Dancer, by Colum McCann. Metropolitan Books. 356 pages. $26.
Ballets, unlike books or paintings, exist only in the present. Once a performance is over, it cannot be relived, only remembered. Alas, I didn't start going to the dance until Rudolf Nureyev's great days were over, so he is not even a memory to me, merely a legend. Still, I know a few people who knew him and many more who saw him on stage in his prime, and they all agree without exception that he was unique and irreplaceable. The films of his performances are unexpectedly vivid (most dance films aren't), but they can tell only part of the story, as did Diane Solway in Nureyev: His Life, her very good 1998 biography. Now Colum McCann has tried to tell some of the rest of it -- in a novel.
I can't think of all that many other serious novels that have taken as their subject the life of a famous man who lived in modern times. To be sure, it's far from uncommon for novelists to slip lightly disguised real-life characters into their books. But Dancer is quite unabashedly about Nureyev, and though McCann has made up scenes and dialogue, as well as certain secondary characters, virtually everything in his book is based on the known facts of Nureyev's life.
In theory, the results ought to be of no more interest than a TV docudrama-of-the-week, but bad theory always takes a back seat to good results, and Dancer is an engrossing portrait of a man so complex that no mere biography could possibly convey more than a sliver of his personality.
McCann has done an awesome amount of homework, not merely about the backstage world of ballet but also about a long list of other Nureyev-related topics ranging from life in wartime Russia to how one picks up men in gay bathhouses. Yet Dancer reads like a novel, not a well-researched biography, and the Nureyev who strides impatiently through its pages seems entirely convincing.
To understand Nureyev the dancer, you probably had to be there (though the films help). But when it comes to Nureyev the personality, I feel sure that McCann has gone a long way toward showing us what it must have been like to know him, especially in this passage, spoken by a character who knew him when young and met him again later in life: "It was impossible to get angry at Rudi for becoming what he had become. Something about him released people from the world, tempted them out."
That is exactly what larger-than-life artists do, and it is why ordinary-sized people who happen to know them are willing to put up -- at least for a while -- with their selfish quirks and cruelties. I've been friends with a couple of geniuses, and now that I've read Dancer, I think perhaps I understand them a little better.
Terry Teachout is the music critic of Commentary. His most recent book is The Skeptic: A Life of H. L. Mencken (HarperCollins). He writes about dance for the New York Times and was previously dance critic of the New York Daily News and associate editor of the New Dance Review.