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There was this inordinate buzzing and whispering and craning of necks in the crowded lobby of the National Press Club. If it had been any other club less august than this one, which regards celebrities as dispassionately as it regards disasters, you might have said it was a room full of groupies.

"Who arem all these people?" grumbles a club regular, reaching for his copy of the NPC Record, hot off the presses that day. An answering voice floats up ner the club's carved oak reception desk: "They're waiting for that toe dancer, what's his name, 'Noo' something."

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"Nureyev," snaps a fan.

Describing Nureyev as a toe dancer is like calling Heifitz a country fiddler. Not only do men not dance en pointem (balanced on the extreme tip of the toe) in ballet, as ballerinas do, but Nureyev is a leaping legend, "Ballet's original superstar," to quote Alan Kreigsman, Puliter Prize-winning dance critic of the Washington Post.

The National Press Club, veering from its usual diet of the politically nimble, had invited Nureyev to one of its press conference luncheons. But first , a little pre-lunch party upstairs in the club's library. The room is jammed with Washington's arts glitterati who stop talking as if on cue when Nureyev strolls into the room.

The first glimpse of a celebrity is always a surprise. They are invariably taller or shorter or older or younger or more bashful than you expect. Nureyev is no exception. The dancer who did a dramatic tour jetem into freedom 19 years ago when he defected from Russia to the West still looks, in one word, boyish. His brown hair, slightly long with bangs, looks rumpled; his smile is that of a talented but shy and slightly wayward prodigy being introduced to a roomful of grown-ups. No one really expected him to leap from the wings into the library, but he is unexpectedly subdued, nevertheless.

He wears a cashmere-soft, tan woven shirt striped in green, brown, and blue, open at the collar to expose a neck like an oak tree. With it, snuff-colored velour trousers and brown leather boots with 2 1/2-inch heels. Nureyev, one of the towering figures of the dance world, is an almost short man with the powerfully developed body of an athlete. He murmurs politely as guests press his hands like icons.

Rudolf Nureyev is more comfortable a few minutes later as the party dissolves and he is introduced downstairs on the club's podium. He walks slowly, savoring the applause, smiling. This is a real audience. He sits down, toys with his chicken crepe and hot tea for a few minutes before being asked to speak. He is brief but gracious, looking around at the SRO crowd of several hundred and saying: "This is the biggest confessional I have ever had. . . ." When the laughter dies down he tells them, "I have great respect for the press. It is really a basis for guarding and preserving human rights, democracy, and personal freedom. . . ."

Then the questions start, and the dancer who has wowed millions on stages around the world is as nervous as a rabbit at a greyhound race. His voice is soft, husky, accented, sometimes barely audible even with the microphone. There is nothing of the arrogant Tatar about him as he stands at the mike, arms folded protectively across his chest, the fingers of his left hand, just visible, shaking with stage fright. "I'm getting nervous," he admits at one point as the words desert him.

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But about midway through the press conference he begins to enjoy it a bit, and by the end he is telling a story. If you were not a dancer, he is asked, what profession would you choose?

"I would have been musician," he says. "I want to play piano [as a child], but my father said 'no' because, he said, 'Piano is too heavy. You cannot carry it on your back. . . . Why don't you play accordion?' I said, 'No, I don't like sound of accordion.' Was end of my musical career."

A few days later, in a brief interview in his dressing room, Nureyev was explaining why that press conference was so difficult for him: "Because I had nobody to talk to. All those people were there but nobody to react. You have to find somebody who reacts," says Nureyev, whose gray-green eyes never leave the face of his interviewer.

We had been waiting for him backstage at the Kennedy Center Concert Hall, where the walls were plastered with notices in Germand and English. Nureyev has been on tour here with the Berlin Ballet, starring with two other Russian dancers who defected to the West, Valery and Galina Panov. This night he has been dancing the role of Jean the butler in "Miss Julie." The ballet is based on Strindberg's tragedy of the imperious mistress of a great manor house whose affair with the butler precipitates her disgrace and eventual suicide.

