As mourners passed the grave of Rudolf Nureyev, one of the 20th century’s most influential dancers, they left parting gifts: white roses and worn ballet slippers. The burial took place at a Russian Orthodox cemetery outside Paris, where six days earlier, on Jan. 6, 1993, Nureyev had died at 54 ”of a cardiac complication, following a grievous illness,” according to his doctor, who later revealed that the ”illness” was AIDS.
The gifts were fitting tributes to a man who not only traveled with dozens of old slippers but was loath to give any away. Perhaps it was his impoverished upbringing—his mother had to carry her shoeless son to kindergarten on the snow-covered streets of Ufa, an industrial city about 800 miles southeast of Moscow—that gave him an appetite not only for the finer things but for living life to its fullest.
Nureyev was accepted into the prestigious Leningrad Ballet School at 17, and became a soloist with the Kirov Ballet three years later. He made his Western debut in Paris with the Kirov. ”He was at that time extremely exciting and very raw,” remembers The New York Times‘ chief dance critic, Anna Kisselgoff. As the touring Kirov was getting ready to leave France for London, Nureyev, who had been ordered home because of his mixing with foreigners, threw himself into the arms of French airport officers. At the height of the Cold War, newspapers heralded the defection.
Although he would go on to dance with more than 40 companies, Nureyev’s most successful relationship was with England’s Royal Ballet, partnering Margot Fonteyn. In the body-conscious 1960s, his athletic, pantherlike approach enraptured audiences and created a whole new generation of balletomanes. ”He not only restored the male dancer to a place of prominence,” wrote Diane Solway in her 1998 bio Nureyev: His Life, ”he brought sex to an art form long associated with the effete, stirring women and men alike.” (”We want Rudi, in the nudie,” went the cries of fans following Richard Avedon’s nude portrait of the dancer in December 1967’s Vogue.) Gossip pages were filled with his meanderings—his closest relationship was with Danish dancer Erik Bruhn (widely considered the great love of his life).
Performing classical ballet far beyond his prime, Rudolf Never-off, as he was dubbed, made his last public appearance on Oct. 8, 1992, for the premiere of his staging of the Paris Opéra Ballet’s La Bayadère. Aware of critics carping during the last decade of his life that he should bow out gracefully, Nureyev replied: ”For me, dance and life are one. I will dance to the last drop of blood.” And so it was.