really that much talked about.

Holly: Yeah and you kind of have to think of the cultural situation at the time and you know – there’s a quietness to it.

Irina: In the dance world, in the theatre world, in their artistic circles, it was always an open secret. But the previously it was a punishable offence. It was still, the social perception of such relationships was still very complicated and nobody talked about it open. In general, I think people talked less about their sexual practices and personal relationships than we do now. 

Holly: Yeah, that’s fair enough.

Irina: Yes. So it was not a scandal in any way.

Holly: No, no. Do you think it was a relationship of equals between them considering these sort of similarities and differences and the push and pull between them?

Irina: I’ve thought a lot about that and I might be wrong but I don’t think that love relationships, especially such passionate ones, is ever a relationship of equals frankly. Whether we want it or not there is always the leader..

Holly: yeah the more dominate one

Irina: There is always someone who makes more demands. There is always someone who resents. It’s the nature. Harmony is very rare. They were equals as human beings certainly. They were equals in their talent, in their passion, in their devotion to their art and they were not equals because they were very different. You know there is a wonderful line that every Russian knows from Alexander Pushkin’s Eugene Onegin, the novel in verse, in Russian it says: ‘Волна и камень, лед и пламень. Не столь различны меж собой.’ It’s that ‘no two people who were less the same, like water and stone, ice and flame’ and I think that was the story of Erik and Rudi – no two people were less the same. That difference brought them together because they fed off each other, until they stopped doing that because it was too much.

Holly: Yeah it was definitely a very passionate relationship, I think some of the letters that Rudolf sent were very very passionate and you can just feel that kind of intensity between them.

Irina: Yes it was. For Erik, that emotional intensity was always difficult because he was such a reserved person. Also he was a person who didn’t like to spend that much time around other people. He was extremely happy just to be with Rudi together, resting, talking, practising. Rudi was insatiable for people. He really became very restless if he was in one place. He couldn’t be alone. He had to be out after a performance with people, you know, celebrating, eating, laughing. He was sexually insatiable and that was so different for both of them that they stopped understanding each other. 

Holly: We know who would have faired better in lockdown let’s put it that way.  

Irina: Yes, we’ve had our taste of that.

Holly: So how did they deal with both having careers as these international ballet stars?

Irina: At first they taught each other a lot. For instance, Erik trained Rudi for the role of Franz in Coppelia. Rudolf, even when he was performing in other places, would fly to watch Erik dance in La Sylphide because Erik became one of the best performers of James, of the role of James. He started actually, his first performance was a complete disaster and then after that he spent a lot of time studying and learning and absorbing and watching and it became one of his favourite roles. So whenever Rudi had a chance, he would fly to watch how Erik performed that role. They were even performing side-by-side occasionally. But gradually their different engagements…very shorting after meeting Erik Bruhn, Rudolf was introduced to Margot Fonteyn which was another extremely important partnership in his whole career. Friendship with Margot Fonteyn was very important to him as well. So that had taken Rudi away from Erik and he became a member of the Royal Ballet and partner of Margot Fonteyn. He had revived her career because she was on the verge of retiring. So life was taking them apart. They never truly quarrelled or never officially ended anything but as it happens, having tremendous love for each other, they found that life has taken them in different directions.

Holly: I also think, with Rudi becoming this…he broke out of the world of ballet which was quite remarkable in his time and that must have been a complicated thing to traverse between the two of them with one of them becoming an absolute star.

Irina: Yes, they were both credited with giving the male dancing, the importance that it had acquired in the 20th Century because in the history of ballet it’s been like a seesaw all the time whether a male or female dancer is more important. The romantic period that started in the mid-19th Century and lasted for a very long time until the early 20th Century, where the ballerina was the centre of the ballet world. Actually this is the tradition that Balanchine had inherited and developed in his company. It was Vaslav Nijinsky who first showed that a male dancer could be as exciting as a female dancer. But it took almost another 30 years for Erik Bruhn in the West and for Rudolf Nureyev first in the Soviet Union and then again in the West, to show how exciting and important male dancing could be. And for several decades, they were more important than any ballerinas in any other company. So they were equals and then there was of course the rivalry and they excited such passions in each other that at one time, when there were performing together that Rudolf felt like, literally Erik when he lifted his stick he said ‘I was afraid for my life.’ There was such passion. They really loved and hated each other.

