Posted by: Lisa Hill | October 25, 2009

Dancer, by Colum McCann

DancerDancer by Colum McCann is the intriguing story of Rudolf Nureyev, the ballet dancer who along with Margot Fonteyn, epitomised ballet in the 20th century.  His life has been fictionalised in this story and told in many voices, beginning with his first ballet teacher Anna Vasileva and then through a whole cast of characters that I assume actually existed.  (I know nothing about Nureyev’s life, so I can’t tell).

The ballet stuff doesn’t interest me much, (I couldn’t even watch all 8 minutes of this little video without losing interest)

but the picture of life in Soviet Russia does. It’s as vivid as Boris Pasternak’s Doctor Zhivago, showing the cruelty of exile, the mad bureaucracy, the shortages and the queues, and even the stupidity of renaming streets and towns in post-revolutionary Petersburg as if cultural memory could be erased along with the street signs.  There is also the casual cruelty of Rudi himself.  In pursuit of his ambition he is blind to the needs of those who love him, and arbitrarily he cancels meetings that they look forward to for weeks. He is late and indifferent when Yulia’s mother, Anna, finally gets a visa to visit him in the west,  without any understanding of what she and the rest of his family have had to endure on his behalf.

It’s what happens after Nureyev has defected that’s most awful.  It may seem as if anyone would have defected from Stalinist Russia given the opportunity, but Dancer shows the other side: the impact on those left behind.  Document Z showed this too:  Mrs Petrov hesitated to defect because she knew her family would be ostracised and subjected to increased surveillance at best, and suffer discrimination, interrogation and possibly ‘re-education’ in a labour camp at worst.  In Dancer, the voice of the daughter of Rudi’s teacher explains how home and family were put at risk by defection. She knew nothing about Nureyev’s defection beforehand, but is dragged into it by her mother’s association with him. The police interview her, and she gives them names because she knows that their surveillance is so thorough that they know them all already anyway. Her friends, for their own safety, shun her.  Her fear in palpable. The authorities let her talk to him by phone, her mother too, to try to get him to return , which is even more awful.

The writing is a bit uneven in places, and Victor’s interior monologue can be tedious, but overall it’s an interesting book.

Other Reviews: Reviews of Books

Author: Colum McCann
Title: Dancer
Publisher: Orion, 2004
ISBN 9781897580295
Source: Kingston Library


  1. Interesting… I’m intrigued, if only to see whether it is better than Let The Great World Spin.


    • Ah, and what did you think of Let the Great World Spin? I borrowed it on the strength of liking Dancer, and sent it back to the library unread after the obligatory 50 pages. Which is very, very unusual for me. Actually, I thought of starting category for books I did not finish, but then I thought that would be a bit mean to the authors. Lisa


  2. And in Mao’s last dancer, there is also the issue of defection. I must admit that my husband and I love ballet and are sorry that the Australian Ballet stopped coming to our city many years ago. I haven’t read any McCann – maybe this is the one for me?


    • Have I told you that I’ve ‘met’ Liu Cunxin? A couple of years ago, before the book hit its stellar heights, he came to do an author talk at the library near where I work. So I stayed late, and went to the talk, and he was such a lovely man! He showed a video too, of him dancing, and even though ballet is not my thing (I can’t bear to think of how the women’s feet are damaged) I loved watching him, so light on his feet. Lisa


  3. […] from time to time, (e.g. the video of Rudolph Nureyev in my post about Colum McCann’s Dancer) but I admit that I’m not quite sure why I do it.  It jazzes up the blog, and it might […]


  4. […] reviewed Colum McCann’s Dancer but that was ages ago, and I wasn’t impressed by Let the Great World Spin when I read it […]


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