“We only lived when we danced.” – Rudolf Nureyev

“They seemed aware of each other even when their backs were turned. When their eye met, a message was passed.” — Alexander Bland on Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn


“To see Fonteyn was one thing. To see Nureyev was another thing. But to see Fonteyn and Nureyev together, on the same stage, with their particular love and assurance, was almost indescribably special.” — NY Times, 1979

“Combine the smolder, the mystery, the dynamic presence, the great streaks of vivid movement which Nureyev gives us with the beauty, the radiance, the womanliness, the queenliness and the shining movements of Dame Margot…” — Walter Terry, ballet critic

“You couldn’t believe they both hadn’t sprung from the same school.” — Ninette de Valois, director of Royal Ballet

” … two ends meeting together and making a whole.” — Ninette de Valois

“My husband called it [the partnership of Nureyev and Fonteyn] a celestial accident. To probe into its componenets is like trying to analyze a moonbeam.” — Maude Gosling, (ballerina wife of writer Nigel Gosling – good friends of Nureyev – and the two wrote a dance column together, under a joint pseudonym, Alexander Bland)

“Emotionally, technically, physically – in every way. They were just meant to meet on this earth and dance together.” — Ninette de Valois

Excerpt from Nureyev: The Life, by Julie Kavanagh:

When their rehearsals recommenced in Italy, Margot, despite having broken their deadlock, sensed a major challenge. Who in the audience would look at her “with this young lion leaping ten feet in the air and doing all these fantastic things?” Enormously competitive by nature, she also thrived on adventure and risk (the side that had made her a faux-guerrilla in her husband’s abortive minirevolution in Panama in 1959). Tapping into this, Rudolf taunted her one day by saying, “So – you are Great Ballerina. Show me!” Suddenly she found herself virtually outdancing her partner, while he watched “puzzled,” asking himself how it was possible that she, “without technique was doing technical things, and me, taught the best technique … not always there?” Only too aware of her stature – her name in world terms being far better known than that of Ulanova – Rudolf himself now “felt a bit … Well, when I’m onstage beside her, who’s going to look at me?” He had always found it extraordinary the way Margot, even without this new virtuoisic confidence, could make her impact felt not through showy aplomb but through her soft, lyrical, English restraint and unforced line. There was no trace of sensationalism in her artistry, yet something so excitingly internalized that, even when standing motionless, she could draw all eyes toward her. “She came onstage,” as Rudolf said, “and she made light.”

“I’ve found the perfect partner.” — Margot Fonteyn

“We become one body. One soul. We moved in one way. It was very complementary, every arm movement, every head movement. There were no more cultural gaps; age difference; we’ve been absorbed in characterization. We became the part. And public was enthralled.” — Rudolf Nureyev

“In many ways they were very bad for each other. Margot had always been so serious and professional, but she changed entirely when Rudolf was around. They were never on time, and we’d sit in the bus waiting to go to rehearsal until finally they would roll up giggling and joking like a couple of children.” — Annette Page, a Royal Ballet principal

“I never saw her so liberated. The confidence it gave her was incredible. It was a development of somebody who suddenly had about ten years taken off her.” — Ninette de Valois on the 1962 production of Le Corsaire (their debut)

Excerpt from Nureyev: The Life:

Waiting in the wings for her entrance, the ballerina admitted that she found it so exhilarating to watch Rudolf that she lost all nervousness for herself. She claimed that it was her belief that the audience was looking at him, not her, that had allowed her to relax, and “really dance for the first time”.

“He was transfigured when he danced. I’d never seen such unearthly beauty. He seemed unreal; not of this world – like an archangel.” — Ballet fan on Nureyev

Excerpt from Nureyev: The Life:

“We have to remember what Rudolf looked like back then on a staid British stage,” says writer and photographer Keith Money: “The bare midriff and all that glitzy Soviet campery were to some the absolute height of bad taste.” Most people, however, were transported by the sight of this exquisite youth yearning up toward Margot as the curtain fell, his fingers splayed, his back arched and pelvis thrust forward – “like a great Moslem whore”. And it was not only his passion and animality that were so stirring, but the speculation their union prompted about the ballerina’s own sexual depths. It made Verdy think of the King Kong legend – a “scene of seduction and cruelty … like the whole thing really was a bedroom … and you were watching through the keyhole.”


“He brought her to a higher pitch of approach. He came at a period when she had lost Michael [Somes – Fonteyn’s dance partner for 14 years] and it was all rather run of the mill. Suddenly this enormous impulse came, and she just responded to him.” — Frederick Ashton

“Had I been younger, I would have found it extremely difficult to accommodate Rudolf’s very fixed ideas and his, shall we say, outspoken way of expressing them. Quite simply, we were so far apart that we could come together.” — Margot Fonteyn

Excerpt from Nureyev: The Life:

No Royal Ballet premiere had ever been so eagerly anticipated as the charity gala on March 12, 1963. It had been a risk submitting a nineteenth-century penny-novel melodrama to a public just waking up to a new era of kitchen-sink reality (even Ashton admitted his story was “old hat”). But to Peter Brook, reviewing the ballet for The Observer, the dancers’ depth of conviction not only brought dramatic credibility to their roles, it breathed life into the genre itself, making “the most artificial old forms suddenly seem human and simple.” There was certainly nothing conventionally “balletic” about Margot’s display of anguish, the kind of raw, visceral emotion said to have defined Sarah Bernhardt’s portrayal of Marguerite. It was a starkness that derived from the novel, not the play, which is as trite, sentimental, and far removed from the original as the 1966 film of Marguerite and Armand is from the stage version of the ballet. Ashton wanted a kind of jarring effect from his dancers, their primal lack of inhibition countering the billet-doux sweetness of what had gone before. Keith Monty still remembers the bluntness of the closing image: “When at last he let her hand fall away, she let it thump of its own weight onto the stage. Audibly. It was simply gut-wrenching, and so final. I’d never experienced quite that sort of theatrical involvement before – of being absolutely wrung out.”

