Rudolf Nureyev began his public life as a gravity-defying sensation from the Kirov, the man audacious enough to abandon mother Russia at the height of the Cold War. He ended it as yet another middle-aged artist cut down too soon by AIDS. But while he may have started as a novelty and finished as a statistic, in between he became much more -- the star who brought intensity and athleticism into the world of tutus and swans, the sexually ambiguous icon who gave dance a rock 'n' roll mystique.
Diane Solway's meticulous biography of the first modern superstar of ballet fills us in on the colorful details between Nureyev's birth, defection and death but manages somehow to remain disappointingly aloof from its title character. For an exploration into the life of a dancer whose passion at times surpassed his technique, "Nureyev: His Life" ironically possesses an excess of workmanship but little virtuosity.
Nureyev made a name for himself as a beautiful young creature who fluttered over the iron curtain; he sustained his fame because of his breathtaking gift. The boldness of Nureyev's artistry and the fevered pitch at which he lived both onstage and off are the sort of meaty material any biographer would relish getting her mitts on, and Solway does try gamely to keep up with her subject. But along the way she keeps getting distracted, unwilling to filter the significant from the incidental. She takes us to Nureyev's opening night on Broadway, but yanks herself out of the scene to add a footnote that, technically speaking, he first appeared on a Broadway stage briefly a few months before. She has Nureyev dancing in Paris for the first time and digresses into an account of a ball someone else threw eight years earlier. Piling on information isn't necessarily a bad thing, but it does throw the rhythm off, especially because Solway's style is so flat and newsy. Indeed, some of the best moments in "Nureyev" come when Solway is quoting other sources, whether it's Nureyev's critics or the Central Committee's report on his defection (which bore the catchy title "On the Mistakes of the Leningrad Kirov Academic Opera and Ballet Theater Leadership in the Preparation of and During the Tour of the Ballet Company Abroad").
Fortunately, the story of Nureyev's life offers a fair amount of drama even without authorial embellishments. We see Rudik (a poor peasant child growing up in the midst of the Stalinist purges) discover dance almost by accident and immediately become consumed by it. We see a rebellious youth whose shocking, impulsive defection was sparked more by a stubborn fascination with Paris than a philosophical rift with communism. We see the jet-setting, tantrum-throwing celebrity whose hedonism was exceeded only by a fanatical need to practice and perform -- to stay moving no matter what. And in the end, we see a man whose hatred of the disease that made his body betray him was so fierce he refused to let his friends and associates even acknowledge he had it.
"Nureyev" gives the curious reader all those things. But there are too many anecdotes that seem forced in for the sake of recording everything, too many tangential asides that go nowhere. Solway's otherwise admirable eye for detail bogs down a story that begs to move along breathlessly. She clearly identifies with Nureyev's obsessive need to do as much footwork as possible, but she needs to follow his example one step further -- to understand that to create something truly memorable, you also have to be willing to just let go and fly.