Dancer is an extraordinary novel. Vivid and hard-edged, rather than lyrical and beautiful, it fuses fact and fiction seamlessly, bringing to life ballet star Rudolf Nureyev and the many secret worlds he inhabited. From his first public performance, when, at the age of five he performed an exuberant dance in a hospital ward for Russian soldiers wounded in World War II, he was considered more athletic than subtle, and as he grew older, his legs were regarded as the source of "more violence than grace."
Nureyev's "wild and feral" style of dance meshes perfectly with McCann's prose. Paralleling the athleticism and drive of Nureyev, McCann's writing is bold and straightforward, characterized by short, powerful, descriptive sentences, often in a simple subject-verb-object pattern. Avoiding all frills and sentimentality, McCann favors strength over lyricism, and power over prettiness.
Through the first person observations of almost two dozen characters who touched Nureyev's life in some way, McCann shines light on Nureyev's personality and his development as a dancer. His family, teachers, lovers, and even a schoolboy bully, a stilt-walker, and the captain of an airplane, who filed an "incident report" about his atrocious behavior aboard a plane, all comment on his actions and the choices he makes, personally and professionally, as his career soars.
The deprivation and sadness experienced by most of these sensitive observers in their own lives contrasts vividly with the excesses and hedonism of Nureyev's adult life and illuminate, without need for authorial comment, his arrogance and boorishness. At the same time, however, these multiple viewpoints also humanize Nureyev in many ways by showing the extent to which these other characters are connected by love to others and to their history, while Nureyev becomes a "living myth...cared for and coddled and protected by the mythmakers."
Filled with intriguing characters, ranging from simple Russian peasants to Andy Warhol, Tennessee Williams, John Lennon, Truman Capote, Mick Jagger, Jimi Hendrix, and the stars of ballet, the novel is a monument to the power of the creative spirit and a testament to the dangers inherent in a life from which all other controls have been removed. Rudi always "tore [a] role open...by the manner in which he presented himself, a sort of hunger turned human." McCann brings this voracious human to life. Nureyev leaps off these pages in a huge and stunning grand jete. Mary Whipple
In his fictional perspective on the life of Rudolf Nureyev, 1938-1993, Colum McCann creates an unforgettable portrait of an artist and celebrity [from a time when the word really meant something], and examines the artist’s relationships with the people in the background.
In what will no doubt be frustrating for some readers, most of these are only briefly sketched in, or not explained at all [‘A speedboat to Galli. Erik, Pablo, Gerome, Kenzu, Margot, Gillian, Claire and me. Margot spent the whole weekend on the phone to Tito.’ – Margot [Fonteyn] being the only readily recognisable name]. As the author points out, names have been changed to protect the privacy of characters still living, and individual traits distributed over several characters. Given Nureyev’s off-stage promiscuity this seems a sensible decision and, in most ways, McCann has achieved what set out to do.
This is not a book just for lovers of ballet although it may well spur some readers to look into the biographies of the dancer. It considers the brutality of life in the Soviet Union under Stalin from which, quite remarkably, Nureyev emerged. Different sections are presented from the perspective of Nureyev himself and from those those around him - his teachers, secretary, rivals, family and friends. Through these a mosaic is created of a perfectionist in an imperfect world. Significantly, Nureyev’s relationship with the Danish dancer and choreographer Erik Bruhn, 1928-86, the love of his life for over a quarter of a century, is only obliquely described, thereby creating space for other characters. In a similar manner, Nureyev’s on- and off-stage relationship with Fonteyn is kept from dominating the story. Whilst the events leading up to the dancer’s defection to the West are passed over quickly, its consequences for the dancer and his family and friends were lifelong and shape the latter half of the book.
McCann is particularly effective in describing the monotony of practice and the pain that has to be overcome, even within performances. He refrains from trying to convey in writing the impression that the dancer created onstage and his many triumphs with Fonteyn are revealed through the global itineraries of their performances. However, surely no-one has better described the internal and external dimensions of ballet ‘Music reaches his muscles, the lights spin, he glares at the conductor, the tempo is corrected, and he continues, controlled at first, each move careful and precise, the pieces beginning to fit, his body elastic, three jetés en tournant, careful of the landing, he extends his line, beautiful movement ah cello go.. The lights merge, the shirtfronts blur. A series of pirouettes. He is at ease, his body sculpted to the music, his shoulder searching the other shoulder, his right toe knowing the left knee, the height, the depth, the form, the control, the twist of the wrist, the bend of the elbow, the tilt of his neck, notes digging into his arteries, and he is in the air now, forcing the legs up beyond muscular memory, one last press of the thighs, an elongation of form, a loosening of human contour, he goes higher and is skyheld’. After the acclaim and adoration comes the pain and inevitable decline.
