Roses and Reds for the 'traitor' in tights

The Dancer Defects
September 12, 2003

Alex Danchev marvels at how a colourful subject can invoke lacklustre prose

The dancer in question is Rudolf Nureyev, symbolically the first defector of the performing arts, in 1961, the era of Khrushchev and Kennedy, the bomber gap and the Berlin Wall.

During his first season in Paris the following items were flung onstage: ten 100 franc bills held together with an elastic band; a packet of Russian tea; a manifesto from the Front de Libération National representing the Algerian nationalist movement, protesting the curfew imposed on Muslims after a series of car bombs in Paris; daffodils stolen from the gardens of the Louvre so that the gardeners had to work overtime to make sure the beds were not further plundered; white lilies with centimes taped to the bottom of their stems so they were perfectly weighted to reach the stage; so many other flowers that a stagehand, who swept up the petals after the show, had the idea of creating a potpourri that he sold, on subsequent evenings, to fans at the stage door.

The list continues with a mink coat that sailed through the air on the 12th night, causing patrons in the front rows to think a flying animal was passing over their heads; 18 pairs of women's underwear, a phenomenon never seen in the theatre before, most discreetly wrapped in ribbons, but at least two of which had been whipped off in a frenzy; a headshot of cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, with a message reading "Soar, Rudi, Soar!"; paper bombs filled with pepper; a precious prerevolutionary coin thrown by an émigré who had wrapped it in a note saying that if Nureyev kept his cool, he would be as good as Nijinsky, if not better; dozens of erotic photographs with the names and phone numbers of women scrawled on the back; notes saying " vous êtes un traître de la révolution "; broken glass thrown by Communist protesters so that the show was stopped for 20 minutes while the shards were swept up, provoking such a fury that an emergency meeting of the Paris party branch was held because of the ensuing negative publicity; death threats; hotel keys; love letters; and, on the 15th night, a single long-stemmed gold-plated rose.

This evocative list, so revealing of cold-war culture, comes not from The Dancer Defects but from Dancer , Colum McCann's storytelling of the same case. David Caute's version pales by comparison. He writes: "As Nureyev came on stage, hostile shouting and whistling almost drowned out Tchaikovsky. 'I was perfectly aware that some Communists were trying to sabotage the performance. I could hardly hear the music and I saw pieces of what looked like glass thrown on to the stage at me but I kept dancing. That little group of men, paid to prevent me from dancing, made me wonder about the people the Communist regime had attracted.' This is cold-war prose, not least the word 'paid'. According to The Sunday Times (July 2), Nureyev had barely begun his variation when a group of Communists began shouting 'Traitor!' and 'Go back to Moscow!' (though the latter, surely, is an epithet traditionally used by anti-Communists) while pelting the stage with tomatoes, banana skins and pepper bombs. These jeers and catcalls were countered with cheers of encouragement from other members of the audience, creating a cacophany ( sic )."

The Dancer Defects is a curious amalgam of cut-and-paste and higher learning. The first of a projected two-volume work, it is billed as a historical survey, embracing what Caute calls the display arts (architecture, national exhibitions), the performing arts, music and the fine arts. It began as a larger design, he tells us, encompassing fiction, literary criticism, political theory and historiography; on account of the sheer volume of material, these activities or antagonisms will now find their place in a subsequent volume.

The rationale for the division is understandable. The wisdom of it is perhaps another matter. There is a provisional quality to the argument of this book - an absence, almost an abstention - that makes one wonder whether the interpretation, too, has been postponed until the next volume. This absence is acutely felt. The Dancer Defects is far less compelling than either the subject or the author would lead one to expect. The cultural cold war, Cauterised, is plot summary.

As a result, the big questions go a-begging. If there was a great contest of culture - an unprecedented historical phenomenon, says Caute - what was it about? How was it fought? Who won? Or, if that is too crass, what did it signify? Such questions are sighted, periodically, but abandoned. The Dancer Defects is a long book that stops short of discussing the interesting issues it raises.

Caute does have a point of view, or rather an attitude, set out cantankerously at the end of the book. As far as method goes, he favours Einfühlung (empathy plus understanding). He deplores "interview history" (relying on witnesses), "archive history" (relying on documents) and "investigative history" (pursuing a thesis). In the study of the cultural cold war, he believes there has been an overconcentration on "the secret state", an overestimation of abstract expressionism as a weapon in that war (Jackson Pollock as a continuation of politics by other means), and an overinterpretation of the political engagement of the artists themselves.

The target of this multiple attack is Frances Stonor Saunders, who had the temerity to publish a well-received book on this very subject - Who Paid the Piper? The CIA and the Cultural Cold War (1999) - just as Caute was getting into his stride.

Kenneth Tynan's review of Beckett's one-act play Krapp's Last Tape (1958), quoted here, ended with a parody (slightly amended):

"'Is that all the review he's getting?'

'That's all the book he's written.'

'But a genius. Could you do as much?'

'Not as much. But as little.'"

Alex Danchev is professor of international relations, Keele University.

The Dancer Defects: The Struggle for Cultural Supremacy during the Cold War

Author - David Caute
ISBN - 0 19 924908 3
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £30.00
Pages - 780

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