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Human Tension

Emanuela Giacca

Carla spent her childhood in the countryside between the house of her aunt in Gazoldo degli Ippoliti near Mantova, and her maternal grandmother at Volongo in Cremona, before she returned to Milan. «My grandmother was a peasant, I lived with her for a while when we were displaced. My mother was a factory worker at Innocenti, my father a mountaineer, he had been reported missing, but returned from Russia and became a tram driver».

Rudolf was born on board the Transiberian train while in transit, his father was a soviet soldier, traditional Tatar Muslim, he saw dance  as completely frivolous and perverse. He rarely returned home and when he did Rudolf hugged him with deference, to sanction his authority more than to express affection. They maintained a distance that transformed into conflict until the family’s displacement. After Vladivostock and Moscow, in 1941 they settled in a small village near Ufa in Baschiria. It was a winning ticket which bought Rudy, his mother and two sisters to the theatre: as depicted in The White Crow, a film by Ralph Fiennes which premiered in Italy last June.

At the end of 1944 in Ufa principal dancer Zajtuna Nazretdinova takes the stage. A Nureyev child sees ballet for the first time. He’s six years old, already feeling the music in his body. In dance he sees a way out, an expression of a liberty that had seemed impossible. He starts studying with Elena Vajtovič, but his debut is late. He refuses a post at the Bolshoi Theatre, enrolling instead at age 17 at the Kirov Dance Academy, following in the footsteps of greats –  Nižinskij, Pavlova and Uvanova.

At ten years old, Carla was already at dance school at the Scala Theatre, taught by Vera Volkova. For her parents her enrolment there was a practical choice. «Going to the Milanese Tram Agency dance hall was a luxury at the time. That’s where I started dancing to a foxtrot and cha cha cha. A woman noticed me and suggested my parents enrol me in the Scala Theatre school, which was free at that time. I wasn’t selected straight away, but I was put in a  group of people to review. The Ettorina Mazzucchelli, walking up and down the rows of girls said to the Scala’s superintendent Ghiringhelli: ‘This one has a pretty face’. I went through a trial and they took me on». Carla Fracci dreamed of becoming a hairdresser. She didn’t complain. She accepted the sacrifices and discipline, even if she didn’t quite understand the motive. When she saw Margot Fonteyn, the joy she transmitted while dancing, her path made sense. She found a model in her. «She’s really my daughter», the English dancer said of Carla.

Rudolph felt the urgency of passing time. In ballet a male’s career is even shorter than a female’s career. He choose his own instructor Aleksander Pushkin – in a role performed in the film by Ralph Fiennes. He graduates, begins working in the company of the Kirov Theatre, dancing with Alla Šelest and Irina Kolpakova. In a short while all of Russia knows his name, he dominates the classic repetoire with muscular impetus and an irreplicable magnetism, the power of dance performance. In tournee’ with Kirov Theatre, he crosses the border of the Soviet Union for the first time: to the Paris Opera in Vienna.  Destiny creates space for itself until finally, with some arrogance, it pushes open the door to triumph. There’s an opportunity when first dancer Konstantin Sergeyev has an accident and Rudolph is asked to replace him. There is an upset on stage, exciting the public.  They prepare to perform in London. He is tormented by a desire to show the world who’s best. «He was a very spirited person, with ambition and knowledge, but his effort to find himself, left him timid and insecure. He developed a plan. Studying, traveling and becoming cultivated» says Carla Fracci. In the film the Ukrainian Oleg Ivenko plays Nureyev, who wanders through the halls of the Louvre early in the morning to avoid being disturbed, and stops to contemplate Géricault’s Raft of the Medusa.

