SAN FRANCISCO — “Rudolf Nureyev: A Life in Dance” is on display at the de Young Museum in San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park through Feb. 17. Organized in collaboration with the Centre national du costume de scène in Moulins, France and the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, the de Young is the exhibition’s exclusive U.S. venue.
“You live as long as you dance,” was Nureyev’s mantra throughout his meteoric rise as an internationally acclaimed dancer, choreographer, ballet master and company director.
In celebration of the remarkable art and career of this legendary performer, the de Young is presenting more than 70 costumes from ballets danced or choreographed by Nureyev — “Swan Lake,” “The Nutcracker” and “Manfred” among them — as well as a selection of photographs, videos and ephemera that chronicles his illustrious life.
“The objects in the exhibition are the witnesses to his real life — they make up the daily luggage of this eternal traveler, of this rootless soul who found his identity in dance studios, rehearsal rooms and on stages around the world,” said Delphine Pinasa, the director of the Centre national du costume de scène.
Reflecting Nureyev’s lifelong obsession with the details of fabric, decoration and stylistic line, the costumes in this exhibition represent every period of his long career. As a meticulous performer, Nureyev demanded costumes that were not only beautiful, but precisely engineered to suit the physical demands of his dance.
He also loved sumptuous decoration, and these costumes reflect his highly-refined aesthetic; fantasias of embroidery, jewels, and braid.
“Rudolf worked very closely with designers and no detail was too small. Lengthy discussions encompassing world history and the history of art, design and performance were part of creating his ballets,” said Jill D’Alessandro, Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco’s curator of costume and textile arts.
Nureyev’s dramatic escape from the Soviet Union in 1961, combined with his dashing good looks, sexual energy and the triumphant success of his ballets, made him an international sensation by the age of 23.
This exhibition highlights how he was part of the intense new celebrity culture taking hold in the early 1960s.
“Nureyev was considered ballet’s first pop star,” said D’Alessandro. “From his very first appearances on stage at Covent Garden, ‘Rudimania’ set London ablaze.”
Like Mick Jagger and John Lennon, Nureyev drew adoring crowds and was constantly photographed, and he was an enthusiastic participant in the ’70s nightclub scene and international jet set.
Nureyev was a demanding innovator with little patience for those who clung to what he judged as outmoded tradition.
The costumes detail a long period during which Nureyev transformed dance, breathing new life into classic ballets like “Swan Lake” and “Romeo and Juliet.”
Credited with breaking barriers between modern dance and classical ballet, he was also responsible for bringing the male dancer back to the forefront, thereby reversing decades of tradition.
“Nureyev’s work meant that men’s roles were no longer subservient to women’s. His unique combination of artistry, technical precision, electric stage presence and musicality thoroughly transformed male dancing in the West,” D’Alessandro said.
Though still dancing through his 40s and into his 50s, Nureyev took a position in 1983 that placed him firmly at the top of the ballet establishment: that of director of the Paris Opera Ballet, the oldest dance company in the world.
“He spent his final years there, challenging the hierarchical system and nurturing a new generation of stars,” said D’Alessandro. “Those dancers continue to give life to his ballets and teachings today, ensuring his legacy for future generations.”
Though barred from reentering the Soviet Union until 1989, Nureyev never severed his connection with his homeland, and leveraged his positions to promote the grand traditions and iconic roles of Russian ballet.
Nureyev’s life was cut short — like so many other creative talents of his time — by his death from complications of AIDS on Jan. 6, 1993. During his long career Nureyev had been a dancer, an iconoclast and a celebrity, but above all he had lived every moment in service to his craft.
“Rudolf Nureyev: A Life in Dance,” bears witness to the details of his uncompromising personality through the relics of his practice, and offers an intimate view of the man behind the grand gestures, a man, as Mikhail Baryshnikov said, who “… had the charisma and simplicity of a man of the earth and the inaccessible arrogance of the gods.”
The de Young Museum is in Golden Gate Park, 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive in San Francisco.
For more information call 415-750-3600 or go to deyoungmuseum.org.