Rudolf Khametovich Nureyev (1938-1993) was a Soviet-born ballet dancer and choreographer who would become world-famous and regarded as the best in the world during his lifetime. Born on a Trans-Siberian train near Irkutsk, Siberia, to a Red Army commissar, Nureyev began his dance career with the Kirov Ballet (now the Mariinsky Ballet) in Leningrad. Nureyev quickly became a star and would have continued to be celebrated by the Soviet regime had he not defected to the west in 1961, causing a sensation. Being a star of the arts, he was afforded specialist privileges and was permitted to travel. During a tour of Paris in 1961, he broke Soviet rules concerning fraternising with non-Soviets and was told he would be deported back to the homeland immediately. This ruling would have resulted in Nureyev never being allowed to leave the Soviet union again. Subsequently, he defected.
Nureyev’s change of allegiance, despite the efforts of the KGB made him a superstar, and the first artist to leave the union during the Cold War.
Nureyev immediately joined the Grand Ballet du Marquis de Cuevas and made such an enormous artistic impact that he had a free choice of companies. He then went on to dance with The Royal Ballet in London for the rest of his career, with his performances with Margot Fonteyn becoming legendary in the dance world. He also worked as chief choreographer of the Paris Opera Ballet in 1983 and produced several productions of classic works during his time there.
Nureyev was also infamously arrogant, rude, and had no time nor tolerance for non-celebrities. Being talented, famous, and handsome, he was forgiven for his behaviour for years but reportedly made him a terror to work with. He kept company with the likes of Andy Warhol, Jackie Kennedy and wealthy socialites, being a familiar face at celebrity functions and galas. His behaviour and high profile also led to him gaining the nickname ‘The Wild Thing’.
Nureyev contracted HIV in the early 1980s, but never confirmed any illness and kept his diagnosis to himself, reportedly not believing in its seriousness. His sexuality had been a topic of contention with the Soviet union as he lived openly as a homosexual; he also had a long-term relationship (with several breaks) with fellow dancer Erik Bruhn, which lasted until Bruhn’s death in 1986.
By 1990, it was evident that Nureyev was seriously ill and gave his last performance in 1992 at the Palais Garnier. As a result, he was awarded the Chevalier de l’Ordre des Artes et Lettres, France’s highest cultural award.
Nureyev died aged 54 as a result of AIDS a few months later on 6thJanuary 1993. Following his last wishes, he was laid to rest in the Russian cemetery at Sainte-Geneviève-des-bois, near Paris on 12th January, 1993.
His memorial wasn’t unveiled until years later on 6th May 1996 when a huge bronze and glass mosaic rug was installed. The memorial was designed and assembled by a team headed by Ezio Frigerio, a set designer who had worked closely with Nureyev on several of his productions. Alongside Frigerio worked the architect Stefano Pace, the mosaicist Francesca Fabbri and the Akomena studio.
The rug is a replica of an oriental kilim rug, the likes of which Nureyev took with him on tours and used to warm up on; subsequently, it has been said to replicate the dancer’s ‘nomadic life.’ The particular rug replicated on the grave was one of the dancer’s favourite patterns. As explained by the Orsoni studio, ‘Chromatically gold stands for power and greatness, red for blood and life, white for light and purity.Orient blue symbolizes death and mourning but also peace.’
The visual impact of the rug is undeniable; being glass, it shines brightly across the cemetery, and is a masterpiece of contemporary funerary art. It is constructed with such skill that the folds in the fabric and heavy brass tassels look so delicate, as though they could shift in the wind at any moment. The infamy and adoration of Nureyev’s grave is undeniable, becoming a public draw in itself. It has also ensured that Nureyev’s love of celebrity is maintained even in death.
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