17th June 1961: At Le Bourget airport outside Paris, Rudolf Nureyev, who was being sent back to the Soviet Union in the middle of a European tour by the Kirov Ballet, suddenly threw himself at a pair of startled gendarmes and begged for asylum. The incident was front page news, and Nureyev was an instant celebrity about to jolt Western ballet into the contemporary world.
Nureyev turned out to be the sort of phenomenon not seen in the West since Vaslav Nijinksy. His dazzling technique and fierce commitment to every role instigated a revolution in the standard of male dancing. The West was not without its share of talented performers – and Nureyev claimed his desire to work with and learn from the Danish star Erik Bruhn as a motivating factor behind his defection – but few had the daring and fervent intensity which burned in Nureyev.
Spark Plug for the Ballet Boom
His excesses were a shock to those hidebound traditionalists who preferred politely mannered civility to animal magnetism, but Nureyev wanted to be a star, not just the man supporting a ballerina. His redefinition of acceptable male behaviour on the stage became the crux of his style and the spark plug for the ballet boom. By the end of the decade, men were dancing with a new and open boldness and exerting as much – if not more – claim on audience popularity as the ballerinas. It was the first time since Marie Taglioni had wafted through the moonlight in La Sylphide that men were once again legitimate ballet stars.
Choreographers Follow Suit
Choreographers were quick to exploit the audiences’ new thirst for dynamism. As the 1960s progressed, the Joffrey Ballet openly catered to the youth market with contemporary ballets danced to rock music (such as the flower-powered Trinity). Stuttgart director John Cranko opted for theatrical intensity rather than purity of style and was rewarded with a huge audience who cheered the onstage passions of Brazilian ballerina Marcia Haydee and her powerhouse American partner Richard Cragun. When the Stuttgart Ballet appeared in New York for the first time in 1969, the company was hailed as ‘a miracle’ and their season at the Metropolitan Opera House led to lines around the block. Even five years earlier, only Nureyev and Fonteyn could have produced the same response.
By the time that Nureyev and the Joffrey had joined forces for a Nijinsky tribute, the ballet boom was in full swing. Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet had been a popular feature film, Arthur Mitchell was breaking new ground withthe Dance Theatre of Harlem, and young choreographers such as Eliot Feld, Jiri Kyian and Twyla Tharp were pumping fresh blood into ballet. The arrival of another brilliant Russian, Mikhail Baryshnikov, pushed public interest even higher. Between 1965 and 1975, statistics show that the dance audience in America grew from an annual one million to over fifteen million.
The negative effect was that the ballet boom turned dance into a spectator sport. The new mass audience’s desire for invigorating Technicolor entertainment was met by a brand of choreography which was flashy, happy, fun to watch and like much else in the pop culture, thoroughly disposable. Some would say that, along the way , the subtlety and the nuances of great ballet (which should be savoured, not gobbled up and tossed away) had been lost.