Carla Fracci graduated in ’54. Two years later she was a soloist and then after another after two years she became a soloist, two more years went by and she was a prima ballerina. «I was elected to the role after having success in London at a happening with two of the greatest Giselles of the time, Alicia Markova and Yvette Chauviré. I had only danced Giselle once, at La Scala. I heard people screaming. The dancer and choreographer Lynn Seymour rose from the back of the theatre to approach and applaud me». She danced at the London Festival Ballet, the Stuttgart Ballet, the Royal Swedish Ballet, and from ’67 became part of the American Ballet Theater, sharing the stage with artists such as Vladimir Vasiliev, Mikhail Baryshnikov, Erik Bruhn.

In 1961 Rudolf is forced to flee. Watched closely by the KGB, his indominatable character, friendships with Westerners, and visits to gay clubs provoked their concern. He was in Paris with the company, leaving for London. Invited to an official event in the Kremlin, he refused to attend and decided to stay in the West, contravening the order to return home. It was there he obtained political asylum, the first in a series of escapes: with Makarova, Panov, Baryschnikov and Godunov to follow. «People who left their homeland, their environment, to build another one. Rudolf brought this sadness from leaving Russia, always thinking of his mother. He told me his recurring dream: he climbed up a large staircase made of slices of bread instead of steps, I remember how he gestured while he told it. At the top of the stairs his mother was waiting crying and holding outstretched hands». He will not return home for twenty-six years. The Soviet authorities by the will of Michail Gorbachev granted him a special permit to see his ill mother only in 1987, when he was the head of the Paris Opera ballet.

Rudolf intrigues the press like a rock star. He has an aggressive grip on the public, an ability to attract everything to himself: «He loved competition, he put himself to the test. In his shows he did things you didn’t expect and created suspense, people liked him». His temperament, his loves: from Anthony Perkins to Erik Bruhn and Freddie Mercury – who he called “Eddie” – to his assistant, the dancer Robert Tracy. It was Erik Bruhn who taught him the Orthodox technique to direct his talent. «We were a group of four, me, Beppe, Rudy and Erik Bruhn. A healthy relationship had been created. I was his guest at La Turbie, he came to us in Florence. In private, I knew how to remove the armor:  mistaken feelings combined with the desire not endure an attack».

Carla Fracci and Beppe Menegatti were married for twenty-five years, Beppe turns ninety this year. They met Beppe was an assistant on set for Luchino Visconti: he went on to direct his wife’s shows and father Francesco. Carla danced until her fifth month of pregnancy – Eugenio Montale dedicated a poem to her, The Tired Dancer. It was rare for dancers to become mothers. People were jealous of her, but Carla never cared about gossip. Charlie Chaplin went to see her dance, sent her the photo he had taken of her, with a dedication on the back: ‘You are wonderful’. It never changed: Fracci’s conception of dance was democratic, she continues to combine strength, grace, seriousness and irony.

Fracci, Nureyev – were both pioneers. As dancers, choreographers, as directors of dance bodies. «They made fun of me: ‘Where are you going? “I went to smaller theaters, squares, tent theaters, always with dignity and respect. We were in Verona, in Bologna we made Prokofiev’s Stone Flower, which had never even been done before, we went to Palermo, and to Bari; I remember in Paestum more than seven thousand people came to see us. I had to arrive like Giulietta in the funeral scene, brought into the theater by friars. I heard them saying: ‘Excuse me, excuse me’. There were people sitting on the stage». Rudolf transformed the male’s role in ballet, freeing him from frivolity. «Becoming a choreographer was his ambition, the one that inhibited him. He didn’t want to be just a porter, he wanted to dance together with the dancer. He entered the stage like a tiger. It was important to be his equal not to be crushed, I succeeded: the Sylphide in Paris, the Don Quixote at the Scala, Giselle, the Swan Lake, the Romeo and Juliet with his choreography, full of steps. Each note was a step. You had to be strong, ready, but he knew I would respond well. He never told me, but I know he told other people: ‘Carla can do anything’».

