Colum McCann – DancerBooks — By Jeff Donaldson on April 30, 2007 at 12:00 am
Colum McCann’s novel Dancer is a fictional biography of the prominent Russian dancer Rudolf Nureyev. Dancer seeks to tell his story through the stories of those touched by his art, in a sequence of narratives by various characters: his maid, his sister, his dance partner, an interior decorator in New York, a woman who once housed him, and many others.
McCann describes with vivid and wrenching detail Nureyev’s youth through the eyes of those living alongside him, among the poverty, bread lines, and paranoia of post-WWII Soviet Russia. Young Rudik befriended an elderly exiled woman who had been a dance teacher before she was blacklisted. She taught him to dance, and he lent a sense of purpose and meaning to her existence.
Nureyev then makes his way to Leningrad, training at the Vaganova School and performing with the Kirov Ballet. His “prickly” character emerges; he makes life difficult for his classmates and teachers through his self-centered behavior, yet his talent served to buffer the consequences of his actions.
The story continues through Nureyev’s defection to the West, his super-stardom as one of the most prominent dancers in the world, and the isolation which often accompanies celebrity. Because of Nureyev’s defection, he was prevented from returning to visit his family, under threat of seven years of hard labor. He fulfills all his dreams, and is unable to share his triumph with the very people who could have given his victory meaning.
McCann is, by trade, a storyteller as much as a novelist. He is an Irish expatriate living in New York City, and he seeks to tell the tales of the world in order that the life of each individual might be understood.
At a lecture in Columbus, Ohio, McCann related the story of a boy growing up in Dublin in the early seventies whose father was an alcoholic. Every day the father came home and beat his son. One day, the father came home sober with a new television set. He set it down and the family crowded round to watch the soccer game. The father plugged in the television, switched it on, and there was no picture. In the family’s apartment building, there wasn’t the reception to receive any channels. The entire family laughed at the father, and later that night the boy received the most severe beating of his life, one he would remember for years to come. The boy rose the next morning and carried the television out to the fire escape with an extension cord. He cradled the set in his arms and switched it on, to discover Rudolf Nureyev performing, a sublime dance rising out of the wretchedness of this boy’s life.
McCann, after hearing this story from the man who the boy became, was inspired to write about Nureyev, about those luminous moments which his art inspired, leading individuals to leave off their chains and dance free, themselves.
McCann completed four years of research for this novel, and even danced on stage at the Kirov ballet as part of his process. His dedication to the craft leads to an engaging narrative which gives a person a comprehensive understanding of the life and epoch of the dancer.
Nureyev, often embodied by a raw, angry scream of rebellion from within the collective, was a tragic figure, suffering for his art through alienation; his dance, however, served as a vessel for those numinous moments of life when the truth breaks free.