Holly: Yeah because their intimate relationship didn’t last particularly long but that intense sort of admiration and affection for each other was something that lasted a lifetime and they took to the stage together again in 1975, which is later on after their sexual relationship, and I wondered if you could tell us what happened, how that came about?

Irina: That came about because their careers had taken completely different tracks so Erik was certainly for a long time was the leading dancer of the Royal Danish Ballet but he performed for many years with the American Ballet Theatre and other companies. As I have said, he was 10 years older and so by 1960s/1970s he suffered. He had several ulcers. He was a very heavy smoker. So he physically started feeling much weaker and when he had surgery for an ulcer, he stopped dancing for a while and he decided that he would completely stop dancing classical roles and would only perform character roles where he astonished in that repertory many of his critics – he was, as I mentioned, although he was a gifted actor, he was still considered a much better technician.

Holly: Yeah it’s such a transition.

Irina: It was an amazing transition. He also made himself physically unrecognisable for every role . He changed his plastique. He was really an extremely gifted artist and then by that time, after his surgery and recovery, he was will the National Ballet of Canada as Artistic Director. Rudolf Nureyev was for many years with the Royal English Ballet but then, he was so hungry to be on stage, he would certainly never put up with other dancers not only upstaging but even competing with him. So, when there was a next generation of younger dancers who were given chances to dance, he started moving around and taking engagements and it was many other different companies. In the 1970s, he was with the New York City Ballet. It was one of his dreams to work with Balanchine and he got his dream. Although it was not one of his major works that Balanchine made for him nonetheless. So they both happened to be in New York City in the summer of 1975, Erik Bruhn with the National Ballet of Canada and Nureyev with Balanchine. So they were just performing next to each other and then, one day, they appeared together in Coppelia. Rudolf Nureyev as Franz, the protagonist of the ballet, which Erik had trained him for many years before and Erik Bruhn himself as Dr. Coppelia, the magician who created the doll with whom he is half in love and Franz is going to take that girl away from him.  So the tension between the two of them was palpable on stage. Again Nureyev said that he almost felt the hatred that he felt was way too real, not really artistic and Erik Bruhn was also overwhelmed by seeing his former lover and rival and a younger contemporary – his dancing rival. But the performance was electrifying and they were so full of feeling that, when the curtain fell, they actually spontaneously hugged each other on stage and everyone around was almost in tears seeing their reunion.

Holly: I bet!

Irina: Because to everyone’s delight and relief that tension on stage resulted in their just coming together for a few minutes again.

Holly: They came together again, 11 years later, for a much sadder reason. So what happened in 1986?

Irina: In 1986, when Nureyev was actually director of the Paris Opera Ballet and was going through a very rough spot when he spent too little time with the company and was, as useful, very wild and volatile and quite rude to many of the company’s teachers and performers. There was a movement starting to oust him and there was a television interview and a scandal and a lot of movement. So it was personally a very very tense moment for Nureyev. Also, in 1984, he discovered that he had AIDS. It was not made public but he himself knew it and he was, not so much in denial, but full of hope. He said they’ve learnt how to cure so many terminal illnesses, I’m sure that they will find something for that. So he wasn’t feeling ill yet, but he knew he had that very tragic diagnosis. He got a telegram that Erik Bruhn was dying of cancer. Erik Bruhn was a tremendously heavy smoker, he smoked about three packs of cigarettes a day, watched actually many dancers doing the same in the 1980s/1990s.

