Saturday, 28 February 2009

Rudolf Nureyev

Here comes the long awaited post about Rudolf Xämät ulı Nuriev, as his name is written in Tatar. Our mum is a huge fan, so we've grown up watching him dance. Here is one of his many famous performances, a male solo from Swan Lake:

Nureyev was the youngest
of four children and the only boy. His family were originally poor Tatar peasants, but his father Hamet had seized the opportunity that came with the revolution, and had become a political education officer in the Soviet Army. When he was stationed in Vladivostok, his wife Farida and her daughters travelled to join him. On the train, somewhere near the Baikal lake in March 1938, Rudolf was born.

When war broke out, Farida and the children were evacuated from Moscow to Ufa in the Urals
, and that is where Rudolf grew up. With Hamet away at war, times were hard, and the Nureyevs were very poor. When Rudolf started school, the other children laughed at him because he had no shoes and his coat was a hand-me-down from his older sisters. I remember a much watched video tape with Nureyev on the Dame Edna show, where he explained that the scar on his lip came about when he was a child and was so thin that he looked like a bone, so a dog tried to eat him ...

On New Year’s Eve, 1945, Farida smuggled all her children into a performance of the patriotic ballet Song of the Cranes starring the Leningrad-trained Bashkir ballerina Zaituna Nazretdinova. Rudolf knew at once that he wanted to become a dancer.

He started to take lessons in local folk dances and ballet. When his father returned from the war, he was not at all pleased with his son's "unmanly" interests, but Rudolf had already set his mind to it.

His teachers saw great potential in him, and encouraged him to study in Leningrad. Eventually, while on tour with a local ballet company, Rudolf applied to the Bolshoi ballet company in Moscow and was accepted. But he felt that the Leningrad school would be better (also because it was residential, so he wouldn't have to worry about paying for housing), so instead of returning home to Ufa with his company he headed to Leningrad.

He auditioned at the Leningrad school and was accepted, with the comment "
you'll become either a brilliant dancer or a total failure - and most likely a failure". Rudolf was now 17 - a very old age for enrolling at a formal ballet school. He trained extremely hard to catch up, but he also broke school rules and snuck out of the dorms to watch performances at the Kirov ballet. In any case, he obviously did not become a failure.

When he graduated from the school, he was so good that he was offered a soloist contract by both the Kirov and Bolshoi ballets. In the end, and perhaps to no surprise, he chose the Kirov ballet.

He continued to be both brilliant, making his own interpretation of every ballet he danced, and difficult, arguing with choreographers and teachers and walking out on them to train by himself.

Nureyev dancing Le Corsaire with Alla Sizova. From the collection of Sergei Sorokin.

Nureyev with Nadia Nerina. According to the Telegraph, "she impressed and humbled Rudolf Nureyev when he attempted to show off in a performance of Giselle with a series of 16 entrechats six (jumps with rapid changes of feet). Performing Swan Lake a few nights later, with Nureyev watching from the stalls, Nadia Nerina doubled his feat to 32 — an unheard-of achievement for a female dancer — and a furious Nureyev stormed out of the performance."

When the Kirov company went on tour to Paris in 1961, Nureyev caused a lot of trouble for the political agents running the tour, who were probably under a lot of pressure since he as such a great dancer was such a valuable asset to the Soviet Union. He didn't feel like going straight back to the hotel after the performances, but went out on the town with the French dancers and hung out with the locals.

The company was supposed to continue its tour to London, but Nureyev was instead handed a ticket back to Moscow and told he had to go perform at a gala back in the USSR. He was told that he would rejoin the Kirov company in London afterwards, but he didn't really believe that, and feared that he would never again be allowed out of the Soviet Union. So Nureyev defected.

Upon his defection he was immediately offered an engagement with the Grand Ballet du Marquis de Cuevas.

Soon Nureyev got to meet the dancer Erik Bruhn. They fell in love, and despite a very stormy relationship they remained close until Bruhn's death. Bruhn and Nureyev shared the idea that a male dancer should be allowed to dance just as expressively as a woman, and their style of male dancing would later be taken up by other choreographers.

In 1961 Nureyev also made his first performance in Britain, at a ballet matinée organised by the Royal Ballet's Prima Ballerina Dame Margot Fonteyn. He was offered to join the Royal Ballet, and his first performance with the company was partnering Margot Fonteyn in Giselle.

Thus began a lasting partnership and friendship between the two.

