Male Model, Nureyev Type: from Soviet Defector to Pop Culture Icon

15 June 2017

Cultural Studies | History

My dazzling career prospects as a ballet dancer were brought to an abrupt end at the age of five, when my family moved house and my lessons in the village hall were discontinued. Who knows what I could have achieved, had I stayed? I’m sure I was one of the more graceful members of the group, wafting around the room with chiffon scarves. Unfortunately, there is video evidence to the contrary. My insistence on doing the exact opposite of the teacher’s instructions – “No, good toes Sophie, not naughty toes” or “To the left, Sophie! Follow us!” – would probably not have gone down well in the strict world of ballet. In my mildly non-conformist way, perhaps I was really empathising with the bad boy of Russian ballet in the 1960s – Rudolph Nureyev who, on this day in 1961, defected from the Soviet Union and caused an international sensation as one of the first major cultural figures to do so. 

Rudolph performing with Margot Fonteyn in Paradise Lost at The World Festival at Expo '67. Image © Hagley Museum and Library, available in World's Fairs, reproduction prohibited without permission.Rudolph performing with Margot Fonteyn in Paradise Lost at The World Festival at Expo '67. Image © Hagley Museum and Library, available in World's Fairs, further reproduction prohibited without permission.

By the 1950s Nureyev had become famous throughout the Soviet Union and was dancing with the Mariinsky Ballet. Despite being known for his volatile temper and impatience with rules that impeded his work, French tour organisers saw him perform in Leningrad and convinced the authorities to allow him to join the Mariinsky Ballet on their tour of Paris and London. The KGB, aware of his rebellious nature, were reluctant for him to travel out of the Soviet Union and monitored him closely. He was seen to be fraternising too much with foreign dancers in Paris, and attempts were made to convince him to return early from the tour – firstly, that there was an important performance planned at the Kremlin, then that his mother was seriously ill. Nureyev became suspicious that he would in fact be arrested on his return, and with the help of the French police he managed to evade his KGB watchers and seek asylum in France. He remained in exile until 1987, when he was allowed to visit his dying mother, and was eventually written back into the history of Russian ballet.

Advert for a biography of Rudolph Nureyev, from Los Angeles Free Press. Image © Bowling Green State University, further reproduction prohibited without permission.
Advert for a biography of Rudolph Nureyev, from Los Angeles Free Press. Image © Bowling Green State University, further reproduction prohibited without permission.

A quick search across Adam Matthew resources reveals glimpses of his extraordinary international career, with adverts aplenty for his live performances and film work. What surprised me was the location of many of these adverts, which appeared in underground press and magazines available in Popular Culture in Britain and America, 1950-1975, such as the Los Angeles Free Press, Berkeley Tribe, or Zoo World, aimed at the rebellious youth culture of the 1960s and 1970s. Here, Nureyev’s wild and passionate performances formed part of the changing image of ballet as something that fitted the zeitgeist. Pink Floyd were even commissioned by Nureyev in 1972 to write a ballet (this did eventually happen, although Nureyev was no longer involved by that point). The force of his personality, and extent to which the capitalist West adopted him, can be seen in the synonymous use of his name throughout otherwise unrelated press articles: Keith Emerson, theatrical keyboardist of The Nice, was described in 1970 as “the Nureyev of the electric ivories” (Friends magazine), Bruce Lee as “the Nureyev and Nijinsky of martial arts” (Kung-Fu Monthly, 1979), and one hopeful advert in the Los Angeles Free Press reads simply “Male model, Nureyev type. Call Barry 665-4965”.

Why not see what you can find in the treasure trove of Adam Matthew resources? Start your search with AMExplorer, or go to Popular Culture in Britain and America, 1950-1975 to discover more about youth culture, celebrity icons, prog rock ballets, kung fu, and male models. For more information, including free trial access and price enquiries, please email us at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..

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About the Author

Sophie Heath

Sophie Heath

I am an Editor at Adam Matthew. Since joining the team in March 2013 I have worked on a number of exciting projects, from the First World War to American History, Church Missionary Society Periodicals, and Race Relations in America - very different but fascinating projects! My academic background is in foreign languages, in particular French and Italian, and I have really enjoyed putting this to good use when working with the foreign language material in our resources.