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Walking through the Rudolf Nureyev exhibit–A Life in Dance–at the de Young Museum is like scampering through your mom’s closet. Well, if your mom solely wore tutus, dance jackets, vests, and harem pants.

Nureyev’s meteoric rise didn’t happen overnight. While he quickly ascended through the ranks at the Kirov Ballet, his more progressive values and free-thinking mentality couldn’t be restrained behind the Iron Curtain. On the Kirov’s tour to France in 1961, Nureyev defected and soon after continued his rock-star rise.

What: A Life in Dance

Where: de Young Museum, 450 Florida Street 50 Hagiwara Tea Garden Drive, SF

When: through February 17, 2013

Tickets: Free for members and children 5 and under. $10-20 for youth, college students, seniors, and adults. Includes general admission to the museum.

Traveling the globe, Nureyev danced leading roles, bringing attention to what had traditionally been seen as a woman’s art. And with virtuoso movement, and an incomparable and unquantifiable performance quality, Nureyev pushed the notion of men in ballet not simply as adornment for the pretty, tutu-ed women cavorting across the stage, but as something wholeheartedly different and equally as exciting.

Nureyev’s life was cut tragically short; he passed away in 1993 at the age of 54 due to complications from AIDS.

Nureyev, always the revolutionary, led a grand and somewhat wild lifestyle, highlighted by a story that Dede Wilsey, president of the Fine Arts Museums of San Francisco, recounted at the sneak peak of the Nureyev exhibit.

“Back in the day,” she was at a party in the Haight and Nureyev, Margot Fonteyn, and some other dancers were downstairs. There may (or may not) have been pot on the premises, and the cops showed up to raid the event.

Wanting to avoid unnecessary press or trouble from the law, Nureyev and Fonteyn climbed up fire escape, and leaped from rooftop to rooftop–because that’s what dancers do, right? The next day, the Chronicle sported a giant photo of the dancers as they grand jeted away from the authorities. But the getaway didn’t last, as the clip below details.

From October 6, 2012 through February 17, 2013, the de Young Museum in Golden Gate Park features a special collection focused on Nureyev. It includes over 80 costumes and 50 photographs, video, and posters. The costumes, including his and those of his dance partners like Fonteyn, are on loan. Many come from the dancer’s personal collection– entrusted to the Centre national du costume de scène in France by the Rudolf Nureyev Foundation–and others have been very generously loaned from ballet companies around the world.

The exhibit provides a quiet yet rich homage to Nureyev’s invigorating spirit, with simply hung dance jackets and giant, earthy photos juxtaposed against shimmering tutus and larger-than-life video of him rehearsing and performing (although I would have liked to see more video, as it so readily conveys his awe-inspiring persona).

From the onset, Nureyev took an avid interest in his own costuming, leaning towards intricate braiding, eye-catching jewels, and sumptuous fabrics. Having a less-than-typical dancer’s body with shorter legs, Nureyev would reconstruct his costumes’ waistlines to make him appear longer and taller. And as he aged and dealt with the ravages of AIDS on his body, Nureyev’s roles and his costumes morphed to support and hide his physical hurdles.

Small sets of images and costumes sparsely checker the first half of the exhibit. But rounding a corner into the “La Bayadère” section, color and texture blasts from all sides. A film clip of Act III, The Kingdom of the Shades, (the Paris Opera Ballet’s production) of “La Bayadère” broadcasts across a giant scrim.

Nureyev performed this ballet in Paris just prior to his defection, and it was also one of his first choreographic ventures; he reworked it for the Royal Ballet soon after his defection. Seeing the ladies (spirits or shades), lit in otherwordly blues and adorned in puffy white tutus with veiled headpieces, tiptoe across the stage and pause in picture-perfect arabesque adds some much needed life to the exhibit.

The tutus hanging behind the scrim don’t support the “La Bayadère” theme (They’re from “Don Quixote,” an entirely different ballet and feel all together!), but no matter. The intimate visual here feels both spectacular and eerie.

The costumes on display has been wonderfully preserved. Some are behind a glass wall, making it tough at times to really absorb each piece’s specific splendor and magic. And for those who want a little more visual oomph or a revolutionary take on a revolutionary man, well, this isn’t that kind of exhibit. But as a whole, this homage to Nureyev should satisfy most avid dance aficionados.

The exhibit offers a self-guided audio tour, and I highly recommend grabbing a headset as you walk in. The text and descriptions throughout the exhibit lean toward the non-existent.

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the author

Becca Klarin writes about dance. Her first stage role was at the age of four, where she dressed in a brightly colored bumble bee tutu and black patent leather taps shoes. She remembers bright lights and spinning in circles with her eleven other bees, but nothing more. Becca also has an affinity for things beginning with the letter "P", including Pizzetta 211, Fort Point, pilates, parsvakonasana, and plies.

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