Known for his catlike leaps and rapid turns, Rudolf Nureyev was the most compelling dancer of his era. "When I dance with him, I see not Nureyev but the character of the ballet," said Margot Fonteyn of her favorite partner.
Nureyev was born in Irkutsk in the Russian republic of the Soviet Union on March 17, 1938. He began studying ballet at age 11. At 17 he enrolled in the Leningrad Ballet School, where he was an outstanding dancer but an otherwise rebellious student. He refused to join the Communist youth league, and he studied English privately. After graduation in 1958 he became a soloist with the Kirov Ballet. Three years later, while on tour with the company in Paris, he defected.
Nureyev made his American debut in 1962, appearing on television and with Ruth Page's Chicago Opera Ballet. Later in the year he joined the Royal Ballet in London as permanent guest artist. With Margot Fonteyn he danced 'Giselle', 'Marguerite and Armand', and 'Swan Lake'. As a choreographer he produced 'Romeo and Juliet' at the London Festival Ballet (1977) and 'Manfred' at the Paris Opera Ballet (1979). In 1980 he staged 'The Nutcracker' for the Berlin Ballet, and the following year his 'Romeo and Juliet' was performed at La Scala in Milan. Nureyev also appeared in films. In 1973 he starred in a movie version of 'Don Quixote', and four years later he played the title role in 'Valentino'. His second dramatic film role was in 'Exposed' (l982). In 1983 he became artistic director of the Paris Opera Ballet. In 1989 he resigned as director but remained as premier choreographer until his death in Paris on Jan. 6, 1993.