This promiscuous egomaniac
Byline: CHRISTOPHER HUDSON
The Free Library
From : The Daily Mail, 8 November 1997
THE STORY has all the makings of a TV comedy series. A healthy, cheerfully uncomplicated, heterosexual young British yachtsman encounters an impossibly melodramatic and demanding Russian dancer, twice his age, and agrees to become his personal assistant.
For a whole year these two characters who culturally, sexually and temperamentally could not be further removed from each other's worlds, are thrown together and have to find a way of scratching along.
The yachtsman is Simon Robinson and, with the help of his uncle, the novelist Derek Robinson, he has written a book about his year with Rudolf Nureyev, the greatest male ballet dancer of the modern age, who was to die of Aids less than two years after Simon stopped being his assistant.
It is an unpretentious account from a modest, unassuming man. But unlike so many of the books and articles on Nureyev by people who want to glamorise him or bitch about him, Simon Robinson's has the virtue of transparent honesty. Here is genius with its pants down.
Simon joined Nureyev in October 1990.
He was 26 years old; Nureyev was 51, and although already past his prime as a dancer, he was at the peak of his world-wide fame.
WHEREVER he went he made headlines, as he had done since 1961 when, at the height of the Cold War, he escaped from his KGB minders at Le Bourget
Airport in Paris and defected to the West, in the famous 'leap to freedom' which overnight, at 23, made him the most famous dancer in the world.
His breathtaking partnerships with Margot Fonteyn at the Royal Ballet were filmed and televised around the globe, and brought Nureyev a wider popular audience than any dancer before or since.
It is no exaggeration to say that Nureyev - who, as a penniless boy, had danced barefoot to folk music - transformed through sheer energy and dramatic passion the role of the male dancer in classical ballet.
Immensely lithe and strong, one moment the embodiment of grace and romance, the next panther-like in his sensuality, he demonstrated that ballet could be as dangerous and exciting as a duel or a bullfight.
'Give your insides,' he told an interviewer once. 'Blood! Perhaps something is dull? Do something about it. Gamble. Make the performance pulsate
- isn't everything that?' After Margot Fonteyn retired, Nureyev left the Royal Ballet and became a guest dancer and choreographer for ballet companies around the world.
When Simon met him, on the Caribbean island of St Barts where Nureyev had a summer home, the dancer had become director of the Paris Opera Ballet and was apparently in the prime of his professional life.
But something insidious was eating away at him, however grimly he fought to convince himself otherwise.
Simon started working for him on tour with The King And I. He knew nothing about ballet dancing, and supposed it was par for the course that Nureyev should sleep in a hotel room with the windows closed and the heating turned up, wearing a towelling robe over a double-lined Mickey Mouse sweatshirt.
The night-sweats - so extreme that Nureyev would often wake in the early hours with his clothes soaking - were perhaps nature's way of keeping his muscles warm after 30 years of wear and tear, rather than signs of a wasting disease .
The maestro sweated through all his stage performances, too, and it never seemed to slow him down.
Even his grogginess in the morning - when, in response to Simon's cheery 'How are you?' came the one croaked word, 'Alive' - seemed natural enough, given the punishing regime to which he subjected himself.
After all, to anyone who hadn't known him in his younger days, Nureyev was still a phenomenon.
The face, with its high Tartar cheekbones, flaring nostrils and wide-set, grey-blue eyes would have commanded attention even if it hadn't been instantly recognisable the world over.
His powerful neck, broad shoulders and muscular body meant that he could still lift ballerinas in the air long after most dancers of his age had given up trying; (the trick was speed, he said).
Giving him a massage, as Simon had to do daily when no professional masseurs were on hand, was like hammering sheet metal: even then it never reached the deep-down pain.
Simon's contract was straightforward, even though Nureyev haggled the salary down to $1,000 a month (about [pounds sterling]600). Simon had to drive, carry bags, oversee the maintenance of whichever of the maestro's six homes they were in, make flight reservations and take care of the laundry and clothes. He couldn't have girlfriends coming round. And he had to learn to cook.
He had to master very rapidly the rituals which kept Nureyev's life on an even keel. There had to be hot tea waiting at regular intervals: first thing in the morning, and whenever he came off stage into the wings. It had to be black, stiff with sugar and laced with the juice of half a lemon.
At a particular hotel, the bath-taps had to be set to produce water of exactly the right temperature.
AS SIMON discovered, pleasing Nureyev wasn't just hard - it was impossible. He had no patience with anyone who did not immediately understand what he wanted, and would get into an ungovernable fury, hurling mobile phones at the wall and shouting: 'Eediott!
You're standing there looking like a tomato!' On one occasion, Simon had to bring out a salmon from the kitchen six times before he had it cooked exactly right.
There was never any point in arguing. 'To argue was to challenge, and since Rudolf was never wrong, a challenge was tantamount to treason,' writes Simon.
Nureyev needed to win every confrontation, and would frequently get up and walk out of social gatherings if he wasn't winning a discussion.
Plainly Rudolf Nureyev was a monster. Yet Simon Robinson writes about him without rancour, even with a kind of bemused affection. It may be that no man is a hero to his valet, but for Simon, the towering evidence of Nureyev's genius excused everything - or almost everything.
His pernickety nature was simply an extension of his meticulous professionalism. Simon would watch him walk every square foot of the stage, testing each board for springiness so that he would know exactly where to direct his steps.
