Almost 60 years after Rudolf Nureyev's dramatic defection, where hosts the best ballet – Russia or Paris?

Nick Trend
The Opera Garnier in Paris: central to a new biopic on Rudolf Nureyev - getty

Last week I saw a preview of Ralph Fiennes’ new film about Rudolf Nureyev. The White Crow – which went on general release today – focuses mainly on the dancer’s early career in Leningrad and his tour to Paris with the Kirov ballet, which ended with his dramatic defection at Le Bourget airport in 1961.

It is highly evocative of life in the Soviet Union, as well as the glamorous world of the Paris ballet and the tensions between two peoples – French and Russian – living under two fundamentally opposed political systems but sharing a deeply entwined cultural heritage of music, dance and art. 

All this was full of resonances for me. Some of my earliest travelling was done in the Soviet Union; I love ballet and probably my favourite place to see it is the Opera Garnier in Paris, or the Mariinsky Theatre in St Petersburg, both of which are central to the film. 

In particular it brought back memories of the first time I visited what was then Leningrad and the weird time warp I experienced at the opera house.

I was travelling alone and it was midwinter so, to avoid long, lonely evenings in my hotel room, I used to go out to the opera or ballet.

Nureyev fled Russia in 1961 and forged a career in Pars Credit: getty

Tickets were incredibly cheap – just a few roubles – and standards were extraordinarily high. I also used to love the feeling that, rather than being simply a tourist ticking off sights, I was part of an audience made up – in those days – almost entirely of Russians.

The time warp happened during an interval at the Kirov Theatre when I wandered into the grand foyer on the first floor. Some of the audience who had spilled out of the theatre were standing around the edges eating blinis topped with red or black caviar, and knocking back Georgian “champagne”. 

In the middle of the foyer, however, couples in their finery – some of the men in military uniform – had formed a circle one behind the other. They were strolling slowly clockwise, arm in arm around the room, chatting politely as they went. In the context of a communist society it was a bizarre throwback to tsarist times.

Ironically, since the Kirov Theatre reverted to its old imperial name – the Mariinsky – and Leningrad became St Petersburg once more, the tradition has died out. During intervals today, the foyer is full of people taking selfies.

But I’ve stuck to the same strategy of trying to book seats for a performance whenever I’m in a city with a decent opera house. It’s a great way of feeling part of the social and cultural fabric of a place.

If you are planning a trip to Paris and manage to get tickets to the Palais Garnier – or for the bigger ballet productions, the Opera Bastille – you’ll find that Nureyev’s influence is still in evidence. The latest run of his Swan Lake finished this week, but his production of Raymonda runs from Dec 2-31. 

And if you ever get the chance to see La Bayadère there, that is also part of Nureyev’s vision. He danced the role of Solor in Act III on his Paris debut when he arrived with the Kirov in 1961, and it was the last production that he staged in the city before he died in 1993.

The White Crow is on general release. Paris Opera Ballet (operadeparis.fr); Mariinsky Ballet (mariinsky.ru/en).