Rather less successful are the insertion of diary entries and detours into the dancer’s predatory excesses described by Victor, a Venezuelan friend and sexual competitor. There is also a storyline about a Londoner who creates and mends the dancer’s ballet shoes that added little. The contrast between the excesses of the West and the poverty and vindictiveness within the Soviet Union are very evocative and I would have preferred the final part, describing the artist’s decline, the escalating effects of AIDS that could never be mentioned, and his return to Russia [at the instigation of Raisa Gorbachev] to see his dying mother, had been longer.
McCann reveals the dancer’s child-like simplicity, his mood swings, his attempts to manipulate the media by creating rumours and erroneous life-stories, and what he thought about those around him. He has the advantage of being unconstrained by the facts. Particularly telling, given his childhood poverty [‘he hunches over his cup of milk and a potato left over from the night before’] and upbringing in the ice-bound city of Ufa, was Nureyev’s eclectic art collection, described and listed in the text. Throughout the novel we find Nureyev ‘ragged at the edges, overly excited and there was a dangerous charm to him, very Tatar.’
on 25 March 2013
This is not really a biography & not really a work of fiction but rather something inbetween. The book tells the story of Rudi Nureyev from his early life in Ufa to his days dancing on the stages of the Western world. It's writen in McCann's wonderful, almost poetic prose. Every minute detail is described & brought to life. From the plaster moulds on a ceiling to the image of a man walking down the street. This transports you along with the story.
It's told from the point of view of Nureyev's friends, family & colleagues. The only criticism I have is that sometimes this was a bit disjointed & it took me a while to work out who was now telling the tale & the time frame. But other than that, I enjoyed the different voices. Rudi's decadent life in the West is told in contrast with the one he left behind & we also get an insight into Soviet life; queuing for hours to buy sugar that isn't there & how even the briefest connections with the wrong man can taint your life.
I had only heard the name Rudolf Nureyev before reading this & it has encouraged me to seek out the biographies McCann mentions in his acknowledgements. I adore this book. It's one to lose yourself in & one I will be keeping to read again, instead of passing on as I so often do.
on 31 January 2015
Written in a variety of voices it is the imagined history of Rudolf Nureyev. It captures the dancer's intensity with everything he did. How each of his contemporys are affected by his charisma. I was absorbed from the beginning. Couldn't put it down.
on 23 April 2003
This is, without a shadow of a doubt, the read of the century. Colum McCann takes you on a high octane rollercoaster ride of the highs and lows of one of ballet's most flamboyant characters. His story telling abilities capture every pirouette, every foray into louche areas and every tantrum thrown.
McCann is a genius of a story teller. The book should be read and reread
on 25 January 2012
Stange as it may sound, I launched into this book after stealing off my sister-in-laws shelf and didn't even realise it was about Rudolf Nureyev until about a quarter of third of the way through!
I know nothing about ballet, but it taught me about the need for passion, pain, perseverance and bleeding feet. Did you know ballet dancers have bleeding feet?
I don't know how embelished the story was or wasn't, but the first chapter with the stories of Russian volunteer ladies bathing the traumatised soldiers returning from the war, were, for me one of the the most moving and memorable parts of the book.
The stories of his paranoia about special services and inability to contact his family left behind - not that long ago and so very sad.
The chapters were written in the first person from the different character viewpoints,a bit like snapshot films from around the globe.
I was briefly immersed in a different world which i knew nothing about.It was convincing.
Isn't that what a good book is supposed to do?
I guess it worked for me.
on 25 December 2010
I was tempted to give this novel up several times but persisted to the bitter end in the hope that it would improve. It didn't. Don't make my mistake.
The book gets off to a good start with descriptions of the horrors of the Second World War in Russia and the period in which the young Nureyev awaits the return of his father, a political commissar in the Red Army.
The characterization and plot is strong and the childhood and adolescent scenes in Russia are so far superior to the rest of the book that you wonder what went wrong.
Any kind of formal narrative virtually disappears and we end up with an unfocussed multi-narrator style which leaves the reader at sea.
For example, no attempt is made to describe why Nureyev defected to the West, a point I would have thought was important.
Once he is away from Russia, the whole work implodes and we have a take-it-or-leave mix of narrators, entries from journals and letters, Nureyev's thoughts and reminiscences presented in short paragraphs, a 30-page chapter with no punctuation covering his sexual antics in New York's gay scene written in what I imagine is meant to be authentic "street language".
I won't give any examples of the sex and drugs and rock and roll lifestyle as I am not sure if Amazon allows reviewers to quote the dirty bits.
