Eve Patten, ‘Dancing in the Dark’, review of Dancer by Colum McCann,
in The Irish Times (8 Feb. 2003), Weekend Review

When Rudolf Nureyey danced his first season in Paris after his defection from the Soviet Union. in 1961, the items thrown on stage included a mink coat, a packet of Russian tea, a broken glass thrown by Communist protestors and 18 pairs of women’s underwear - ‘one of which he picked up after the last curtain, delighting the stagehands by sniffing them flamboyantly’. This list opens Colum McCann’s novel of Nureyev’s life, and in its curious variety anticipates the extraordinary diversity of the subject, from the half-starved Tatar peasant boy dancing for wounded soldiers to the exiled superstar performing for presidents, and scandalising a still-shockable West with his insatiable sexual appetite.

In spite of its rags-to-riches appeal - or perhaps because of it - Nureyev’s story is a difficult one to tell, its integrity threatened from within by its innate tabloid sensationalism. But McCann, a writer who has matured with mpressive speed in the past few years, somehow makes it balance. Drawing on the same documentary and historical instinct which galvanised his account of New York’s tunnel-builders in This Side of Brightness, he re-roots the dancer in the harsh and frozen earth of Stalinist and Cold War Russia, viewing his deprived childhood and his unlikely progress to the Maryinsky, or as it later became, the Kirov ballet, through the eyes of those around him his brutal, uncomprehending father, his anxious yet enchanted mother, and his first dance teacher, Anna Vasileva, who dared to play her prohibited Stravinsky recordings low on the gramophone for her prodigy.

The result is a kind of ensemble narrative, the interlinked histories of related lives, some fictional and some - adapted partly from Diane Solway’s biography of Nureyev - real. The book draws in the prosaic thoughts of Nureyev’s London shoemaker as assiduously as those of Margot Fonteyn, his long-term partner at the Royal Ballet, as she muses on the nature of a relationship, deeper than a marriage. Expansive and engaging, these individual tales showcase McCann’s skilful development of interiority, and display too his wellhoned prose - completely clean now of the verbal jewellery which sometimes threatened to overload his early short stories, but still registering the range and inventiveness which first brought him to attention as a writer.

If the general cast of the novel is well executed, Nureyev himself remains elusive, glimpsed and snatched at in moments of intensity. This is the boy who deliberately made his feet bleed as theatrical proof of his dedication to dance, the performer who left a London theatre during the interval to solicit for sex in a men’s public toilet. There is no shirking either his passion or his sexual extravagance: in a Pads club, ‘in the upstairs room lit only by red bulbs, Victor watched Rudi blow six French men in a row, stopping for a glass of vodka between each’. But, these remain snapshots, by and large: there is no seamless core to his experiences, and even the key moment of his defection is obscured. Nor is there any attempt to romanticise his subsequent exile. Nureyev’s single visit home again to the bedside of his dying demented mother is an anticlimax, an episode charged with its own failure, but ultimately all the more moving for that.

This refusal to smooth out the awkwardness of Nureyev gives Dancer the sarne degree of emotional intelligence as Janice Galloway’s recent departure into bio-fiction, in her novel of the pianist and composer Clara Schumann. if he doesn’t exactly, capture his subject’s life, McCann stages it perfectly and frames it from a series of unpredictable perspectives.

But of course his raw material is less malleable than Galloway’s - he must take on the uncomfortable contingencies of Nureyey’s escapades across the landscape of modrn celebrity so that the stage is broadened from the foreignn to the familiar, and sometimes too famillar. One can manage the cameos of Brando, Warhol, the Kennedys, even a sweaty Picasso playing the piano in the nude. But there is something jarring about the allusions to Marianne and Mick, or Diana Rooss, or Twiggy, despite the obvious legitimacy of such references.

The reason they do jar is perhaps related to the particular historical span of Dancer, which brings the cataclysm of the second World War into close and unpalatable proximity with the cultural shallowness of the 1970s onwards. Eventually, though, a subtle symmetry is achieved between the two periods. The novel’s opening pages tell of how the frozen, broken bodies of Russian soldiers were bathed in welded metal vats when they returned from the front, an image recalled much later in the book in the erotic yet repellent description of Nureyey, naked, beautiful and vulnerable, immersing himself in a gay bath house in New York. Here, through McCann’s careful and understated compositional arrangement, the invisible patterns of history are suddenly illuminated. And here too the shadow of Nureyev’s Aids-related death, 10 years ago this January, begins to fall on the closing pages of his remarkable life.

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