Without being an artist himself, he understood that the price you pay is artistic temperament, and that Nureyev's genius permitted him to live by different rules from the rest of humanity.
Nureyev believed only in Nureyev - and that passionate selfishness had taken him out of a Russian backwater and sustained him for decades as the greatest dancer in the world.
It also meant that the whole of Nureyev's offstage life was simply a support mechanism. All the willpower, all the emotional energy, went into public performance. The rest was a means to an end.
As Simon writes: 'He could express his feelings totally when he was dancing a part, but as soon as he turned back into Nureyev he hid behind a mask of coarse indifference to anyone else.' His promiscuous homosexuality had made this easier for him.
There had been countless lovers: Freddie Mercury for one, according to a recent book; possibly even Bobby Kennedy, so Nureyev hinted to Simon. But by the time Simon arrived - when Nureyev had, to his knowledge, been HIV-positive for six years these contacts seemed to have stopped.
Ironically, for all his gay lovers, the most passionate relationship of Nureyev's life was undoubtedly with Margot Fonteyn.
Although she was 16 years older than the young Russian, as dancers they were made for each other and carried each other to sublime heights, a fusion of light and heat, which neither was able to capture again.
'Perhaps I should have married Margot,' Nureyev mused in 1991.
But Simon doubts whether they were lovers. Fonteyn was serious about her marriage to the Panamanian diplomat Roberto Arias.
More to the point, she was a consummate professional who was unlikely to have risked an affair with her partner.
Nureyev had made love to women in the past, but the act bored and repelled him, he told Simon. Nevertheless, Fonteyn reached a buried reserve of love and sympathy in Nureyev which no one else did.
From her American hospital, where she was dying of cancer, she would ring Nureyev regularly. 'She refuses to have medication until she phones me,' Nureyev told Simon, 'then she has painkillers for rest of day.' Once he said to her on the phone: 'I should go. Or I tire you out.' Dame Margot replied: 'Listen, you never tired me out. Never.'
SIMON takes up the story.
'One day she called him and she forgot where she was. Everything got jumbled in her mind. Rudolf just sat there, looking beaten down by sadness.
"I can't . . ." he said.
"She's gone . . . I can't understand what she says or . . ." I took the phone from his hand, and he walked away.
'Clinically Margot was still alive, but from that moment she had left him for ever.' Nureyev remained obsessed with sex. He watched porn videos. He paid a fortune for an ancient sculpture of a male nude torso, which he had shifted around depending on where he was sitting. He made a couple of mild advances towards Simon, despite the clause Simon had written in his contract: I am your personal assistant. I am not your boyfriend.
Nevertheless, as Nureyev recognised, their relationship worked only because of the emotional distance between them.
And eventually that relationship, too, began to founder.
Understandably, as he developed full-blown Aids, Nureyev became more difficult and demanding. It became obvious during his British tour in the spring of 1991, before he went to Verona to direct, of all things, Benjamin Britten's Death In Venice.
Offstage he appeared to be sleepwalking, harbouring his energy for the next performance.
He spent up to 12 hours a day in bed and, when he got up, massage was essential to revive his aching and exhausted body.
Still he pushed himself on. With incredible application he took up conducting at the age of 52, having been advised by Leonard Bernstein that conductors were long-lived. Sitting on the nudist beach on St Barts, he practised conducting Beethoven and Bach, wearing only a hat and waterproof headphones.
A musical director in Vienna offered him a contract. Selected Viennese musicians rehearsed him, and the success of his conducting debut established his new career.
THE EFFORT both invigorated and drained him.
The day came, in Paris, when Nureyev, wearing his usual shawl wrapped tightly around his throat to ward off infection, was invited to a party, held in a room up several flights of stairs. He was too weak to walk up. Clasping Simon's wrist, he told him to run up the stairs.
'I took as much of his weight on that arm as I could and we went up the stairs like one man. His feet moved but it was my strength that carried his body.
We didn't stop until we reached the door.
'He straightened his clothes, put his head up, pressed the buzzer and in we went. I was still quietly wheezing. He was sparkling.' A year had gone by, much of it spent cloistered with Nureyev on St Barts and on Li Galli, his tiny private islet in the Mediterranean. Simon missed his girlfriend, Jane.
As Nureyev became more frail, the insecurities of his youth about going hungry, about the KGB - came back to haunt him.
And his dreadful meanness over money (this from one of the richest men alive) was demoralising.
When Nureyev had to tour in Australia, Simon turned down his offer to continue as his PA and signed up for a six-week London course in international butlering. Failing to change his mind, Nureyev smiled and shrugged. 'Follow your nose. Enjoy,' he said.
It was October 1991. Nureyev was about to enter the final phase of his illness. He suffered a viral infection and nearly died, but his doctors put him on his feet to conduct Prokofiev's Romeo And Juliet at New York's Metropolitan Opera in May 1992.
He went back to St Barts that summer, then returned to Paris to direct the Paris Opera Ballet in Petipa's La Bayadere.
Since, by now, he couldn't stand for more than a minute or two, he directed from a chaise longue at the side of the stage.
By the first night, October 8, he was exhausted and virtually speechless, but he summoned up his strength to stand on stage, stumbling but upright, to receive a tumultuous ovation.
It was his last public appearance. There was nothing more to live for.
'I'm meant to dance. It's what I believe. I dance. Nothing else matters,' he had once said.
Three months later he was dead.
• A YEAR With Rudolf Nureyev by Simon Robinson with Derek Robinson.