at the Civic Center for Performing Arts

April 5-8

In the 29 years since he made his spectacular, desperate leap across the Iron Curtain at a Paris airport, Rudolf Nureyev has achieved great things. As the first Soviet dancer to defect, he represented a political victory that attracted vast new audiences to ballet. He has done just about everything in the theater arts: danced with troupes large and small, appeared on TV and in the movies, choreographed ballets, directed the Paris Opera Ballet, and even assayed the musical stage in The King and I.

But Nureyev is no longer the electrifying ephebe of past years, nor is he now the only defector to claim our affections. For that matter, the political climate has changed so radically that Russian dancers no longer have to defect to perform abroad, and they’ve become so familiar to us that the mystique surrounding Soviet ballet is rapidly fading.

So what does an aging legend, for whom the roar of the crowd remains the breath of life, do? Tradition demands a farewell tour. And Nureyev, no longer resident with any troupe, has put together a barnstorming ensemble of six well-known dancers–the friends of Rudolf Nureyev & Friends–in a tour similar to one he led 15 years ago. Nor does he stint himself, appearing in the three major works on the program. Nureyev recreates his original role in Songs of a Wayfarer, a duet to Gustav Mahler’s song cycle that Maurice Bejart choreographed for him and Paolo Bortoluzzi in 1971. Charles Jude, the elegant young star of the Paris Opera Ballet, is the mysterious representation of fate, an alter ego or doppelganger, who follows and comforts the wayfarer on his fateful journey. Their relationship emphasizes tenderness and sympathy rather than any obvious homoerotic elements. Although Nureyev’s body is no longer youthfully flexible, and his physical control of extensions and turns is occasionally questionable, he remains a fascinating figure, whose presence was never overshadowed by Jude’s silken technique and reedlike wiriness.

A substitution offered Flemming Flindt’s The Lesson, based on Eugene Ionesco’s absurdist play of the same name. In the ballet, to a score by Georges Delerue, the mad teacher is a ballet master, and his victim a ballet student. It’s reminiscent of the film The Red Shoes, in which toe shoes have a will of their own and a mad villain drives a young innocent to death. They don’t make such wildly comic, macabre ballets nowadays.

Nureyev’s performance as the mad instructor was a tour de force of wonderfully hammy acting, makeup, and dancing–more exaggerated than any other interpretation of the role I’ve seen. His appearance was so grotesque, and his movements so obviously demented, that any sensible student would have run immediately in the other direction. But it was precisely that overblown characterization that liberated him in the dance sections. Unconstricted by the need to be classically correct, he let loose in a series of brilliantly uninhibited spins and leaps that reminded one of his daring virtuosic feats of the past.

Vivi Flindt (the choreographer’s wife) was outstanding as the equally terrifying totalitarian accompanist. As a pianist, I was especially impressed by Flindt’s accuracy in miming the taped piano music. Isabel Seabra, of the La Scala Ballet, was dramatically touching and technically brilliant as the doomed student.

By the time the program concluded, with Jose Limon’s The Moor’s Pavane, Nureyev’s energy seemed to have waned, and his performance of Shakespeare’s tragic figure was at best indifferent. For some reason, he was not made up as a Moor. Instead he wore a gray beard, and looked and acted old and worn. He never suggested a passion for Christine Spizzo, his Desdemona. Georgio Madia, substituting for the injured Jean-Guillaume Bart as Iago, is so tall he dwarfed Nureyev. Flindt was Emilia.

The program opened with the charming pas de six from August Bournonville’s period piece Napoli, with Flindt, Jude, Madia, Seabra, Spizzo, and Flavia Vallone. Unhappily, the performance lacked the buoyant classic clarity so essential to the 19th-century style identified with the Royal Danish Ballet. Spizzo and an unsteady Madia danced Balanchine’s Tchaikovsky Pas de Deux. Its absence would not have been regretted.

Jude and an accomplished but unidentified partner performed the wedding pas de deux from The Sleeping Beauty. I was told it was Seabra who played Aurora, but this performer didn’t resemble her at all. I’d venture that we saw Vallone. Whoever she was, she is a stylish, strong artist. I don’t understand, however, how the choreography for this pas de deux can be credited to Nureyev. It was pure Petipa, who created the entire ballet.

The printed program was inadequate: dancers in the various pieces were not identified, nor were any costume designers. The taped music was also a source of regret, but a live orchestra would have been too expensive for programs that didn’t fill the house. Was this concert Nureyev’s valedictory? He has denied it. But it mightn’t be a bad idea for this legend to hang up his ballet shoes, now that he has proved everything about himself that has to be proved.