Nureyev's role is an ardent and arduous one. At his most dazzling, Nureyev looks like lightning striking, so that when he pirouettes onstage, wearing a blue butler's coat, he is a sapphire blur. It is a shock to see him a few moments later, after the curtain calls.

There is this small, muscular, absolutely drained-looking man padding down the hall in his black ballet shoes. His bright blue frock coat, his black tights, his brown hair, are all drenched as though he's just stood under a shower. His bangs look like black piano keys. He smiles briefly, politely, and disappears into his dressing room. A few minutes later, after he has changed and eaten, the interview begins. His hair, which he is drying with a towel, sticks up in brown spikes all over his head. An electric teakettle steams away on the dressing table next to a letter from a fan. He starts to comb his hair back into place and talks about the importance of acting in ballet.

"It's never separated, it's always together. . . . Movement begins from inside, expressed in the body and finished in the face. In public, first thing public looks at is eyes. They are looking into the eyes, and if they are vacant , then they look further, they look to the torso, to movement of arms, neck. . . . They they start noticing, the concentration is on the feet, and absolutely ignore the person as such and observe that marvelous mechanism."

In what Nureyev calls "a complete reversal of the roles," as Jean the butler he goes from the obsequious servant of Miss Julie to the masterful, disdainful lover. If you can tear yourself away from watching his dancing, his face is a performance in itself. Offstage, even relaxing after the ballet, the face is dramatic, with its wide eyes under dark winged eyebrows, his Tatar cheekbones so high and prominent they look like wishbones, the flaring nostrils and the broad, almost pouting mouth.

Although Nureyev has been dancing in New York and Washington in "Miss Julie" and in his own darkly choreographed version of "The Nutcracker," it is his starring role as Prince Myshkin in a ballet version of Dostoevski's novel "The Idiot" that has stirred up the most controversy. Arlene Croce, dance critic of The New Yorker, snipes that "Nureyev in decline has lows and highs," and suggests that "his appearances for some time have belonged to the history of his career rather than to the history of his art." But she calls him an extremely intelligent and authoritative dancer in his tour with the Berlin Ballet.

Describing his technique with his roles, Nureyev talks of "The Idiot": "First of all, you set out if it is characterization; you put yourself . . . in the place of this prince and his situation and his background, and you know how he would behave and react. You don't playm the role, you becomem the role. You become the character. I have a picture of what I should be, and that's what you try to be. You have an image of yourself, or an image of that character, and you try to become that."

Nureyev says that he is never comfortable when he is performing but adds, "it has to appear that one is comfortable." Does dancing, then, give him joy?

"Yes, oh, yes," he smiles. "Twice. Doing it, that's where it is. The moment you start doing it."

And the second time?

"You always kind of . . . relive, post-mortem, you go again [after the performance] through your mind and there is sense of achievement, but then it's kind of washout before long. Applause, applause, it's nice but it is not that [ which gives him joy]. One doesn't fool oneself."

He doesn't fool himself, for instance, about the comparative joys of dancing and choreography, which he also has a reputation for: "Romeo and Juliet," "Manfred," "La Bayadere," "The Sleeping Beauty."

"No matter how great choreographers are, I can see and I'm sure I know that what they really like to be is dancers, to dance all those roles they create for others. . . ."

That's the man who has danced over 90 roles in 30 companies, including modern dance with Martha Graham, Murray Louis, Paul Taylor, and the Joffrey Ballet. But he doesn't want to form his own dance company, he told the Washington post: "I want to dance. I'm still at a stage where I want not to direct but to be directed."

This flamboyant star knows how to make an entrance off-stage as well as on. He was the cause of a few dropped teacups at the British Embassy here in 1976 when the Brits gave a party for the Royal Ballet and Nureyev, appearing with them, stalked in wearing a gray lizard-skin suit with matching boots. One spring day a few years ago, he breezed into Manhattan's posh La Caravelle restaurant in a floor-length black mink coat, Dutch cap, and high-heeled boots, then ordered the restaurant's air conditioning turned off.