Holly: Oh my gosh

Irina: Right? And he started feeling rather ill a year before. His friend, a doctor, said ‘you should stop smoking’ but Erik just laughed and never did. In 1986, he was diagnosed with the last stage of lung cancer and unlike Rudolf who was not going to succumb to illness and was absolutely certain that he will be cured, Erik had a completely different relationship with death and the idea of dying – although bothered him of course and he considered it a mystery, he always said that he will go very fast and somehow he just gave in. He had a boyfriend who lived with him. It was a long term relationship. But he certainly wanted to see Rudi and asked for him continuously, and because Rudolf was tied up in that ongoing investigation, he couldn’t arrive right away. But he did. By the time he arrived at the hospital, Erik was drifting in and out of consciousness. He was on heavy narcotics. He really didn’t say much and he was visibly half in a different world. Nureyev was tremendously upset. He spent only fifteen minutes in the room. That was in Toronto and he rushed to the National Ballet of Canada to class to rehearse and work out the stress and didn’t say anything. For many people, it was a sign of his coldness but I don’t think it was that at all. He was shocked, deeply saddened. There was no connection so it’s  not like he could talk to Erik or get any response from him. He went back and said that he was certain that Erik didn’t know that he was there but in his despair and his last goodbye, all I could do was to get into bed and to hug him and hold him. So I think it’s very moving.

Holly: It is. I think with the whole going to class thing, sometimes you seek comfort and for Rudi, being in class and dancing was a comfort.

Irina: Right. It sort of reminds me of what his teacher told him when he was young: ‘go and do some pirouettes, work the stress off. It will relax you’ and what else, I think it was a very fitting tribute to who Erik was, his life was dance. Their life together was dance and ballet. So Erik died very shortly after that and Nureyev didn’t make any mention of it. He just said about it after a performance to a friend of his. Being very private and reserved, Erik didn’t want a huge funeral. He didn’t a huge tribute. He wanted to be cremated. There were only family and very close friends present so even in that there was a tremendous difference to who Rudi was because his funeral, as you know, was very lavish and grand and it happened not so long after.

Holly: What were those last six years like for Rudi?

Irina: His illness was catching up with him. He was definitely loosing his form. Several friends who were quite frank with him, told him he should stop dancing. But he would. He certainly wasn’t performing with first rate companies because he wasn’t in the form. He would pick a company or a country without a first-rate ballet company or very little dancing was ever seen so there wouldn’t be much comparison. But there was one embarrassing performance after which the audience was screaming ‘refund, refund.’ I actually saw a videotape when I worked at the dance collection in New York of Rudolf Nureyev dancing with Alicia Alonso who was almost a lifetime older and blind and she danced better than he did. So it was one of the most heart-breaking experiences I’ve had. It was before the YouTube and the internet so it was really something that you could only watch at that place because also you needed permission to watch it, but I worked there so I had access to it. So he was falling apart physically and not recognising it. He was grasping at straws. He had a tour of The King and I. He also conducted.

Holly: Yes, I love that pivot.

Irina: Yes that’s interesting as someone who didn’t really have a real background in music, music education. But he was such a talented person that almost everything he did was marked by some special quality. So goodness knows he might have even grown up into a decent ballet conductor. It’s impossible to guess. But, he suffered a lot. Unlike Erik, he was grasping at life. He was desperately new and different treatments but he never gave up physically until the very end. There’s even a known fact that he once danced on stage with a catheter inserted because he physically wasn’t capable.

Holly: He just needed to be on stage.

Irina: He needed to be on stage. That’s true and that was something that people praised him for and criticised him for that he was so hungry to be on stage that no consideration would stop him. He even stopped caring about how he looked, the quality of his dancing didn’t matter to him any more, what mattered much more was that he was still there and that was another difference between Bruhn and Nureyev because Erik Bruhn would have allowed himself to be seen in such a condition and to be seen performing so badly, not because of his vanity but because of his respect for his art. There’s a very interesting quote by Bournonville that I think was sort of a credo for Erik Bruhn. Bournonville said that ‘the real master will never show any effort that goes into the movement.’ That it’s only when you can do that that you’re a true artist and I think this is what Erik was very very conscious of and it was something that he lived by and Nureyev lived by completely different rules.

Holly: What do you think is the legacy that they’ve left behind?

