nureyev legend and legacy



We chat to the top ballet dancers behind Nureyev: Legend and Legacy, a fabulous gala to take place this September.

Everyone with at least a shadow of interest in The Royal Ballet knows who Yuhui Choe is. Not least because some 4.3 million people saw her in one of ROH’s most popular YouTube videos up to date – Discover Ballet: A Day in the Life of a Ballerina. It was released about the time she got promoted to the rank of First Soloist, and she’s retained the rank for the past 13 years.   

Now, Yuhui – alongside a dazzling array of world-class dancers, is starring in Nureyev: Legend and Legacy, a splendid gala celebrating the legacy of a man who was perhaps the greatest dancer in history and put together by her husband, former Principal of The Royal Ballet Nehemiah Kish.  

The gala takes place at the Theatre Royal Drury Lane. “It is the first theatre Nureyev performed in London, at the invitation of Margot Fontaine”, says Nehemiah, “which we felt was really quite special.”   

The life of Rudolf Nureyev would make for a dozen of Hollywood films. Born to a poor Tatar family in Siberia, he kicked off his career dancing in Bashkir folk performances before moving on to ballet. He managed to enroll in a ballet academy only age 17, where he was immediately noticed as a borderline genius talent – after graduation, he moved immediately beyond the corps level and became the soloist of the Kirov Ballet in Leningrad (now Mariinsky Ballet in Saint Petersburg) pretty much from the outset. But performing behind the Iron Curtain was not enough for the twenty-odd year-old ballet prodigy and so, he opted for the only measure available – defection. Within a week, he was signed by the Grand Ballet du Marquis de Cuevas. The next decades of his life were as successful as they were tragic: he toured the world, revolutionised many a classical choreography, with Prima Ballerina Dame Margot Fonteyn he created some of the most iconic duets in the history of dance. He was also formally stateless for over 20 years, until Austria granted him citizenship in 1982. He was only allowed to see his mother in 1987 – 27 years after defection – having been diagnosed with HIV three years prior and having just lost the love of his life, Erik Bruhn, a year prior, most probably to AIDS as well. He died in 1993 at age 54 – such was his mark on the world of ballet that his funeral was held in the marble foyer of the Paris Garnier Opera House. 

His influence on the later generations of ballet dancers is incomparable. Says Nehemiah, “I’m part of a generation that didn’t know Nureyev personally, but was coached and mentored by people who were so impacted by him.” 

Among dancers featured in the gala are the likes of Oleg Ivenko – who portrayed Nureyev in the 2018 biographical film, The White Crow, Francesca Hayward and Natalia Osipova – the principals of the Royal Ballet, and Alina Cocojaru – the former lead principal with the English National Ballet. Assembling such a stellar line-up must surely have been difficult – especially just coming out of the pandemic. “It was actually easy to get people to agree”, explains Nehemiah. “We’ve all danced ballets that he has created – and especially for the male dancers he just did so much to elevate their role. Obviously, logistically, things were complicated. But that was well worth the effort, because it’s important to celebrate how much Nureyev means to us all in London. And he means as much equally in major cities around the world.” 

Nehemiah’s own career has been deeply affected by Nureyev’s legacy, too. “I went to a local dance school. My mum convinced me to take tap and jazz lessons and I eventually moved into ballet simply because I liked it.” Nureyev’s example helped him understand that ballet wasn’t “just for girls”. And then in the professional ballet school, where he was taught by the “friends, classmates and colleagues of Rudolf Nureyev”, this theme continued – indirectly, but always at the forefront. 

Yuhui’s story is different, yet somewhat parallel. She is Korean but grew up in Japan. “When I was a child, my mother wanted me to learn something.” So dance she chose. Luckily, the closest dance studio was a ballet studio. “I fell in love with ballet immediately. And that was it.” Age only 14, she moved to Paris to pursue her dreams. “I found this teacher who was Japanese and was opening up a ballet school in Paris, just for students from Japan.” She joined the school and naturally, saw a great many productions originally conceived or choreographed by Nureyev.  

Her favourite role is Cinderella. “It’s just magic”, she says. Nehemiah has a couple of favourites: “The upcoming roles are always very special!”, he laughs. “I was lucky to perform a really wide variety. Perhaps because he danced with three major companies: The National Ballet of Canada, Royal Danish Ballet, and the Royal Ballet. “Nureyev’s Sleeping Beauty means so much to my career and to me personally. It was a milestone professionally and it is an extraordinary ballet. I also love La Sylphide by Bournonville”, which he performed at the Royal Danish Theatre – in the very same studios where Rudolph Nureyev and Erik Bruhn worked together and inspired each other. And at the Royal Ballet? “If I had to select one, it may be Des Grieux in Manon.” 

So did his favourite choices inspire the selection of pieces for the gala? “There were so many factors”, he says. The starting point was really focusing on ballets that reflected elements of Nureyev’s life. Gayane had to be practically reconstructed from archival recordings. A slightly exotic for the Western audience story of interethnic love, betrayal and patriotism in Soviet-Armenian setting was Nureyev’s first appearance on American TV. Nureyev’s Grand Pas De Deux from Sleeping Beauty is “the ballet of ballets, the pinnacle of classical ballet. He staged it in Milan with Scala, in Vienna, in Canada, he staged it in Paris Opera”, Nehemiah explains. Pas De Six from Laurencia, restaged by Natalia Osipova for the gala, was originally Nureyev’s breakout moment before his defection from the Soviet Union, and later became a ballet he basically introduced to the West. “We’re restaging the ballet from archival footage. And it’s fabulous because Yuhui is dancing the role that Antoinette Sibley performed with Nureyev in that production!”  

But this time, Nehemiah will not be on stage at all. He retired from the Royal Ballet in 2019, and decided to pursue a degree in cultural policy. “I’ve been very busy!”, he laughs. Even more so that he and Yuhui welcomed their daughter, Miriam, a year and a half ago. “It’s really just been diving in headfirst to some really wonderful life events”. But he’s obviously extremely passionate about bringing this production to life.  “I really love it. We’ve had wonderful support from The Rudolf Nureyev Foundation, from Monica Mason, from the Royal Ballet. Really, international support. But what was a particular pleasure for me was working with the dancers in the studio, rehearsing the ballet, leading the costume designers, and watching them create their magic. Even going to the orchestra read with the Royal Ballet Sinfonia was extraordinary.” 

One of the performances will be streamed live by Marquee TV. “It’s a very different viewing experience, but it’s also a really wonderful experience and I’m so excited that I can share this with people back home in Michigan and all over the world”, says Nehemiah.  

For Yuhui, coming back after the pregnancy wasn’t exactly easy. But, as she says, “dancing came back naturally. The body changed and I have to find the right resting mode for it and this took me some time. But for my mind, it has been really refreshing to revisit the ballets I’ve done before. Challenging, but refreshing”. Nehemiah thinks his wife doesn’t give herself the credit she deserves “Watching her in the studio working with Natalia [Osipova] has just been amazing – I’ve been inspired and motivated by how incredible Yuhui is as a ballerina and as a mother.” 

They live in Wimbledon and absolutely adore the area. “There are so many days we wake up and we look at each other and we say we’re so happy that we moved here, especially during the lockdown. We’re very close to the Polka Theatre and we love taking Miriam there”, says Nehemiah. “We also love Abbey Mills, and we walked from there to Morden Hall many times. Another thing we love is having so many great restaurants on our doorstep. And pubs are really special, like The Crooked Billet and The Fox and Grapes. They’re all so unique. And one of our favourite Japanese restaurants is also here!”