COMMENTARY : Nureyev Mania: The Afterlife : Last month, his possessions sold for millions; now a book reveals the dancer as sleazeball. And his legend just keeps growing.

<i> Martin Bernheimer is The Times' music and dance critic</i>

The dark legend lives. It lives with the remarkably vital ghost of Rudolf Nureyev.

Two years have passed since the world’s most famous and most flamboyant danseur lost his secret battle with AIDS at the age of 54. Now, the carefully manicured Nureyev image is cracking, after its fashion. At the same time, the Nureyev legend is growing.

Nureyev could be no mere mortal. That wasn’t his style. Admirers weren’t allowed to think of him in such prosaic terms. He insisted on being bigger than life.

Now, like it or not, he is turning before our very eyes into an immortal presence. The lore isn’t resting in peace.


Even Nureyev couldn’t stop the passage of time as a dancer, though he tried desperately, even pathetically, to do just that. When he could no longer fly through the air with the greatest of heroic ease, he flew with the greatest of pathetic effort.

Then he turned to modernist challenges, to character parts and, rather feebly, to work as a choreographer. When terpsichorean success faltered, he tried his dubious but well-publicized luck as an actor in film and musical comedy, as a conductor and finally as an impresario.

If Nureyev couldn’t stop time on the stage, he certainly attempted to stop it in his fast-moving, wide-ranging, hysterically active private life. In the process, he discovered that the lives of personages of his stature really can’t be private at all.

He wasn’t particularly adept at escaping the scrutiny of a fickle world--a world that was perpetually curious, often adoring, sometimes cynical, occasionally skeptical, ultimately fascinated. Deep down in his heart of hearts, he probably didn’t want to avoid the public gaze. He knew that his on-going affirmation depended on sharing his persona with the fans.

Now, in death, Nureyev is becoming bigger than life at last. Two recent manifestations of Rudimania in excelsis prove the morbid point.


Back in January, sophisticated New Yorkers were agog with excitement as only sophisticated New Yorkers can be. They were being permitted a posthumous glimpse into a facsimile of Nureyev’s home.

The home in question, a huge apartment in the landmark Dakota building on Central Park West, happened to be just one of Nureyev’s numerous properties. Having grown up in Bakshir poverty, he spent his adulthood dwelling, when the calendar and spirit moved him, in Paris; in La Turbie in the south of France; on a group of islands close to Naples; in London; in Leesburg, Va., and in St. Barth, as well as New York.


The glimpse afforded New Yorkers came in the form of an auction of Nureyev’s belongings from the Dakota apartment. Christie’s, a distinguished firm befitting a man of Nureyev’s distinction, managed the disposition of much Nureyev property: costumes, memorabilia, paintings, furniture, textiles, prints, sculpture and musical instruments. Also an antique bathtub.

Nureyev, to put it gently, was a collector. His taste, to put it gently, was eclectic.

“His eye,” observed Anthony Crichton-Stuart, tactful head of Christie’s old masters paintings department, “was clearly one for color, form and movement, with an obvious fascination for the male nude.”

That fascination was obvious indeed to the hordes that flocked to the galleries for a chic preview of the ultra-chic sale. An adulatory documentary on Nureyev’s life greeted visitors on a television screen in an anteroom (too bad the various narrators couldn’t agree on how to pronounce Nureyev’s name). Each item on display was marked with an identification tag that included a suggested price range, be it worn paperback book, bedraggled ballet slipper or historic statue.

Society matrons proudly lugged their sale catalogues in specially designed Christie’s shopping bags. Nureyev’s friends--or people claiming to be Nureyev’s friends--pointed out sentimental artifacts to each other. Nureyev’s lofty professional colleagues mingled with his lowly private admirers.

Reverence was in the air. That didn’t preclude an irreverent wag, however, from making flip--or were they rueful?--remarks about the apparent omission of Nureyev’s dance belts from the sale inventory.

A telling item turned up in the front pages of the New Yorker:

“ ‘I really should bid on that,’ a man said, contemplating Lot 303, a bed. . . . It was big. The man was well-dressed but quite young.


“ ‘You must have a large apartment,’ somebody told him, impressed.

