Categories: Arts

‘Life in Dance’ captures Nureyev’s greatness

Bay Area balletomanes are about to go to church.

“Rudolf Nureyev: A Life in Dance,” on view through February at the de Young Museum, is an exquisite shrine dedicated to the late, groundbreaking dancer — and to ballet itself.

Satin, sequins and silk are in the spotlight in this sumptuous show, organized by the de Young and the Centre national du costume de scene in France.

At points, the show of 70 costumes has an appealing, eerie, backstage aura, created by exhibition designer Giuliano Spinelli.

Nureyev bounds across the stage on a massive, oversized screen projection that towers over the first main room.

Portraits and posters of the dashing dancer are clustered on walls as they might be in someone’s home. But some costumes, such as Nureyev’s all-white mime suit from Glen Tetley’s “Pierrot Lunaire,” get individual attention.

A vast, wall-sized stage shot of Nureyev with Margot Fonteyn is the backdrop for six “Swan Lake” costumes, a tableau that sings with profound resonance for ballet fans in awe of the most famous partnership in ballet history.

After an unhappy European tour with the Kirov Ballet in 1961, and making international headlines when he defected to the West in a Paris airport, Nureyev was recruited to The Royal Ballet by Ninette de Valois and partnered with Fonteyn, the grand dame of British ballet, in her 40s. Yet the pair’s chemistry postponed her retirement by 15 years, and his virtuosity, virile bravura and dramatic talent created a new standard for the male danseur that still stands today.

Large black scrims painted to look like opera house curtains transform the exhibit’s main room into a soft, dark, hallowed realm.

A scene from the third act of “La Bayadere” — aka “The Kingdom of the Shades” — is projected onto a large black scrim in one alcove. Ghostly ballerinas in white tutus step into arabesque in hypnotic formation. Behind the floating mirage, tutus from “Don Quixote” hang suspended in a jeweled constellation. The breathtaking spectacle is particularly bewitching because both ballets have dream-laden narratives.

The Royal Opera House in London loaned some show highlights, including luscious tutus and tunics from “The Sleeping Beauty” and Cecil Beaton’s costumes for “Marguerite and Armand,” the romantic tragedy choreographed by Sir Frederick Ashton specifically for Fonteyn and Nureyev.

Nureyev, who died of AIDS complications in 1993 at age 54, was a detail-oriented sensualist. He ordered alterations to costumes, including his partner’s tutus, and once cut off his tuxedo coattails, proclaiming he was not a waiter.

His grave, in a cemetery outside Paris, is draped in a mosaic replica of a kilim rug, an artifact he collected. Nureyev, the man, the dancer, the artist and textile lover, would have been moved by this opulent homage to his life and work.

lgallagher@sfexaminer.com

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