In May 1961, the Kirov Ballet arrived in Paris. Its star was a peculiar, vain, and willful young dancer whom the company almost did not take with it on tour because Soviet officials could not be sure what he might do once he reached the West.
They had good reason to worry. Rudolf Nureyev stole the show at the Palais Garnier (“the strangest, and uncontestably the most influential, personality—as well as the greatest technician—since Nijinsky, to whom he is the first ever to be so compared,” reported Janet Flanner). Then, to the consternation of his Soviet minders, he made the rounds of Paris, befriending Clara Saint, fiancée of the late Vincent Malraux, visiting the Louvre with the English painter Michael Wishart, Francis Bacon’s friend, and generally staying out until all hours. When the Soviet troupe was bussed to Le Bourget airport in June to continue the tour in London, Nureyev was informed that his mother had become ill (she hadn’t) and that he must return home. A Tupolev aircraft was waiting for him.
He threatened suicide and somehow got word of his predicament to Clara Saint, who contacted the French police, who in turn instructed her that Nureyev would have to approach them. Authorities dispatched two plainclothes officers to linger at an airport bar. They were sipping coffee when Nureyev ran to them, demanding asylum. An official from the Soviet embassy arrived to protest, to no avail.
The West had its first front-page Soviet defector. Nine years later it was the ballerina Natalia Makarova who fled Russia. Then Mikhail Baryshnikov skipped out on the Kirov in Toronto in 1974, dashing from a company bus into a waiting car—the same year that Valery Panov, who in March 1972 had made the terrible mistake of officially applying for permission to emigrate from the Soviet Union to Israel, only to be banished from the Kirov and denounced by fellow dancers, was finally permitted to leave the country with his wife, Galina, in grudging response to a vigorous publicity campaign by Western politicians and artists.
Half a century before Panov emigrated, Georges Balanchine departed Bolshevik Russia. The word “defector” did not yet exist. He returned, reluctantly, in 1972 with the New York City Ballet. (“The audiences for most of the performances,” he rightly complained, “were party functionaries.”) Balanchine and his company arrived in the midst of the Panov furor. Fearing Soviet reprisals, including against Panov, Balanchine advised his troupe to avoid the outcast Soviet. Several dancers from the New York company visited Panov anyway. Their visits, said Panov, who revered Balanchine, “made Balanchine’s unwillingness to listen to my despair even harder to accept.” Such was the morass of personal politics, betrayal, and disappointment that was always behind the headlines during the cultural cold war.
David Caute’s excellent The Dancer Defects: The Struggle for Cultural Supremacy During the Cold War, which covers not just dance but music, art, theater, and film, evokes the extraordinary power that the arts …