4.5 / Review

Rudolf Nureyev: A Life in Dance

By Larissa Archer December 3, 2012

Thumbnail: Francette Levieux. Rudolf Nureyev, Moments, with the Murray Louis Dance Company, 1977; 1977. Courtesy of the artist. © Francette Levieux.

A museum may not be the ideal venue to showcase a performative art such as dance, which only exists in the living bodies of its practitioners. So it makes sense that the de Young Museum, in collaboration with France’s Centre National de Costume de Scène, chose to highlight an aspect of the mobile art that can exist in a static installation for Rudolf Nureyev: A Life in Dance. Contrary to its title, this exhibition washes over great swathes of the artist’s life and explores not dance itself but one aspect of it: costuming, specifically seventy costumes codesigned by Nureyev to be worn by himself and other dancers in the many ballets he choreographed, revived, and staged around the world from the early 1960s to his death in 1993.

It is impossible to appreciate the engineering that Nureyev put into these garments in a context wherein none of dance’s physical demands are also on display. Still, costume is a compelling curatorial focus here: Nureyev was not only the ne plus ultra of physical grace and prowess in the last century of dance, but he had a flair for dressing. This extended to his offstage style as well, as evidenced, sometimes stunningly and sometimes hilariously, in several featured portraits. He also possessed a practitioner’s knowledge of the moving body’s needs and the clout to manifest his ideas. While still a young dancer with the Kirov and already its star, Nureyev infamously stalled a performance by refusing to go onstage in the baggy pants that were still the norm in Russia, though they had long been abandoned in the West. Tradition had dictated that men wear bloomers over their tights despite the fact the garment obscured the visibility of the legs, which can communicate story, intention, even emotion to an attentive audience. Instantly, Nureyev had overturned custom and set a new precedent, and for the rest of his career he would display the same consideration of the needs of both the dancer and the audience when he worked with designers to fashion costumes for his productions.

For his own ensembles, Nureyev redesigned the doublets with diagonal seams in front, which visually tightened the waist without constricting movement. He added underarm gussets to facilitate the arms' movement but kept the sleeves mounted high and the cuffs snug and added beading and embroidery to visually elongate the line. He also had the women’s costumes reworked to his specifications, minimizing embellishments except to distinguish principal characters from the corps and lowering and lengthening the tutus to emphasize the litheness of the waist.1 Although such refinements and additions all bore dramatic and graphic purpose, Nureyev nevertheless acquired a reputation for “the Tartar taste of barbarous sumptuousness.”2 On reviewing the evidence, however, this verdict seems more like sour grapes on the part of the deposed tastemakers of the old guard. Cultural snobbery aside, that “barbarous sumptuousness” is the only aspect of the costumes discernible to the untrained eye and is thus the reason to see this exhibition: from the rouge bordeaux satin tunic from Romeo and Juliet—warm and rich even where it has faded—to the embroidery and beading designs curled over the breasts and the tiered ruffling on the top plains of the tutus in Sleeping Beauty, to the adapted saris of La Bayadère.

Costume for the Lilac Fairy Queen in Sleeping Beauty, Teatro alla Scalla, Milan, 1966. Collection CNSC/Rudolf Nureyev Foundation. Photo: Pascal François/CNCS.
Nicholas Giorgiadis for Rudolf Nureyev in the role of Prince Siegfried, Act I, in Swan Lake, Vienna State Opera Ballet,1964; silver lace and blue silk doublet, trimmed with blue rhinestones, faux pearls, pleated linen collar and cuffs, and blue soutache. Collection CNCS/Rudolf Nureyev Foundation. Photo: Pascal François/CNCS.

The costumes are arranged in clusters according to production, and some are accompanied by video footage of Nureyev and others dancing in them. Since the exhibition does not include comparable examples of traditional ballet costuming, it is hard to appreciate Nureyev's innovations or even to identify them without the help of a guide.3 And because the costumes are displayed on dummies—a disappointing throwback after the unprecedented talking mannequins of the de Young’s Jean Paul Gaultier exhibition—a viewer also does not get a sense of their superiority in facilitating and enhancing the expressiveness of movement. Mounted on black dress forms set against black backgrounds, the costumes appear suspended in space, shimmering like empty jewel boxes under the spotlights.

Although the ensembles can be viewed more close-up than they could be in a theater, the proximity is still not close enough to appreciate just how detailed were the embroidery and beading, nor the numerous stitches, patches and repairs to Nureyev’s dancewear, which he wore unto decrepitude. For Nureyev, the designs—replicable patterns from which he could have made fresh new models—were not the only important component to his costumes; they were valuable as physical objects themselves. His dance vestments were, as the catalogue repeatedly notes, “fetishes” for him, becoming more precious the more ragged they became.4 It would be interesting to see the repairs up close, as a kind of tactile record of the destructive power of the great man’s physicality. Alas, the objects are placed at a safe distance, and everything appears to be in more or less perfect condition. Even his shoes, which the catalogue describes as “…made of very hard leather…in awful condition, worn, dirty, damaged” appear to have come fresh out of the box, their shanks not yet broken.5

Dance costumes are made to be danced in. They are the trappings for the human form at its most exalted, meant to be seen in motion, with brave, young bodies flexing against the seams and sweating through the satin. The sadness conjured by witnessing them in desuetude, dry, empty, and hung stiff on dummies, seems appropriate, given Nureyev's personal life, which is left almost entirely unaddressed by this exhibition despite its titular promise to illuminate his life. In contrast to the glitz and flamboyance of Nureyev the dancer, as embodied by these costumes, Nureyev the man endured surreptitious flings and painful unrequited loves in an era when even the ballet world was not entirely on board with homosexuality. He badly wanted a child and never had one. He was one of the first public figures to be felled by AIDS and one of the very first whose cause of death was admitted publicly. Unlike the neat, archetypal tragedies he danced in and choreographed, his life and its sorrows were complex, sometimes chaotic, and full of banal disappointments. What brings the catch in the throat is not what is displayed but the invisible presence of what is missing.


Rudolph Nureyev: A Life in Dance is on view at the De Young Museum, in San Francisco, through February 17, 2013.


  1. One might wonder why he did not go further and do away with the tutu altogether; if his intention was to elongate the lines of the body and better reveal its movements, then surely it should have been counterintuitive to strap what resembles a giant sequined puff pastry to a woman’s hips?
  2. Jacques Dupont, designer of Sleeping Beauty for Paris Opera Ballet, from Martine Kahane, Rudolf Nureyev: A Life in Dance (Paris: Les Editions du Mécène, 2012), p. 43.
  3. The show’s bilingual catalogue, Rudolf Nureyev: A Life in Dance, proves an invaluable companion. In it, close-up photographs reveal the workmanship one can't see from beyond the installation barriers and was surely lost on the balcony spectators. Essays are by Martine Kahane and Vanessa Portut.
  4. Kahane, p.21.
  5. Ibid.

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