The relationship with Margot Fonteyn is the best part of this period and it is a pity the author did not make more
Instead, he wanders all over the place, thinking up new ways to bamboozle the reader.
The worst of all is a chapter consisting of lists of things Nureyev buys e.g. "In Athens he buys a first-century Roman marble torso after the Diadumenos of Polykleitos, the body slightly chipped at the rib cage. His Virginia farmhouse has cabinet shelves that display precious carvings from Ghana. He buys Olga Spessivtzeva's slippers, shows them to his maker in Covent Garden who learns a new stitch from them. On Madison Avenue he haggles over a Charles Meynier painting Wisdom Defending Youth Against Love."
The book begins with a list of things thrown at Nureyev at a concert in Paris and ends with another list, Nureyev's art collection from auctions held in 1995. In case you're interested, a 19th century Jamawar Long Shawl was sold to R. Ratnawke for US$ 5,319.
Maybe the book should be called "Nureyev's Lists."
In "Dancer," a "fictionalized biography" of Rudolf Nureyev, Colum McCann, indeed, takes liberty with his subject matter, although one certainly wonders just how far! Serious Rudohiles and scholars will notice this. However, one must give the author his dues--this is stated as a work of fiction.
That said, it certainly is a mesmerizing work, a roman a clef of the first order. McCann, while certainly intrigued by the subject, makes an effort to capture the whole picture. Beginning with graphic scenes of the Russian Front in the dead of winter in l943, McCann then introduces us to young Rudi, a boy totally captivated and dedicated to dance.
The novel then takes off, ala a good foreign film, in several directions, shifting bluntly from one character to another, a carefully choreographed and orchestrated plot outline. We watch with fascination as Rudi grows up, is given special attention by the state authorities, especially at the Kirov, and then successfully defects to the West. The book is a miasma of successes and failures, a pot pourri of Nureyev's lifestyle and profession. McCann portrays at once a young man given to his great ego and self confidence, his insensitivities to friends and associates alike, and his dedication to the few close friends (and family) he maintains.
This is a picture that perhaps not everyone is happy with; however, it's fiction and much of the speculation can be accepted. Even if "Dancer" was not so obviously about Nureyev, substituting a completely fictional name for the character would not diminish McCann's power in this riviting book. A good read.
on 29 April 2012
Colum McCann's "Dancer", a fictitious biography of acclaimed 20th Century dancer Rudolf Nureyev, is quite simply the author's finest work of fiction to date. This is truly an engrossing, often mesmerizing, exploration of the dancer's life as seen through the eyes of his family and friends from his childhood to the end of an artistically triumphant life tragically cut short by AIDS. The son of impoverished Muslim Tatar peasants, we meet the young "Rudik" dancing for Russian troops in the waning days of World War II. His teachers in his hometown and then later, in Lenningrad, recognize that here is someone who is destined to dance, culminating with his admittance into the company of Lenningrad's celebrated Kirov Ballet. His Paris defection only leads the young Rudolf Nureyev into scaling Mount Everests of international artistic triumphs, culminating with his dancing with acclaimed ballerina Margot Fonteyn at London's Covent Garden. But perhaps more fascinating is the dark side of Nureyev's personality, which McCann has captured vividly, showing the artist's arrogance and decadent behavior, including his brutal treatment of friends, colleagues and especially, lovers, such as acclaimed fellow dancer Erik Buhn. We see him sink into the seedy underground of New York City's homosexual-dominated sexual pleasure industry in the 1970s, while managing to keep his homosexuality a closely held secret. I concur completely with my former high school teacher Frank McCourt's glowing assessment of "Dancer" on the novel's book jacket as having "... the wingspan of a great Russian novel, which is only fitting for an imagined life of Rudolf Nureyev."
(Reposted from my Amazon USA review)
on 9 February 2005
Mr McCann offers readers an astonishingly gripping biography of the Russian dancer Rudolph Nureyev written as a piece of fiction. It is not a biography in the classic sense of the term since real characters with true identities mingle with fictitious characters in episodes from the author's imagination. Nureyev's moody personality combined with his professionalism as a dancer are wonderfully captured by the author. By employing the technique of multiple narrators and skilfully interchanging between them - they are set in various locations in Russia, New York, France and England - Mr McCann has managed to produce the portrait of a vivid and many faceted artist with a tremendous charisma. Where most biographies tend to isolate and estrange its subject by pointing out its uniqueness, the author has achieved quite the opposite effect. Indeed, it often feels as if the reader were himself part of the dancer's exhilarating and thwarting lifestyle. It is the author's genius to transform carefully researched material into sparkling fiction on an artist whose fame, artistic accomplishment and shrewish, hedonistic, homosexual night life of 1970s New York are legendary.