Nureyev was a quick learner, and amassed an unusually large and varied repertoire. He danced the old classics in many different variations, and took well over a hundred roles by more than forty choreographers. Many of these roles were created especially for him. His own takes on the classics also led him to make his own productions.

He appeared in cinema, as well, among his roles a racy portrayal of Rudolph Valentino. He also made memorable appearances in the Muppet Show, dancing Swine Lake and being harrassed by Miss Piggy in the sauna ...

Nureyev became ballet director of the Paris Opera in 1983, and brought new life to the Paris Opera by dramatically widening the repertoire, and encouraging the dancers to experience many styles, just like he had.

His love for music led him to conducting, which he could continue with even as his body was wrecked from dancing and his health deteriorated with AIDS.

In March 1992, Rudolf Nureyev, living with advanced AIDS, visited Kazan and appeared as a conductor in front of the audience at Musa Cälil Tatar Academic Opera and Ballet Theater in Kazan. The theater now annually organizes the Rudolf Nureyev Festival in Tatarstan.

Nureyev's last ballet appearance was in 1992, a production of La Bayadère at the Palais Garnier. The French Culture Minister, Jack Lang, presented him with France's highest cultural award, the Commandeur de l'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. Nureyev died in Paris a few months later, at the age of 54.


On the Nureyev Wikipedia entry's discussion page someone cites a slightly dubious source with a broken link. In a Russian E-book called The most famous artists of Russia it supposedly says:
“Nureyev, who made Russian ballet famous, was not Russian. [...] Unlike many artists or scientists of those times Rudolf didn’t keep his origin a secret."
Apparently he adopted Russian stereotypes about Tatars to his own enjoyment, because the quote continues: "He was proud of his ethnicity and he really resembled an impetuous and self-willed descendant of Genghis-Khan, as people tended to call him. His ballet-school mates say that on occasions he would emphasise that his ancestors ruled Russians during 300 years.”

P.S. Mum has a huge photo book about Nureyev, so we can expect more of him later ...

Note: The photos with no captions have been gathered from various random online fangirl collections.

Saturday, 21 February 2009

Slavs & Tatars

I found out about this in the usual roundabout way - from the comments section of Racialicious through art and culture magazine Bidoun's latest issue to the concept art collective Slavs & Tatars. A promising name indeed! However, the Bidoun article kept my expectations low, since the writer chose to recap the usual Occidental stereotypes before grappling the real thing:

Slavs, the linguistic and ethnic group from whence a third of Europeans derive — but with which, somehow, they rarely identify — seems a reminder that Europe was once more Eastern than the average European knows or cares to remember. The land of the Slavs was rough and distant, somewhere near Ukraine or, say, Belarus. There's a reason so many Eastern Europeans call themselves Central Europeans.

Which brings us to the Tatars. For most of us, the term evokes images of faraway lands, thick curly mustaches, maraudings, spearings, beheadings, treacherous Great Games — or, alternately, mayonnaise sauce for fish. Tatars ride horses and wear funny felt hats. In spite of them being Turkic peoples from greater Eurasia, they might as well be Philistines.

Okay - this establishes blatantly who "we" are supposed to be. I've heard about "Tartar" steak before, but the fish sauce was a new one - could it be that I'm not one of "us" after all? It's really difficult to explain to the fish sauce people what it means to grow up with small reminders like this. Luckily, Slavs & Tatars know. But perhaps you have to be "in the know" to appreciate their art - you have to be somebody who loves and cherishes the diversity of Eurasia and who knows that one person's history is another one's pretty lie and a third one's bloody truth.
Thus, no wonder that Chirayliq finds some of its favourite people in the Pantheon of Broken Men and Women: Tatar Socialist revolutionary Sultan Galiyev, Russian-Korean rock star Viktor Tsoi, and Avvakum the protopope... Dedicated to the defeated in history.
Another project, A Thirteenth Month Against Time, is a kind of calendar or diary with useful (or wonderfully useless) articles like "Leadership Secrets of Attila the Hun" and catchphrases such as "When in Rome, do as the Romanians". It reveals that Slavs & Tatars are fans of the Kurdish people in particular, in spite of approving a Pan-Turkish people (or because?...).
And Payam Sharifi writes, among other things, about the importance of beautiful eyebrows among Iranians.
Since its foundation in 2000, the group (and solo members) have been exhibiting all over the world, and it has received several awards (the latest was the Grand Prix of the Brno Biennial 2008). Still, the geographic focus has very much been Europe and the US. Maybe that will change in the future?

