In 1997, Julie Kavanagh was far from excited about the prospect of writing a biography of Rudolf Nureyev. A former ballet dancer and author of an acclaimed biography of British choreographer Frederick Ashton, she wasn’t relishing the idea of spending another decade chained to her computer. The book wasn’t even her idea: She’d been headhunted after a group of Nureyev’s closest friends began looking for an appropriate biographer. Besides, there were already more than 30 books out there on the dancer, who died in 1993, so what new information could she possibly unearth?
Ten years and more than 700 pages later, Kavanagh has produced the first authorized biography of the greatest male dancer of the 20th century — in her words, a man who could sit virtually motionless on a stage and still make the audience’s hair stand on end. “He was a theater animal. He could eclipse everyone else on stage with his unbelievable charisma,” says Kavanagh, whose book, “Nureyev: The Life” (Pantheon Books), comes out Tuesday.
But it wasn’t Nureyev’s legendary charisma that finally convinced her to write about him. It was a story she uncovered after following up on a comment made during an early interview with a confidante of the dancer’s, Chinko Rafique, a foreign student who studied at the Kirov Ballet’s Vaganova School in St. Petersburg at the same time Nureyev was with the famous ballet company.
“I hit on this Cold War love story — and I got excited — and suddenly I knew there was a book,” says the petite Kavanagh.
After that fateful interview with Rafique, Kavanagh did some digging and found that before Nureyev defected to the West, he had a secret lover named Teja Kremke, a handsome, precocious 17-year-old from then-East Berlin who met Nureyev in 1960 while he was a student at the Vaganova School. Kremke would tell Nureyev about life outside Russia. The young dancer also pushed Nureyev to defect, which he would eventually do in June 1961. Kremke told Nureyev: “There you’ll be the greatest dancer in the world. But if you stay here, you’ll be known only to Russians.”
Their relationship didn’t last long, however. Nureyev soon met his longtime love, Erik Bruhn, while the bisexual Kremke later took an Indonesian child bride. Kremke died in the mid-Seventies.
This story first appeared in the October 1, 2007 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
“Nureyev never told anybody about his affair with Teja. Not even his close friends knew,” says Kavanagh. Rafique was the only friend in the West to whom Nureyev confided his feelings. “Teja was Rudolf’s first love, and with him he discovered where his real [sexual] feelings lay,” she says.
Kavanagh, who as a teenager studying at the Royal Ballet School would sleep on the London pavement to ensure she got tickets to see Nureyev perform with his famous partner, Margot Fonteyn, says she fell in love with the dancer all over again. “This time around, I fell in love with his mind and his intelligence. He was very witty — and dirty. And he had a writer’s mots justes. He would describe a hard stage and say: ‘It concusses the feet,'” she says with a laugh.
As for Nureyev’s legacy, Kavanagh believes it lies mainly with his students. “He knew more about classical dance than anyone else, and he was a pioneer of modern dance. He was so assimilative. And he was a brilliant, brilliant teacher — in a way that Fonteyn and [Mikhail] Baryshnikov were not.”
But 20 years writing about ballet are enough — at least for now — for Kavanagh, who is married to ex-Royal Ballet dancer Ross MacGibbon and has two sons. She is finished with her ballet biographies and describes the book she’s currently working on as “a 19th-century ‘Goodbye to Berlin.'” And, not surprisingly, it’s going to be short.