Sunday, January 12, 2003 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Book Review

Leap of faith: A fictional reimagining of Rudolf Nureyev's life

Special to The Seattle Times


by Colum McCann Metropolitan Books, $26
Author appearance

Colum McCann will read from "Dancer" at 7:30 p.m. Feb. 6 at Elliott Bay Book Co., 206-624-6600.

At a time when celebrity news saturates the media, it's curious how little this development has influenced contemporary literature. Serious writers, it seems, can't take the rich and famous seriously.

But what if the rich and famous represent more than the glitz and glamour of their station? What if they can be employed to reveal a culture and its priorities?

This was an idea Joyce Carol Oates explored several years ago with "Blonde," an admittedly hyperbolic but revealing fictional biography of Marilyn Monroe. Now, the gifted Irish writer Colum McCann offers "Dancer," a novel based on another 20th-century icon, the Russian ballet star Rudolf Nureyev.

Nureyev, who died from AIDS in 1993, was a performer with animal magnetism onstage. Off, he was also something of a feral creature — reckless, impulsive. So it's not surprising that he became the first artist to flee to the West from behind the Iron Curtain, a distinction that surely inspired McCann, an intelligent and culturally sensitive author.

The world has changed so much and so suddenly that Nureyev's era seems quaint. But when the globe was divided between capitalism and communism, Nureyev became a political trophy. Americans who didn't know a plié from a pas de deux embraced the dancer, and Nureyev, who craved fame almost as much as he did ballet, gladly climbed onto the geopolitical stage as well as the artistic. "Dancer" charts his evolution using shifting points of view. Sometimes Rudi — profane and with a Tatar-bred arrogance — is heard. Other times the speakers are those who befriended or merely observed him along the way — often people whose own experiences showcase the split canvas on which Nureyev grew and prospered. Occasionally an unnamed narrator links the various testimonials, as do judicious quotes taken from those who met Nureyev's match as celebrities: Truman Capote, Andy Warhol, Jacqueline Kennedy.

Together, these pieces present Nureyev as "a curious cocktail of rural arrogance and sophisticated doubt." He is a portrait in extremes, both a Russian peasant and the consummate aesthete. Poets and Prokofiev fire his blood as much as ballet.

For Nureyev, fame was hardly inevitable. He was raised in the bleak Russian city of Ufa, where a by-the-book communist father beat him for wanting to dance. But talent and, more important, determination landed him a spot with the Kirov Ballet in Leningrad. There, his reputation and recklessness flowered together.

In 1961, while in the West, the dancer defected, launching himself on a course of fame, fortune and destruction. Sexual indulgence came so easy in those days — gay bars, of course, but even bolder behavior, like pulling on street clothes and leaving the theater to solicit sex during an intermission.

McCann probes the reasons behind the facts. As a performer, Nureyev was his own worst critic. He was haunted by images of his family, his mother especially, left "sitting in Ufa, plain bread and borscht, a glass of vodka." Through the eyes of his legendary dance partner, Margot Fonteyn, the loneliness of fame and dedication are revealed. He is compelled to "search for that thing beyond dance, a desire for the human." Of course, these are only clues, not answers. But what McCann manages to do with assuredness is to reflect the larger atmosphere of the times, a mood shaped by, among other things, the fight against communism and the sexual revolution.

It's critical that "Dancer" be read connotatively, not denotatively, as if you were closing an eye and holding up your thumb rather than taking precise measurements. The goal of a book like this is to catch the spirit of the person and his age. It's a tall order, and one that "Dancer" pulls off brilliantly.

Ellen Emry Heltzel is a book reviewer who lives in Portland.


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