Friday, 20 February 2009

Howard Zinn

I'm a bit fed up now with my so-called historian career. But what better way to cheer myself up, than checking out history's cutest historians?

Meet Howard Zinn. He is American, but I found a way to weasel him into Chirayliq: His mother emigrated from Irkutsk.

Here, he isn't a professor yet, but a bombardier in the US Air Force in Europe during the Second World War.

This is one of the reasons he has devoted his life to non-violence and pacifist activism, as well as the post-war Civil Rights movement. (In Private Ryan saves war from 1999 and Dissent at the war memorial from 2004, he tells about his experiences.)

I must confess that I have tried to read Zinn's magnum opus A People's History of the United States, but I'm too bleeding-hearted to get past the introduction. Anything he says, I buy it. (Bad historian, Ainur!) You can read it online or check the publisher's site. You should definitely check the People's History website if you're interested in U.S. history - and I think we all ought to be. (There's also a comic version of The People's History, with this touching scene from WW2 Holland.)

Tuesday, 17 February 2009

Mystery: Mishka Babitchef

I'm looking for information about the first Ethiopian pilot, Mishka Babitchef, a descendant of Russian emigrants. According to the website MediaEthiopia, he received his pilot license in the presence of Emperor Haile Selassie in October 1930. He had a sister, W/O Atsede Babitchef, who was married to the nobleman Dejach Nessibu Ze-Ammanuel.
The Russia-Ethiopia connection is of more interest than a mere historical curiosity - since Pushkin's great-grandfather, Major-General Abram Petrovich Gannibal, was said to have been an Ethiopian (altough this is disputed; at any rate, he was from the East of Africa). Anyway, it tickles one's imagination to know that Russian emigrés in turn arrived in Ethiopia and assimilated.
I have very little knowledge of Ethiopian history, and I would be grateful for any further information on the background of these interesting persons. Google is not very helpful at this point - the spellings of the names only occur on MediaEthiopia's site. The whole thing is complicated by the fact that there's a contemporary Russian actor with the name Михаил Бабичев... Perhaps there are other spellings that are in use. I would also like to know more about the Japanese artist Fumio Mizuno (水野富美夫, 1917-1994), who lived in Ethiopia for 25 years and painted beautiful portraits of women. (some photos from an exhibition in Japan 2005)
If anyone knows where to search, or what to look for, I would be grateful for a tip.

Sunday, 15 February 2009

Teuvo Mustalaishurmaaja

This is a tinted version of a photo found in an article by Anu Koivunen on the concepts of stardom and women as consumers of film and filmstars in the 1920's, which features our favourite Finnish Tatar in a major role.

Under the name Teuvo Tulio, Theodor Tugai became an influential film director who put a passionate stamp on the Finnish film industry in the 1930's and 1940's. His early career as "the Finnish Valentino" is less well known. In Mustalaishurmaaja ("Gypsy Casanova", 1929), the 16-year-old Tugai plays Gypsy leader Manjardo. Koivunen describes how the camera focuses on him as on a beautiful object, with closeups of his half-shut eyes. His makeup and costume are chosen to accentuate this - dark skin, enhanced lips, jewellery, accentuated waist, occasionally shirtless... You get the picture.

But to be a desirable object for women - paradoxically put his masculinity into question. Watching and looking is an act of power, to be looked at is to become passive, traditionally feminine. But Manjardo does both. In the movie plot, he is a fiery character who is forced to accept an arranged marriage. He is an ethnic other who is both attracive and repellent (although his love interests in the movie are all "Gypsies", too - Koivunen hints that it would have been less acceptable to show "Finnish" women openly desiring a man). Two women, Glafira and Akris, fight for his attention, but the film finds a more conventional solution - Manjardo ends up with the motherly and caring Esmeralda, who tends to his wounds.

Next time, I will write more about the reception of Tugai's film persona among film critics, and the decline of the "Valentino" type.

Anu Koivunen: "Näkyvä nainen ja 'suloinen pyörrytys'", Vampyyrinainen ja Kenkkuniemen sauna - Suomalainen kaksikymmenluku ja modernin mahdollisuus ["Vampire Woman and the Sauna of Kenkkuniemi - The Finnish 1920's and the Possibility of Modernity"] Ed. Tapio Onnela, SKS, Helsinki 1992

Cross-posted at The Goldenbird Sings