Lessons From A Great Artist

In the early seventies, I spent the summer doing research in London, England and while there I had the grateful opportunity to see Rudolf Nureyev perform. It was one of the highlights of my summer and I will always remember how mesmerized I was as he flew through the stage. Had I had any desires of ever becoming a dancer they evaporated that evening.

Yesterday, on Facebook I came across Jane Burfield who posted an excerpt from a letter Rudolph Nureyev had written about his life as a dancer while dying of Aids. The article which she posted came from Nick Graham who’d posted the letter on Facebook on July 2, 2021.

I am not very adept at using Facebook and so I hope that I am not violating any copyright laws by posting this photo of Nureyev just as I am of posting the letter as I read it on Jane Burfield’s Facebook page.

The letter is rather long in comparison to the usual short entries I post on my blog. But for all you artists, writers, dancers and other creatives it is well worth the time to read Nureyev’s letter. Turn off your cell phones and all your media apparatus to focus on his words for they teach us everything one needs to know about being not only an extraordinary dancer/artist but a truly beautiful human being.

Excerpts of a letter Rudolf Nureyev wrote, to the dance community about his own life as a dancer, while dying of AIDS:

“It was the smell of my skin changing, it was getting ready before class, it was running away from school and after working in the fields with my dad because we were ten brothers, walking those two kilometers to dance school.

I would never have been a dancer, I couldn’t afford this dream, but I was there, with my shoes worn on my feet, with my body opening to music, with the breath making me above the clouds. It was the sense I gave to my being, it was standing there and making my muscles words and poetry, it was the wind in my arms, it was the other guys like me that were there and maybe wouldn’t be dancers, but we swapped the sweat, silences, barely.

For thirteen years I studied and worked, no auditions, nothing, because I needed my arms to work in the fields. But I didn’t care: I learned to dance and dance because it was impossible for me not to do it, it was impossible for me to think I was elsewhere, not to feel the earth transforming under my feet plants, impossible not to get lost in music, impossible not not to get lost in music using my eyes to look in the mirror, to try new steps.

Everyday I woke up thinking about the moment I would put my feet inside my slippers and do everything by tasting that moment. And when I was there, with the smell of camphor, wood, tights, I was an eagle on the rooftop of the world, I was the poet among poets, I was everywhere and I was everything.

I remember a ballerina Elèna Vadislowa, rich family, well taken care of, beautiful. She wanted to dance as much as I did, but later I realized it wasn’t like that. She danced for all the auditions, for the end of the course show, for the teachers watching her, to pay tribute to her beauty.

Two years prepared for the Djenko contest. The expectations were all about her. Two years she sacrificed part of his life. She didn’t win the contest. She stopped dancing, forever. She didn’t resist. That was the difference between me and her.

I used to dance because it was my creed, my need, my words that I didn’t speak, my struggle, my poverty, my crying. I used to dance because only there my being broke the limits of my social condition, my shyness, my shame. I used to dance and I was with the universe on my hands, and while I was at school, I was studying, arraising the fields at six am, my mind endured because it was drunk with my body capturing the air.

I was poor, and they paraded in front of me guys performing for pageants, they had new clothes, they made trips. I didn’t suffer from it, my suffering would have been stopping me from entering the hall and feeling my sweat coming out of the pores of my face. My suffering would have been not being there, not being there, surrounded by that poetry that only the sublimation of art can give. I was a painter, poet, sculptor.

The first dancer of the year-end show got hurt. I was the only one who knew every move because I sucked, quietly every step. They made me wear his new, shiny clothes and dictated me after thirteen years, the responsibility to demonstrate. Nothing was different in those moments I danced on stage, I was like in the hall with my clothes off. I was and I used to perform, but it was dancing that I cared.

The applause reached me far away. Behind the scenes, all I wanted was to take off the uncomfortable tights, but everyone’s compliments and I had to wait. My sleep wasn’t different from other nights. I had danced and whoever was watching me was just a cloud far away on the horizon.

From that moment my life changed, but not my passion and need to dance. I kept helping my dad in the fields even though my name was on everyone’s mouth. I became one of the brightest stars in dance.

Now I know I’m going to die, because this disease doesn’t forgive, and my body is trapped in a pram, blood doesn’t circulate, I lose weight. But the only thing that goes with me is my dance my freedom to be.

I’m here, but I dance with my mind, fly beyond my words and my pain. I dance my being with the wealth I know I have and will follow me everywhere: that I have given myself the chance to exist above effort and have learned that if you experience tiredness and effort dancing, what if you dance sits for effort, if we pity our bleeding feet, if we chase only the aim and don’t understand the full and unique pleasure of moving, we don’t understand the deep essence of life, where the meaning is in its becoming and not in appearing.

Every man should dance, for life. Not being a dancer, but dancing.

Who will never know the pleasure of walking into a hall with wooden bars and mirrors, who stops because they don’t get results, who always needs stimulus to love or live, hasn’t entered the depths of life, and will abandon every time life won’t give him what he wants.

It’s the law of love: you love because you feel the need to do it, not to get something or to be reciprocated, otherwise you’re destined for unhappiness.

I’m dying, and I thank God for giving me a body to dance so that I wouldn’t waste a moment of the wonderful gift of life.”

36 thoughts on “Lessons From A Great Artist

  1. Wow, this is very powerful! Thank you for sharing it. When I was a kid my mom was in love with Margot Fonteyn and Nureyev who danced together. She talked about them a lot!

    Liked by 2 people

    • He certainly was an amazing person. Although his was the world of dance it also applies to the world of writers and how we measure our success. Love for his art meant more to him than monetary or world success. Besides having incredible talent perhaps that’s what also made him such a great artist. I’m glad, Darlene that you enjoyed the post.

      Liked by 2 people

  2. Oh, Carol, that was amazing–the picture and the letter. There’s no way NOT to feel his passion, his love. It’s good to know he is dancing again.

    I do worry about the copyright you mentioned. Deborah Jay just posted an issue she had with copyrights a few weeks ago. Here’s the link: https://deborahjayauthor.com/2022/02/01/why-i-was-threatened-with-legal-action-after-reblogging-on-wordpress-a-true-story-and-guest-post-by-deborah-jay-deborahjay2/?c=46762#comment-46762

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Wow! Carol, thank you for sharing this incredible letter extract from Rudolph Nureyev. He writes with such intensity and spiritualism about dancing, an epiphany every time he donned the shoes. The power and depth of his writing are fabulous and his wisdom about life overall touches all artists who live their craft to the full. Several sentences stood out for me, such as: ‘I was an eagle on the rooftop of the world, I was the poet among poets, I was everywhere and I was everything.’ and ‘I used to dance and I was with the universe on my hands’. He truly captured the essence of life!


  4. Thank you for sharing a wonderful letter!.. a lesson about life all of us can learn from… “The only thing that stands between you and your dream is the will to try and the belief that it is actually possible.” ( Joel Brown)… 🙂

    Have a wonderful Valentines day, and every day, and until we meet again…
    May flowers always line your path
    and sunshine light your way,
    May songbirds serenade your
    every step along the way,
    May a rainbow run beside you
    in a sky that’s always blue,
    And may happiness fill your heart
    each day your whole life through.
    (Irish Saying)

    Liked by 1 person

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