Matthew Lawrence muses on Nureyev

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Rudolf Nureyev

Rudolf Nureyev’s got a calcium spur on his right heel that cuts into his flesh regularly enough to make a lesser dancer quit immediately, but Nureyev, who is not Russian but Tartar, makes a joke of it – christening the wound ‘my omelet’; his remedy is a complicated bandage he calls a ‘sandwich’, which, when successful, makes a kind of cavity between flesh and bone.” (New York Times, 1981)

Rudolf Nureyev was tough. We all know the story: born a Tartar to a military father, he came to formal training late at seventeen. Under the tutelage of Alexander Pushkin, he then joined the Kirov, defected, inspired a generation of dancers in the West with his charisma and athleticism … and lived a controversial after-hours life. Like the movie title, White Crow, he was different and exceptional: one of the greatest dancers.

Since Nureyev’s era, ballet has undergone seismic shifts in environment and training. How have we evolved from Rudolf’s days? 

Nureyev’s 'Health Team'

As the opening quote suggests, self-treatment and self-diagnoses were key to his injury management. Nureyev’s daily maintenance fell upon Luigi Pignotti, his long-time travelling masseur. For specialised advice, a doctor, surgeon or osteopath could be consulted. These services would be paid for by the dancer.

Modern health teams

Since the burgeoning of sports physiotherapy and formation of the International Association of Dance Medicine and Science (IADMS) in early 1990, specialised health teams have sprouted in leading dance institutions. Today we employ a myriad of health specialists: physiotherapists, myotherapists, massage therapists and strength and conditioning coaches — complemented by general practitioners, psychologists, podiatrists, dieticians and surgeons. For professional ballet dancers, these services are covered by the company and worker’s compensation schemes.

Nureyev’s day and diet

According to People magazine (1976) Rudolf woke religiously at 9am and breakfasted on “hot tea and buttered toast”. This was followed by class and around six hours of rehearsal, an afternoon nap before the performance. After the show he’d stay up late to decompress at a nightclub or porno movie. Nureyev said to People that, “After the emotional intensity, one can’t recharge oneself in normal ways”.

Steak, cooked blue, was a Rudolf favourite for lunch and post-performance. Yet pre-performance, to counter nerves, he would have “a blistering bath” followed by another serve of sugared tea and toast (New York Times, 1981).

Modern dancers’ day and diet

A plethora of research and resources are available for today’s dance educators and practitioners. Of note is IADMS website and articles such as Dance Fitness, which analyses effective training models. Rest, diet and hydration are of importance, and measured against training intensity for muscle regeneration and protection against injury. In short, modern professional dancers have knowledge of when and what to eat, and how to rest and train.

A typical modern dancer’s performance day would be: wake 8am, breakfast of cereal and fruits, Pilates, class, three hours’ rehearsal, rest (perhaps a nap), a high carbohydrate meal three hours before the show, barre warm-up, show, ice and hydrate, home, light snack, sleep by 12am.


Nureyev’s technique: turn out

Nureyev was a full Vaganova 180-degrees and influenced the Royal Ballet dancers of his day to follow suit. As Joan Acocella from the New Yorker notes, film footage reveals that before Nureyev men had “almost no turn out”. She goes on to say that from 1970, with dancers like Anthony Dowell, “the example of Nureyev, with his 180-degree turn-out, had sunk in”.

Today’s recommended turn out

Dance science and in-depth analyses of body mechanics has for several years challenged pushing “flat” turn out. Gigi Berardi’s book Finding Balance: Fitness, Training, and Health for a Lifetime in Dance, views 140 degrees as the optimal aesthetic and physical range for most dancers. Berardi warns attempting more range as “fraught with risks” for lower back and leg injuries, citing Royal Ballet dancers preferring “purity of line over arbitrary and damaging norms of turnout and extension”. 

Nureyev’s supplementary training

The behind the scenes documentary, I am a Dancer, shows Nureyev in class, rehearsal and performance, and highlights Nureyev’s studio-based training. Class exercises formed his strength base. Barre, in a way, was his “Pilates”. Rehearsal and performance maintained his form and fitness. Nureyev was always looking to refine his technique and sought the best – such as Danish dancer, Erik Bruhn – to improve his class training. Later in his career, when working with luminaries such as Martha Graham, he would have no doubt been exposed to various strengthening floor-based routine.

Nureyev with Lucette Aldous performing the lead roles in the 1972 film of 'Don Quixote', performed by the Australian Ballet.
Nureyev with Lucette Aldous performing the lead roles in the 1972 film of 'Don Quixote', performed by the Australian Ballet.

Supplementary training for modern dancers

Day-in-the-life footage of modern dancers begins with a targeted workout derived from exercises used to rehabilitate injured World War One veterans: Pilates. Apparatus such as the Reformer, trapeze tables and split pedal Wunda chairs are integral devices for the rehabilitation and conditioning of today’s dancers. Therabands, exotic foot-rollers, spiky massage balls and foam rollers form the present dancers’ everyday travel kit. Male dancers additionally use strength and conditioning coaches for building upper bodies.

“Every time you dance, what you do must be sprayed with your blood.” (Nureyev quoted in I am a dancer, 1972.)

Rudolf worked brutally hard. At 43, he was still averaging between 175 and 200 shows a year. A Royal Ballet star in their prime now would perform no more than 50 to 60 shows (including guest appearances) and often less. Among Nureyev’s many nicknames – most not repeatable – was “Rudy Never Off”, because illness or injury rarely stopped him. He was a unique product of his generation. In those days, if you got injured, there were plenty ready to take your place.

Viewed from a dancer’s perspective today, Nureyev’s training and daily rituals would be viewed as unrefined and harsh. Yet despite this, when compared technically to today’s dancers, he is still the benchmark. Grit, work ethic and continual learning were key to his success. In terms of grit we have a lot to re-learn from Nureyev.

Matthew Lawrence is a former principal artist with the Australian Ballet, Birmingham Royal Ballet and Queensland Ballet. He is now ballet master for the Queensland Ballet.

This article first appeared in the June/July/August issue of Dance Australia. Be the first to know! See our special 40% off Christmas offer: one year (four issues) print + digital for only $31!


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