Nureyev in Le Corsaire: “Choreographed on him by God”

It’s 20 years today since Rudolf Nureyev died at Notre Dame du Perpétuel Secours hospital in Paris.

The time of death was 3.45 on the afternoon of January 6, 1993.

Five days later, his body, in an oak casket, was taken to his home on the Quai Voltaire and the next day, a police motorcade escorted the car carrying the casket to the Paris Opera where a civil ceremony was held.

In her biography of Nureyev, Julie Kavanagh writes: “Five friends read extracts from poems in five languages, a chamber orchestra played Tchaikovsky and Bach, including Fugue no. 14 with one of the most abrupt endings in music, and symbolic here of Rudolf’s unfinished life”.

The funeral cortege travelled to the Russian cemetery at Sainte-Genevieve-des-Bois, where the dancer, Charles Jude, was among six men who carried the coffin aloft to the accompaniment of Mahler’s Wayfarer songs.

Nureyev’s grave was designed three years later by Ezio Frigerio. It depicts a travelling trunk covered with a fringed kilim made from bronze and glass mosaics in turquoise and coral.

Not long after the 10th anniversary of Nureyev’s death, the critic, Alistair Macaulay, described the magnificent performances Nureyev gave in Le Corsaire. His description brings Nureyev back to life.

Dancing the role of Ali, the slave, in the pas de deux with Margot Fonteyn as Medora, Nureyev, “bare-chested, in harem pants seemed to hover – to sit and hover, with feet tucked under him, as if perched on a stool – in the air…though the whole Corsaire pas de deux is routinely credited to Petipa, its male role must have been extensively revised in Soviet Russia; and when Nureyev danced it, I used to say that the Corsaire pas de deux had been choreographed on him by God. He became its sole author and first cause”.

As the Bolshoi Ballet is bringing Le Corsaire to Australia this year, and thanks to a query by a friend about the pas de deux, I’ve been delving back into the history of the showpiece. It’s complicated.

The 1856 premiere of Le Corsaire, by Joseph Mazilier was followed by productions by Jules Perrot in 1858. In his biography of Perrot, the dance historian, Ivor Guest, wrote that Marius Petipa added the famous pas de deux to music by Drigo in 1899 however the choreography for the interpolated pas de deux is credited to the dancer, choreographer and teacher, Alexander Chekrygin by the New York Public Library Dance Collection.

In 1915, it became a pas de deux à trois (presumably for Medora, Conrad the Pirate and a slave) in a production by Samuil Andrianov however it wasn’t until 1936 that the cast for Le Corsaire, staged by Agrippina Vaganova, had a separate character called the Slave or Rhab as he was known in Russia.

A fact sheet on Le Corsaire written by Robert Greskovic continues the story: In his memoirs, the dancer and choreographer, Nikolai Zubkovsky wrote that by 1939 ‘the Corsaire pas was “a pas de deux for Medora and a ‘slave’.

This leads me to believe that the slave might have been given more prominence as an important character as the oppressed were seen as especially heroic in the Soviet era.

In 1955, the slave was given a name, Ali, in a St Petersburg production.

At that time, Nureyev was 17. He would know of the Medora/Ali pas de deux and it was as a slave and Medora that Fonteyn and Nureyev danced it in their famous party piece around the world. (Nureyev made his premiere in the role in 1958).

The pas de deux is in the Alexei Ratmansky production coming to Australia, but Medora is partnered by Conrad, the pirate, not Ali.

The first clip shows American Ballet Theatre principal Daniil Simkin dancing with San Francisco Ballet principal, Maria Kochetkova.

The second clip shows the Ratmansky production, with Svetlana Lunkina and Ruslan Skvortsov.

The third clip of Fonteyn and Nureyev in the pas de deux is of poor quality but it appears to be the only one available on YouTube.

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Nureyev, photo © Cecil Beaton

Nureyev’s grave at Sainte-Genevieve-des-Bois

Le Corsaire, pas de deux à trois, Gillian Murphy, Marcelo Gomes, Ethan Stiefel, photo © Rosalie O’Connor

Nureyev, Le Corsaire, photo © Roger Urban