Irina: Each of them left a different legacy as dancers. I love the opening of John Gruen’s biography of Erik Bruhn that was written whilst he was still alive. He says: ‘there is good dancing, there is great dancing and then there is Erik Bruhn.’ And for Nureyev, you can say that there’s ballet and there’s Rudolf Nureyev. So one thig that’s similar is they’re both unique. Erik became the epitome of professionalism, the line, the ease of movements. His physical gifts were so unique and he made the best of them. He was intimidated initially when he realised how special he was, and he said that that fear had never left him, but that that fear made him work so hard to respect his art. Nureyev – one of the reasons that people that have not seen him on stage cannot understand why he was such a good dancer, because he wasn’t such a clean dancer and he wasn’t such a professionally trained dancer, but there was something about his stage presence that completely changed people who saw him on stage and this is one of the most intangible, ineffable things that an actor or performer can have. He had it in dancing. He made the best of what was given to him but in such a self-centred way in oppose to Erik who served his art. So they’re like the two sides of the coin, that’s their legacy. Their legacy is also that they’ve changed the course of male dancing for the 20th Century. So, before both of them, male dancers were partners in the 20th Century. They were there to lift their ballerinas, to serve as a background to them. They physically looked much heavier, much less developed. Most of them didn’t care much about turn out, point their feet so the look was almost athletic, not balletic and both Erik and Rudolf changed that and they’ve changed how male dancers looked at their bodies and looked at their role and the range of possibilities that ballet gives them. Their legacy as a couple is extremely complicated as any couple. They did not stay together long. Certainly their love for each other was centre of their emotional life for a long time, even after they’d parted ways. There are letter that show that they, both of them, were extremely important for each other. So unlike so many relationships that Nureyev had in his life, and he was probably the most…we won’t even go into that 

Holly: He was prolific

Irina: Yes, he had a very special attitude to sex but what he had with Erik was not just a sexual relationship. That was his true love. That was the only time in his life when he experienced when he became part of another human being and that overwhelmed him and in the end turned out to be too much for his self-centredness and his sense of himself. So it’s as any love story teaches you that there’s sacrifice that not everyone is ready to make. There’s this joyful celebration of this other person. There is disappointment. There is heartbreak. It’s a complete experience

Holly: It absolutely is

Irina:…and they both were richer for it.

Holly: I think that’s the perfect place to end. Thank you so much for talking to me, you don’t know how much I’ve enjoyed this.

Irina: Thank you so much I’ve enjoyed it as well

Holly: And I guess all there is to say is merry Christmas

Irina: Merry Christmas and freedom next year

Holly: yes 2021!

Irina: Yes and when it is different do come to Houghton. We have wonderful materials. Our library is open to everyone.

Holly: And thank you for listening. It was such a pleasure talking to Irina, she was so knowledgeable and it was an absolute dream to journey into the world of ballet with her today. I think my favourite thing she mentioned was the way in which Erik and Rudi learnt from each other, embracing the art of ballet at the heart of their relationship.

So yes thank you Irina. If you would like to delve deeper into the love story between Rudolf and Erik, I would suggest watching their episode of the tv series Artists in Love – it’s the 7th episode of the series which I mean, if you are a love stories in history *cough cough*, it is a really wonderful watch. I think it’s an older series, may be a few years old, but it is on NowTV [in the UK]. I’ll put a link to to the show in the notes, along with a couple of links to biographies that you might also be interested in.

If you have enjoyed this episode please rate review and subscribe to the podcast wherever you are listening to it now. This means that more fellow romantics can find the podcast and selfishly it means an awful lot to me – it would be the perfect Christmas present. Perhaps you could leave a comment with what your favourite episode has been so far or maybe who you’d like to hear about in season 3 when that comes at some point in 2021.

In the meantime, you can also find me over on Instagram @pastlovespodcast where you will find plenty more love stories in perfect bitesize chunks. Really if Past Loves has become your current love there is no better place to be. For now though there is really one last thing to say – I hope you have a very joyful festive season, full of light and love. Merry Christmas.

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