“ ‘For sentimental reasons,’ the young man murmured.

“ ‘For how many sentimental reasons?’

“The young man paused, in thought. ‘Not enough to make it worth bidding on,’ he admitted. He smiled and drifted off.”

Nureyev probably would have liked that story. He also would have liked the results of Christie’s auction. The experts on the premises had estimated that the 500 lots would bring in from $3 million to $4 million. The actual net was $7.9 million.

A pair of slightly used ballet slippers--estimated value, $40--was purchased for $9,200. A faded jacket worn in some distant “Giselle” fetched $51,750.

A blond balletomane named Madonna, it was rumored, showed interest in a marble figure of a male nude (female nudes were conspicuously absent). The torso ultimately brought in $310,050. Christie’s does not confirm rumors or identify buyers. It’s a matter of policy.

And the big bed? Officially tagged at $55,000, it sold for $255,500. Someone must have felt very sentimental about it.

S o much for Nureyev the auc tion object. And now, folks, it’s Nureyev the book subject.

And what a book.

Otis Stuart, an erstwhile would-be actor and, it says here, sometime contributor to the New York Times, the Village Voice, Elle, Interview, Vanity Fair, Outweek, Out and Dance magazines, has churned out a hasty biographical potboiler called “Perpetual Motion: The Public and Private Lives of Rudolf Nureyev.” Simon and Schuster is selling it for $24. Publication date: Tuesday.

Stuart, who has never written a book before, makes a valiant effort to survey Nureyev’s extraordinary achievements as a dancer. The author skims over the predictable narrative territory: Nureyev’s lowly beginnings, his recalcitrant individuality, his dramatic leap from the Soviet Union, his varied personal and professional associations, his gregarious nature, his career crescendo and decrescendo and, of course, his untimely end.


The slender volume is nicely illustrated and conscientiously--well, reasonably--annotated. It comes adorned with imposing testimonials from Lincoln Kirstein (“a lively portrait”), Francis Mason (“the devil in the flesh . . . is captured here in his true colors”) and Ned Rorem (“I learned a lot”). But make no mistake. This is not a exercise of profound scholarship.

This is a portrait of the artist as sleazeball.

Stuart’s study is concerned, first, last and foremost, with sex. This is an adventure in latter-day tell-all spare-no-juice journalism. This is the damp answer to every groupie-voyeur’s dreams.

It is scandalous, shameless and shoddy. Also dubious, scary and silly.

Don’t miss it.

“Perpetual Motion” serves, feeds and inflates the Nureyev myth with uncanny abandon. Stuart has generously given us the stuff of guilty pleasures.

Some of the gossip perpetuated here is no doubt based on truth. Some of it may be wishful faking. Some of it could be dubious-rumor mongering. All of it is fun to read, so long as the reader exercises a degree of healthy skepticism.

Please pass the salt.

Stuart’s tales can be startling. Nureyev, we are told, didn’t defect from Mother Russia only in quest of freedom, as we had thought lo these many years. He defected to escape persecution in Leningrad for unlawful homosexual escapades, most notably an entrapment encounter in Paris that eventually led to the suicide of his great Kirov colleague, Yuri Soloviev.

Liberated in the wicked West, Nureyev reportedly gave vent to vast ambisexual appetites. He fell in love with Erik Bruhn and may have impregnated Margot Fonteyn. He hobnobbed with royalty one hour, frequented scuzzy clubs the next.


During a performance in Melbourne, it says here, he utilized a break in the ballet for a quick rendezvous with a stranger in a men’s room near the theater, and, unfortunately, met the vice squad there, too. In the best show-biz tradition, the show went on again after a much-extended intermission.

It’s a miracle that the fellow found the time, or the energy, to dance. And yet he danced more roles more often than any other exponent of his art. He literally redefined, and expanded, the man’s role in ballet.

Although everyone talked about his bedroom activities, Nureyev confined himself to variations on a single Sphinx-like comment on the popular subject:

“I know what it is to be loved as a man and as a woman.”

What becomes a legend the most?

Posthumous purple hyperbole, that’s what.

Necrophilia lives.

Please pass the bicarb.*