Dancer is the erotically charged story of the Russian dancer Rudolf Nureyev as told through the cast of those who knew him: there is Anna Vasileva, Rudi's first ballet teacher, who rescues her protege from the stunted life of his provincial town; Yulia, whose sexual and artistic ambitions are thwarted by her Soviet-sanctioned marriage; and Victor, the Venezuelan street hustler, who reveals the lurid underside of the gay celebrity set. Spanning four decades and many worlds, from the horrors of the Second World War to the wild abandon of New York in the 80s, Dancer is peopled by a large cast of characters, obscure and famous: doormen and shoemakers, nurses and translators, Margot Fonteyn, Eric Bruhn and John Lennon. And at the heart of the spectacle stands the artist himself, willful, lustful, and driven by a never-to-be-met need for perfection.
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This is fiction, but based on the true life events of the famed Russian ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev (1938-1993). Through fiction the author attempts to show readers not only the external facts of Nureyev’s life but also how he perceived his own life. We are not so much told his inner thoughts, motivations and feelings, but we watch what he does and follow the crazed, hyped celebrity life and the frenzied gay-scene that lead to his death by AIDS. He defected Russia in 1961. We see how this impacted his own life and the lives of those left behind. In this book we are shown, not told. What is shown to us is NOT pleasant. I am sure you know of his promiscuous behavior. There is sex and drugs aplenty. This is not a comforting read, no fairy tale. If that is what you want, then look elsewhere. We see Rudi’ s life through the eyes of both those closest to him and those who only brushed shoulders with him, through famed entities such as Jacqueline Onassis, Andy Warhol, Truman Capote, Erik Buhn, Margot Fonteyn and through fictional characters too.
There is no author’s note stating explicitly what is fiction and what is fact, but I am convinced that Colum McCann has mirrored Nureyev’s world accurately. I did shore up the facts by reading Wikipedia. I learned much through the fictional characters. They gave depth to the story; some of them I grew to love (Odil and Tom and Anna, to name but three.) Having read this book, I feel I have lived next to Nureyev through his childhood, all the way to his death, ending with a final auction of his possessions. Each episode had a message, none were superfluous. I found neither the sex nor his final illness too explicit; I felt the electricity in the air, the dizzying pace, his fight for perfection in his dance and the sensuality of ballet. Don’t expect the life of a true artist to be anything but violent.
The audiobook has five different narrators, named below. In one chapter the reader hops form one character to another, without warning, but I was never confused. The audiobook’s narrators did not correspond to one specific character. You could not assume that if you heard one voice you knew which character was speaking sine there were many more characters than the five audiobook narrators. The only narrator I was not happy with was Jessica Almasy. Her voice was too sweet, too childish! All the others were great, and Suzanne Toren was f-a-n-t-a-s-t-i-c!!! Is she my favorite narrator? There is a brutal chapter filled with sex and drugs, read by one of the male narrators. That too, with its staccato pulse, perfectly created the world of Nureyev at that time. I believe that listening to the audiobook further enhances the reading experience. The tempo, the dialects, the intonations create an atmosphere that carries the reader beyond the written words.
I feel I know now what moved, motivated and pushed Rudolph Nureyev. I feel I understand him. I pity him and I admire him. Both. When I look at his life I look at it with disgust and admiration. I think the author has done a tremendous job. The way Colum McCann has mixed fact with fiction is really amazing. Five stars.
I love listening to McCann's books. His words are a visual delight and listening to them is an absolute treat. The book is not light but it is wonderful. If you want to sit and listen to something that will transport you to another world this book is for you. The narrators were fantastic and I loved how they masterfully wove together the different characters. McCann does not hold his punches when it comes to his characters but the end result felt like I was able to peek into a life and how it is seen not just by the person living it, but by those around them as well.