“Margot always said that for her, real life comes when she’s onstage. I absolutely agree. We functioned between those snatches of real life onstage. We only lived when we danced.” — Rudolf Nureyev












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17 Responses to “We only lived when we danced.” – Rudolf Nureyev

  1. Castallia says:

    You might enjoy Margot Fonteyn’s autobiography if you haven’t already read it. Thanks for posting these wonderful photos!

  2. red says:

    Castallia – I definitely want to check that out now! I’m a total newbie here with the ballet stuff – but it’s a whole world I’m very excited to explore!

  3. Nicola says:

    Oh wow! I love ballet. My Ouma took us when we were very young. And I went through such a fierce ballet phase that all my library books were ballet books. Mostly fiction series. But I was hooked.

  4. nightfly says:

    Gorgeous. I know doodle-poo about ballet, but these are so elegant and raw all at once. The shot of them in near-silhouette against the black background! – between the shots in the rehearsal room – even the still shots look like movement.

  5. mitchell says:

    heaven…why is that world sooo fascinating? is it because most mortals cannot imagine the skill and dedication and athleticism that even the least of the successful ballet dancers possess? we can all play football on the weekend and have a blast( not that i do) but…for the most part ..we dont dance Giselle as a hobby…they seem otherwordly.

  6. red says:

    It’s so true, Mitchell. It’s the level of skill required to even have the tiniest part in a ballet that elevates the whole thing – you have to have danced every day of your life for 15 years before you are ready to even be in the corps. Truly amazing.

    And then you get to the geniuses like Nureyev and Fonteyn – who were able to act and embody and portray complex emotions – all while operating at this high level of skill –

    Truly boggles the mind!!

    I love the pictures of the two of them!

  7. red says:

    Nicola – this may be the stupidest question of all time, but did you read Ballet Shoes by Noel Streatfield??? God, I loved that book.

  8. george says:

    “My husband called it… a celestial accident. To probe into its components is like trying to analyze a moonbeam.” — Maude Gosling

    … as the curtain fell, his fingers splayed, his back arched and pelvis thrust forward – “like a great Moslem whore” – Keith Money (what a great great line!!!)

    That’s just the sort of stuff I mentioned in a previous comment as being so entertaining to read -when people go off on ballet at this level.

    How great that Fonteyn and Nureyev each concerned themselves with: who’s going to notice me when he/she is on stage.

    I liked that last picture the best.

  9. red says:

    George – I am totally with you. I love the rapturous comments where you can tell people have just lost their heads, basically demanding, “How does one analyze a moonbeam???

    I love that last photo too. I think my favorite one so far is the 4th one up from the bottom. That’s included in the Nureyev biography and they were rehearsing for one of their earliest collaborations. It is a totally candid moment … could be a still from a movie.

  10. melissa says:

    OH, this is facinating. I went through a ballet-crazy phase when I was younger. Lessons and everything – I was crushed when I realized I was going to be too tall to be a real ballerina… (I ended up 5’10”)

  11. red says:

    There is so much I did not know about their story, although I was aware of their famous partnership. It’s been great to learn about it. I love it!

  12. Catherine says:

    Oh wow, I love how even in the pictures where they’re not dancing, they still still super conscious of their bodies. Not in a posed way, or an artificial way, though. The third photo down, having a conversation on the couch, I love the symmetry they’re creating with their legs! And then the one where they’re just standing at the bar, look at the symmetry there with the hand on the hip…beautiful.

  13. red says:

    I love that one of them on the couch, too – they were kind of this fabulous duo, and there are pictures of them laughing and messing around on the beach, and doing a pas de deux in some grimy alley behind a nightclub – all kinds of funny things.

    It must have felt so awesome to have really found THE partner. They seemed to click as people, too. They had huge fights and all that, but it was all about the work and making it better. They seemed to like each other tremendously, and admire each other. (Havent finished the book yet so if they had a huge famous falling-out that I don’t know about – don’t tell me!!!)

  14. Nicola says:

    Red – I DID read Ballet Shoes. It was in my school library and I think I went through a point when I would take it out every time I took a book out. CRAZY! And Skating Shoes. I unfortunately could never find any of the other “Shoes” books.

  15. red says:

    Yes!! Skating Shoes! I think there was one called Theatre Shoes, too – ??? – and I know I read one called Circus Shoes. There was one called Tennis Shoes but that did not hold my interest. I wanted to hear about the performing arts!!

    Wonderful books! Ballet Shoes was the best. I remember the Masterpiece Theatre version of Ballet Shoes … so so good.

  16. Wanda says:

    From what I have read, all who knew them agree that they deeply loved each other. Their bond was never broken and they were there for each other until their deaths. They were ravishing together.
    Your pictures are wonderful. What a great, great

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