This is Part One of a six-part series of reminiscences by Neal Weaver entitled The Mad Russian and the Great Dane, Tales of Rudolf Nureyev and Erik Bruhn.
You can read more about this author at the end of the article.
Parts One-Four were first published on Stage Raw.
Part One: Rudi
During the years that I worked at The Actors Studio, I also had a money job, as a salesclerk at the Marlboro Bookstore on 42nd Street. That also produced some interesting adventures, but not of the theatrical variety. I had been working at Marlboro for a couple of years, and was feeling decidedly in a rut. I decided the time had come to quit, though I had no other immediate job possibilities. Finding another job proved harder than I expected, but eventually I spotted a want ad concerning a job in the circulation department at Dance Magazine.
I had a meeting with a go-getter guy Dick Toman, who was the circulation manager, and went to work for Dance Magazine and its sister publication Ballroom Dance Magazine, which was essentially a sort of house organ for ballroom dance teachers at the Fred Astaire and other studios. It was a painstaking job, but not a difficult one, and I enjoyed it. Though I had no notion then of the opportunities it would present, to meet and interview Russian dancer Rudolf Nureyev, then probably the biggest star in the world, Danish premier danseur Erik Bruhn, who was his lover, and a host of other stars and celebrities.
I guess I must have done the job well, because Dick soon left for a better-paying job, and I assumed his role, though I didn’t get his salary or title. Jean Gordon, the publisher of the two magazines, was notoriously tight-fisted when it came to salaries or credit.
In addition to putting out the two magazines, we also sold dance-oriented merchandise, and I was responsible for overseeing this. We published a Dance Magazine Calendar, with photos of dance stars on every page, books on dance technique, and some rather tacky dance-oriented Christmas cards. And there was a photo set featuring photos of famous dancers. I was eventually able to get some better designs for the Christmas cards, and I decided we should do a Rudolf Nureyev photo set. I had great fun tracking down the most interesting photos of Nureyev, and getting clearances to use them. And they sold quite well. But I heard rumors that Nureyev was furious because he thought (wrongly) we were minting money at this expense. He had on more than one occasion ripped up photos from our set when they were presented to him for autographing.
I then conceived a notion that we should do some personality posters—after all it was the 1960s, and posters were very big. We did posters of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers, Erik Bruhn, Pavlova, and of course, the big cheese, Nureyev. It was decided that though we hadn’t sought his permission to do the photo set, we would have to get it before issuing the poster.
I was frankly slightly terrified of having to deal directly with a super-star like Nureyev, so I procrastinated. Then, one morning I came to work decidedly determined. I called the Sol Hurok office hoping to get information as to how to reach him. Surprisingly they gave me his private phone number without any questions. He was staying at an apartment hotel called The Navarro on Central Park South. It was still early morning, but I thought it would be safe to call him because I thought there’d be some underling taking his calls. Instead, it was Nureyev himself who answered, sounding extremely groggy. Apparently I’d woken him up. Not a good beginning. Flustered, I explained about the personality poster, and conscious of his reported anger over the photo sets, I was quick to explain that we could not pay much by way of compensation for the use of his image. Unfortunately, this was lost on him, both due to his sleepiness and his precise but rather limited knowledge of English. He didn’t say no, but he clearly wanted to get off the phone and go back to sleep. He said, “Find me at the Met sometime.” He was dancing with Margot Fonteyn and the Royal Ballet for a New York season at the Metropolitan Opera.
I knew the backstage at the Met had rather tight security, and didn’t know how I’d get in, much less find Rudi. I screwed my courage to the sticking point, and called him again. This time the call was answered by a very nice but unidentified man. (It was only later that I realized that he was the legendary dancer Erik Bruhn, who was Rudi’s lover at the time.) I explained my dilemma, and he understood at once. He gave me the telephone number of the Royal Ballet’s stage manager. She proved both nice and helpful, telling me that on a certain day, Nureyev would have a dress rehearsal for the Roland Petit pop ballet Paradise Lost, and I could talk to him afterward. She said I should be there around four p.m., and she would tell the stage doorman to admit me.
Full of trepidation, I arrived early, and was directed to a bench in the corridor which led from Rudi’s star dressing room to the stage. I sat there for a very long time, getting more and more nervous, but finally Rudi emerged from the stage, looking sweaty, exhausted, and rather ape-like in his exhaustion. I grabbed his attention as he walked by me, and hurriedly explained who I was and what I wanted. I had brought along a the despised photo set, because I’d hoped to use a wonderful photo by British photographer Zoe Dominick, of Rudi in practice clothes—wool-knit tights and a tee-shirt—and wearing a nice smile. I was convinced that photo would sell like hot cakes. But he didn’t agree. He took the photo and ripped it in half. Then he said he had to shower and change, and I should wait for him. And he padded off to his dressing room, at one end of the hall, where it intersected with another corridor going past the dressing-rooms.
Once again I was left alone in the corridor, but then I sensed movement and looked up, just in time to see Margot Fonteyn enter his dressing room. She was there for quite a while, and when she emerged, she was clearly fresh out of the shower. She was naked, but holding a towel to her front, and carrying an African violet which Rudi had apparently given her. She looked both ways, but did not think to look straight ahead to where I was. She gracefully raced to her dressing room next door, her bare back-side shining.
There was, at that time, much debate among the more gossipy balletomanes as to whether Rudi and Margot were sleeping together. I can’t begin to settle that question, but it was clear to me that, whether or not they slept together, they certainly showered together.
Finally Rudi emerged from his dressing-room, now stylishly clad. He explained that he didn’t like any of the photos I’d showed him, so I should go to the Hurok Office and get his personal picture file. And when I had it, I should come back and we would talk further.
This was shaping up to be a fascinating but rather protracted adventure.
Written by Neal Weaver.
Part Two will be published next week.
Parts One-Four were first published on Stage Raw.
About the Author – Neal Weaver:
A playwright, director, and critic, Neal Weaver has been working in and around theater for 65 years. Over these six-plus decades he has worked as an usher, a puppeteer, a movie projectionist, actor, playwright, publicist, and editor.
Neal Weaver’s plays have been produced Off-Broadway, Off-Off Broadway, in LA’s 99-seat theaters and in universities.
Weaver was stage manager for the Playwrights Unit of the Actors’ Studio in NYC, and he was founder and artistic director of The Meat and Potatoes Co (NYC)., which mounted 92 productions in 12 years.
He began his journalism career in 1968 as associate editor, critic, and feature writer for the now defunct After Dark Magazine, reviewing theater and film. He moved to Los Angeles in 1987, and since his arrival here has reviewed theatre for LA View, Backstage, LA Weekly and Stage Raw, and has been a member of Los Angeles Drama Critics Circle since the mid-1990s.