Russian ballet star Rudolf Nureyev asks for asylum – archive 1961

On 16 June 1961, Kirov Ballet’s principal dancer broke free from Russian embassy guards at Le Bourget airport and requested asylum in France. See how the Guardian and Observer reported events

Soviet dancer asks for asylum

By our own reporter
17 June 1961

The Leningrad State Kirov Ballet Company arrived in London yesterday to open a four-week season at Covent Garden without Rudolf Nureyev, one of its principal male dancers. According to a Reuters report from Paris he decided, just as a plane was leaving there with the other members of the company, to seek political asylum in France.

In London Mr Korkin, director of the company, said through an interpreter that Nureyev had had to return to Russia because his mother was unwell. He added that he had been unaware of Nureyev’s absence until after the aeroplane had taken off. He had not noticed any incident at Le Bourget Airport, but he had since received a message explaining the matter.

Reports from Paris state that Nureyev was approached in the departure lounge by two Russians who told him that he was to return to Moscow. Nureyev asked for permission to say goodbye to his colleagues and the trio was joined by the ballet master, Mr Constantin Segueev. A discussion followed. The rest of the company boarded the aircraft and Nureyev then dashed through the barrier where two French police inspectors were standing and shouted in English: “I want to be free.”

He was taken to the police office and later n the presence of the Soviet Consul-General and an official from the Soviet embassy told airport police that he had decided freely and of his own accord to stay in France. Soviet officials tried in vain to persuade him to change his mind and, “looking relaxed and cheerful,” he was taken to police headquarters in Paris where an official said his position would be “regularised.”
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The defection of a dancer

The Observer, 18 June 1961

Russian newspapers did not carry any mention of Rudolf Nureyev, the brilliant young dancer of the Leningrad Kirov ballet who sought political asylum in France as his company was about to leave Paris for London.

He left Paris yesterday morning for an undisclosed destination, after the French authorities had granted him permission to remain in France. Meanwhile, 30 members of the Kirov ballet visited the Golders Green Hippodrome last night to see the Royal Ballet to perform Les Deux Pigeons. The company opens tomorrow at Covent Garden, but Nureyev would not have been required until the The Sleeping Beauty began on Friday.

An anglophile
The defection of Nureyev will rob London – at least for the present – of the chance to see one of the three or four best male dancers in the world. Even Russian authorities describe him as “a great dancer with a brilliant future.” He was the sensation of the company’s Paris season and was to have danced a number of leading roles in London.

Twenty-three years old, slim and fair, Nureyev has high cheekbones and slanting eyes which reveal his Tartar ancestry. But in his street clothes – tight trousers and sweater – and forward-cut hair he could be mistaken for an English art student. In fact, he speaks good English (but not a word of French) and was much looking forward to his visit to London. Like others in the company, he is something of an anglophile.

He is not a product of the Leningrad school. He began bits career with a provincial amateur troupe and joined the Leningrad company only three years ago. Evidently he did not fit into the ensemble too easily: he has been criticised for having failed so far to learn “that the leading role is after all only part of the artistic whole to which even the most gifted premier danseur must subordinate his individuality.”

Curiously enough, his style is very much of the kind which has been associated with Leningrad (as opposed to Moscow), possessing a striking elegance and authority. To this he adds superb technique and a compelling dramatic power.

He is one of those lucky performers who have only to walk on to the stage to command it. His startling new interpretation of the fairytale prince in The Sleeping Beauty, with its foppish wit and royal disdain, would be keenly appreciated by Covent Garden audiences.

In Paris yesterday Serge Lifar declared that Nureyev’s decision to remain in France was a “disaster for the Leningrad ballet, of which he was the unquestionable star. Nureyev recently received the Nijinsky Prize – the No 1 award for dancing in the Soviet Union. Serge Golovine and he are, in my opinion, the two best male dancers in the world,” said Lifar.

Standing ovation for Nureyev

Paris, 23 June 1961

A packed theatre tonight gave the Russian dancer, Rudolf Nureyev, a standing ovation on his first appearance since claiming political asylum here last week. The audience applauded and cheered the special announcement at the beginning of the performance that he would appear in the role of Prince Florimond in The Sleeping Beauty given by the company of the late Marquis de Cuevas. Special police patrolled the theatre, but there were no incidents.

Rudolf Nureyev moves on

By Peter Lennon
31 January 1962

Paris has said farewell to Rudolf Nureyev, the dancer from the Kirov Ballet who, in a dramatic scurry at Le Bourget Airport, broke away from his Russian colleagues and sought asylum in France. As might be expected, having abruptly abandoned his home, language, friends, and familiar environment, he found that the new world into which he had plunged did not automatically provide him with all the consolations of which he was in need.
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compiled by Richard Nelsson

The GuardianTramp

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