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The Dancer's Secret

Ten years and more than 700 pages later, Kavanagh has produced the first authorized biography of the greatest male dancer of the 20th century.

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Julie Kavanagh

Julie Kavanagh

Photo By Tim Jenkins

In 1997, Julie Kavanagh was far from excited about the prospect of writing a biography of Rudolf Nureyev. A former ballet dancer and author of an acclaimed biography of British choreographer Frederick Ashton, she wasn't relishing the idea of spending another decade chained to her computer. The book wasn't even her idea: She'd been headhunted after a group of Nureyev's closest friends began looking for an appropriate biographer. Besides, there were already more than 30 books out there on the dancer, who died in 1993, so what new information could she possibly unearth?

Ten years and more than 700 pages later, Kavanagh has produced the first authorized biography of the greatest male dancer of the 20th century — in her words, a man who could sit virtually motionless on a stage and still make the audience's hair stand on end. "He was a theater animal. He could eclipse everyone else on stage with his unbelievable charisma," says Kavanagh, whose book, "Nureyev: The Life" (Pantheon Books), comes out Tuesday.

But it wasn't Nureyev's legendary charisma that finally convinced her to write about him. It was a story she uncovered after following up on a comment made during an early interview with a confidante of the dancer's, Chinko Rafique, a foreign student who studied at the Kirov Ballet's Vaganova School in St. Petersburg at the same time Nureyev was with the famous ballet company.

"I hit on this Cold War love story — and I got excited — and suddenly I knew there was a book," says the petite Kavanagh.

After that fateful interview with Rafique, Kavanagh did some digging and found that before Nureyev defected to the West, he had a secret lover named Teja Kremke, a handsome, precocious 17-year-old from then-East Berlin who met Nureyev in 1960 while he was a student at the Vaganova School. Kremke would tell Nureyev about life outside Russia. The young dancer also pushed Nureyev to defect, which he would eventually do in June 1961. Kremke told Nureyev: "There you'll be the greatest dancer in the world. But if you stay here, you'll be known only to Russians."

Their relationship didn't last long, however. Nureyev soon met his longtime love, Erik Bruhn, while the bisexual Kremke later took an Indonesian child bride. Kremke died in the mid-Seventies.
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