"I am always cold," he explained to the reporter from People magazine. Even after a drenching performance on a sultry Washington night, the air conditioning is off in Nureyev's red-carpeted dressing room. He sits sipping hot tea in casual clothes, a loosely knit mohair sweater of garnet and tan stripes worn with tan pants cut like a skier's and tan boots.

"Are You Hungry Are You Cold?" This title of Ludwig Bemelman's book could have been the story of his early life. He was born Rudolf Hametovich Nureyev on a train bound for Vladivostok, where his father was a political instructor at a regiment.

Both his parents were Muslim Tatars, but he became a Christian when his family moved to a small village near Ufa and shared a single room with an elderly Christian couple. Winters 250 miles from the Siberian border were cold and harsh; food was scarce (he remembers fainting from hunger in a classroom); and even clothing was scarce. He sometimes had to wear clothes cut down from his sisters' dresses.

He says he remembers the town as being poor as a ghetto, with broken-down fences, slums, and his own life as that of a street kid.

"That's the life I led, running on the streets, in courtyards. . . ." But when he saw a performance of "Swan Lake" at the age of 6, he knew what he wanted to do for the rest of life: dance. His parents disapproved completely and so did the other kids around him.

"I was teased a lot for my desire to be a dancer," he remembers with a flick of bitterness. Still, he eventually began dancing with a local folk dance troupe and at 16 bought a cheap one-way ticket to Moscow, where his performance in a folk festival attracted the attention of a teacher at the famous Kirov School in Leningrad. He quickly became the star pupil, and soon joined the Kirov Ballet. As soloist, he soon earned the reputation of Russia's finest male dancer of his generation. When the Kirov left Russia in May 1961 to dance in Paris and London, Nureyev was billed as "one of the most exciting male dancers to emerge for a decade."

The excitement wasn't all in his dancing. When Nureyev, who had always been a political maverick, got wind that he was being called home from Paris before the London stop, he decided to make a leap for freedom. As the dancers boarded a plane, he threw himself into the arms of French police at Le Bourget Airport in Paris and said, "I won't go back!" His ballet defection, the first of its kind, made headlines around the world.

Nureyev described what happened in his own words:

"When I was dancing in Paris we had to go to London. I was suddenly told that I had to go and dance in Moscow for Khrushchev. I think that very strange before being in London. Then somebody else made lie about why I go back, told different story. I thought, 'They don't know how to lie consistently.' I got very suspicious, and I called friends to come and I say, 'I stay in West.'"

Although Nureyev has thought many times of becoming a citizen of the United States, he has not yet done it. "I'm still citizen of nowhere," he says, "resident of Monte Carlo. I still don't know where rest of my life is going to be. . . . I have nests everywhere, since I can't decide where I'm going to live and what is going to be my future. . . . In America, I feel independent and free. Life is rather cheerful here."

But of citizenship he says, "It is a question of studying it and taxes and all that, which is an important aspect." Then Nureyev, who earns thousands per performance and has become a sort of dancing capitalist, says, "You don't when you stop dancing want to find yourself without a penny."

But he isn't planning to stop dancing soon, is he, this man who once said, "I will dance until I drop"?

"No, not for a while," he admits, "but when [he stops dancing], that could happen."

Unlike Rostropovich and some other Russian defectors, Nureyev does not feel homesick.

"No, I don't have that nostalgiem . . . . I came to the West and Western culture is very great, and I am learning as much of it as possible. . . . Basically I feel within myself more European. . . ."

While he does not miss Mother Russia, he longs for his own mother, whom he has not seen in nearly 20 years. The USSR has refused to give her an exit visa to visit Nureyev, who cannot return to Russia. He begins talking about that angrily and ends near tears.

"Basically, it's really [the Soviet government's] having human feelings, you know. They should understand the woman is not young. All right, they can punish me, they can keep me here. All right, that's fine. But she could come to see me before she dies. For a government which insists it is the most humane and advanced in every sense, that should be rather easy," he says.

Does he have any message for his mother?

