I’ll start by saying that Nureyev was not my favorite dancer, although I saw him perform in person many times and appreciated his blazing energy and the excitement he brought to the stage whenever he danced. He was Dionysian rather than Apollonian, and not a perfect technician, having gotten a late start in ballet and lacking some of the core upper body strength that many Russian dancers have. He transcended those limitations not only through his exhilarating presence, but because of the strength in his legs, his iron determination, and the extreme physical beauty of his form and face.
Nureyev had a sort of feral allure, mostly masculine with a little bit of feminine and a fair amount of some other exotic non-human creature—a panther perhaps. Something feline, with a hint of ferocity. No other male dancer thrilled people (men and women) so much.
When Nureyev defected to the west in 1961 at the age of 23 and caused a sensation, he was already a star in Russia. But after his defection he became a star of the world—everywhere except Russia and the countries it controlled, that is.
The following clip is the sixth and final part of a BBC documentary that deals only with his Soviet years and his defection. This particular part begins immediately after his defection with a description of one of the Soviet plans to harm him. The film is a reminder of how relentless the Soviets were in blighting liberty and in ruining—or threatening to ruin—innocent lives. And their retaliation against Nureyev, as described in this film, was relatively mild compared with what they regularly perpetrated on so many of those with the temerity to defy them, or even on people who merely ran foul of them. Evil empire, indeed.
Nureyev left Russia, and he probably couldn’t afford to think too much about the people he’d left behind. This is as much their story as his.