When Carla and Rudolf danced together for the first time: «There was alot of tension. He was always on the go, waiting for a mistake. He loved to play tricks to test you, it was his way of working. He could have been rude, he had a reputation as an arrogant person». In 1978 they performed Sleeping Beauty. They met in front of Margot Fonteyn’s dressing room, lining up to greet her at Covent Garden in London. Nureyev’s partner is Fonteyn, almost twenty years older than him, at the same time Bruhn was with Fracci. For the next five or six years they mirror each other, competing without a winner. On the same day they attend Giselle in New York, or the Fracci-Bruhn couple go to the Met while Fonteyn is with Nureyev at the State Theater. The theaters have to change the dates of the shows so they don’t coincide. There is a version of Romeo and Juliet in which Fonteyn is Madonna Capuleti, with Fracci and Nureyev as Juliet and Romeo. «He wanted me for The Nutcracker, I told him I couldn’t do it, it was too difficult, there was no time: I had recently had Francesco. It was as if he wanted to say: ‘I’ll show you that Carla will perform’. He sent the pianist to play the piano and taught me all the ballet, step by step – in three days we were in general rehearsal. At the end of the show he shook my hand and said to me: ‘Now you see what it means to have courage?’ That was Rudy». One of the last phone calls, Carla was considering leaving dance, Rudolf was with his friend Charles Jude and Florence Clerc. He urged her to continue, as the “master of all styles” – he defined it – urging her to go on. «He was demanding but fair. He did not stop, he always asked more, of himself and to others. We did Don Quixote when he was already sick, but he didn’t want to change a step, the ballet had to stay as it was born. He went to the hospital in the morning and to class in the afternoon». 

Nureyev had houses everywhere, from Paris to London, the French Riviera to New York. He died in his Parisian home, the first one purchased after his expatriation, on 6 January 1993. He had bought an archipelago off the coast of Positano, Li Galli, which had already belonged to Leonide Massine, with a villa designed by Le Corbusier. He thought of hosting a dance school there. He initially denied the disease, refusing treatment, but fell ill of complications related to AIDS. A mosaic tomb in the shape of a kilim carpet was the last image made to represent his figure, kept in the Russian cemetery of Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois. Oriental sumptuousness in memory of La Bayadère, designed by Ezio Frigerio – whose new edition for Rudolf was the final undertaking for the choreographer and dancer. A memory of Nureyev told by Beppe Menegatti is linked to Frigerio, who had created an ideal city in miniature placed at the back of the stage at the Scala for Romeo and Juliet. When Nureyev saw it he was furious. He vented his feelings with the director, crossed on stage at the end of a morning trial: that small city seemed an affront to him. «Rudy,” replied Menegatti, “make no mistake, it is the perspective effect.” If you don’t know, go and see the Olympic Academy in Vicenza so you realize». They saw him leave the theater and get into a taxi: travelling to Vicenza to see the Palladio.

It become an expression: ‘the new Fracci,’ the new Nureyev ‘. It was claimed by someone about Sergei Polunin, the first tattooed dancer who played the role of Soloviev in the Ralph Fiennes film. His head shots: the resignation from the Royal Ballet after being elected first dancer at nineteen; his decision to become a freelancer to preserve his artistic freedom; a video, which went viral on YouTube, in which he danced on Hozier’s Take me to church directed by David LaChapelle, announcing his farewell to dance, then changing his mind again. «There is no heir to Nureyev. Each has their own personality. Each dancer must be the new Fracci. We need to study and work, there are no magic wands. Young people need teachers to learn how the technical aspects of the repertoire. Even the romantic ballet is not always the same, every ballet is a world of its own. I was lucky to find masters and choreographers. The problem today is that there are no spaces. They tell me: “Why don’t you make a company?” The institutions should perhaps give instead of removing, and this is my regret, because I have done everything to promote dance among the people. The superintendents believed in the proposals, there was the help of the theater that hosted you, gave you the opportunity to work. Today they have dismantled the companies of almost all the theaters, La Scala, Rome and Naples remain, and if you find yourself alone, without a theater, without a venue, without stages, what do you do?».

Translated from the original Italian by Philippa Nicole Barr

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