"Stay well, stay well, stay well," he urges, until he can see her. v.m hen he first defected from Russia to the West nearly two decades ago, Nureyev started dancing with the Grand Ballet du Marquis de Cuevas in Paris. But his international career began to soar two months later when he joined England's Royal Ballet and began the famous partnership with Dame Margot Fonteyn in ballets like "Romeo and Juliet," "Le Corsaire," and "Giselle."

Speaking of his collaboration with Fonteyn he says, "We had the same sort of ideas, the same professional approach to a role. We had to mke, to become the role."

Writing of the big leaps that were the most striking feature of Nureyev's first appearances in the West, critic Alexander Bland says in his book "The Nureyev Image": "He does not shoot up quickly and lightly from the ground as though gravity did not exist; he does not skim or fly, drift or flicker. When he jumps, there is a perceptible buildup of power, a tremendous thrust, and then a great liftoff. Once in the air he soars and sails rather than floats. It is the leap of a big salmon, rather than the spring of a deer. . . ." Bland, dance critic of the London Observer, borrows a phrase from the Ballet Russe's Tamara Karsavina and calls Nureyev's leaps "space-devouring."

The same thrusting energy that characterizes Nureyev's dancing characterizes his intellect, which is less often written about.

"Like bulldozer, I just read everything possible," Nureyev grins. In addition to his physical preparation for a ballet (six to seven hours a day of exercise), he reads everything he can put his powerful hands on.

When he choregraphed and danced "Romeo and Juliet" with the London Festival Ballet recently, he studied every version of the play he could find in any form, every critical essay on it. Same thing with "Don Quixote," and he has just bowled his way through all of Dostoevski -- novels, short stories, essays on his work -- to dance "The Idiot." He has leveled all of Pinter.

"One discovers one thing, then flogs it to death, then discovers another thing, and flogs it to death."

What intrigued him about Pinter? He pauses, then gives a dancer's answer:

"The space. The distances between people."

Even when he relaxes listening to music, it is with a dancer's ear that he listens, so that his emotional energy will not be depleted.

"Bach is the thing. He is never tiring, he is always constructive. Mozart, however beautiful, he is always emotional, fatigues you, Brahms, too, and Schubert. Bach doesn't drain you."

Eating, too, is tailored to the demands of dance. His favorite dish is fish, specifically sea bass as prepared by his 84-year-old French cook. "Of course, if it's a big occasion [a demanding performance] she knows that she cannot cook fish. If I have 'The Nutcracker' tomorrow, a classical ballet, I can't eat fish. It must be steak or hamburger, a very compact and boring meal, not too much and not too little."

Incidentally, it was fish -- in the form of a shrimp pate -- which Nureyev once hurled at an Australian critic at a dinner party following a review which displeased him. He is not without temperament, both artistic and personal; when the Washington audience cheered Galina Panova with more enthusiasm that it did Nureyev after a performance one night, he disdained the single coral rose she offered him from her bouquet and did not emerge later for a solo curtain call. Of course, fans might argue, it's known he never accepts flowers in public. But it is possible that the same sensitivity that enhances his dancing also makes him particularly vulnerable to hurt from lack of appreciation or criticism.

Certainly Nureyev remains a name to conjure with, a celebrity as well as one of the world's great dancers. He has made five films, including the nondancing role of Valentino, the silent movie matinee idol, in Ken Russell's feature film, and has appeared often on TV, with more to come. He has already taped a one-hour special with Julie Andrews, an introduction to the dance in which he performs excerpts from "Swan Lake" and "La Sylphide" as well as some Broadway numbers with Andrews. He's slated to record the Joffrey Ballet's Diaghilev tribute, which would include his performances in the roles danced by Nijinsky (whom Nureyev considers "the ideal"): "Petrushka," "Afternoon of a Faun," and "Le Spectre de la rose," and he has already wrapped up a six-part series on "The Magic of Dance" produced by Margot Fonteyn.

"Celebrity is a kind of byproduct," explains Nureyev. I want to be remembered as a dancer, only as a dancer."

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