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Dancer    by Colum McCann order for
by Colum McCann
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Picador, 2004 (2003)
Hardcover, Paperback, Audio, CD

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* *   Reviewed by J. A. Kaszuba Locke

Blending slivers of history and sparkling imagination, Colum McCann has created a fictionalized biography of famed ballet artist Rudolf Nureyev (a.k.a. Rudik, Rudi). Dancer is told through a variety of narrators (both known and imaginary) - Sergei Vasileva, his daughter Yulia, Xenia Pushkin, Dame Margot Fonteyn (Nureyev's best known dance partner), a friend from Chile named RosaMaria, his sister Tamara, Danish dancer Eric Bruhm, New York hustler Victor Pareci, and Rudik himself. Pareci says of Rudi, 'everyone has a Rudi story ... cared for, coddled, and protected by mythmakers'.

The ravages of World War II in Russia take its toll of soldiers and citizens. Beginning in the Russian town of Ufa, at seven years of age, Rudik dances for hospitalized soldiers, his dream to become an accomplished dancer. Stacked against him are Papa Hamet's opposition, torment and taunts from his classmates, poverty, and his homeland's political context. Anna Vasileva is Rudik's first (secret) dance teacher. Elena Voitovich mentors him when he reaches the age of fourteen. At seventeen, Rudi, with his high Tatar cheekbones and sandy hair, is described by Vasileva as 'extraordinary ... he would stand out from the crowd, he had even turned walking into a sort of art.' Alexander Pushkin (Sasha as he was known) became Rudik's maestro for many years. According to Sasha 'dance says what nothing else can ... The real beauty in life is that beauty can sometimes occur'. Rudik was restless and arrogant, selfish and generous, defiant and loyal, reckless and ruthless. His passion for dance remained undiminished, though he never felt he reached perfection. Rudik offensively and nonchalantly narrates: what he thinks of various personages (both liked or disliked); his loneliness even in company; his flamboyant love life; a towering career; and the waste in his personal life. In his early years dancing, a photo of cosmonaut Yuri Alekseyevich Gagarin was tossed on stage, with a message attached: 'Soar, Rudi, Soar'.

If you are expecting to read about one person's achievements in ballet, this is not the book for you. It is, however, a compilation of characterizations, all touching each other's lives and attached to Rudik's world. A reader need not be a connoisseur or lover of ballet to enjoy McCann's Dancer, which addresses human loss, devotion, loyalty, frailty, dedication, and passion. The novel combines the author's technical knowledge of ballet with a biographical study of Nureyev, centered around the imagined Rudi. McCann's genius for words shines throughout the book. Especially of note is Rudik's letter to his sister after their father's death ... 'Tamara, if these words reach you, tell Mother that I think of her endlessly. Inform her that her son dances to improve the world ... There are secret police who still follow me, and I live in fear, but I will not let it affect me, I'll live through it in order to say: 'I have lived through it'... And whisper my name to the grass where Father is.' Of his father's death Rudik says, 'the only sadness: Father never once saw me dance.'

After his defection to France at the age of twenty-two, Rudik was put to trial 'in abstentia' by officials in Moscow, and sentenced to seven years hard labor for reported misbehaviors in Paris. Just once, Rudi was allowed to return to his birthplace for a short time to be by the side of his dying mother. Rudolph Nureyev rose from peasantry to international acclaim. He died of AIDS in 1993 at the age of 54. It is said that he danced until the end, even in physical pain. By way of the author, Rudi tells us that'Politics is for fat men with cigars. It is not for me. I live to dance. That is all.'

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