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Dancing with the Devil – Sadler’s Wells – Review

Dancing With The Devil Photography by Josh Brandao and Nicolai Kornum
Dancing With The Devil Photography by Josh Brandao and Nicolai Kornum

The first time I ever even heard of Rudolf Nureyev was in a spoken line by ‘Mrs Wilkinson’ in Billy Elliot the Musical, as she almost barks at Billy, “Oi, Rudolf Nureyev, over ‘ere!” There is, as it turns out, the odd parallel between the ‘bairn’ from Easington and the ballet boy from Russia – Nureyev’s father (Konstantinos Kavakiotis) thoroughly disapproves of his son wanting to become a dancer, and there are, at least as depicted in this show, many more females than males in the classes that Nureyev finds himself in.

The set in Dancing With The Devil is relatively simple, with sparing use of projections, though the proper establishment of time and place happens largely through the dialogue. At one point, for instance, Margot Fonteyn (Jo Price) simply tells a baffled Rudolf Nureyev (Benny Maslov) where the scene in question is, and in doing so, informs the audience and ensures we’re all on the same page, without sounding patronising or overdone.

It’s a play, which took me by surprise; audiences don’t ordinarily attend Sadler’s Wells to see plays as their emphasis in recent years has been very much on dance in its various forms. (That will teach me to pay more attention to press releases.) This play is, of course, simply one interpretation of Nureyev’s life, and while it can be argued it could have been a little cheerier, it could also have been substantially darker. My reasoning for asserting such an argument is this. I’ve only managed to plough through less than a fifth of the authorised biography of Nureyev, by Julie Kavanagh, a whopping 782 pages. But even in what I have read there are details about the KGB wanting to poison Nureyev or at least breaking both his legs, for defecting to the West. There isn’t a scintilla of that sort of thing here.

It isn’t entirely clear to me, based on this show, quite why he defected. While the biography is very clear on this point, the play simply acknowledges the unavoidable fact that he did so. Fair enough, but the chain of events in this production suggest, rightly or wrongly, he applied for political asylum on the polite request of an acquaintance, which seemed to me inconsistent with the play’s portrayal of him for every other moment of the play as someone who really did not like being advised what to do.

That said, it’s still perfectly possible to know nothing about Nureyev and be able to follow the narrative, not strictly in chronological order, and it’s anyone’s guess as to what is exaggerated (and to what extent) and what is an accurate representation of what really happened. I very much enjoyed the ballet pieces, choreographed by Benny Maslov, and a solo performance was over all too quickly.

The choice to portray the key events by having Nureyev as an older man looking back in a series of flashbacks made him come across as a similar character to Norma Desmond in Sunset Boulevard, a vain and dramatic has-been with delusions of grandeur. This comes through most pertinently in a scene where Nureyev is sat with Margot Fonteyn, and the pair are watching vintage footage of themselves in performance.

Steadily paced, I occasionally got the impression that Nureyev himself might, if he were still with us, slam the production for telling his story a tad too slowly. There’s a lot of ‘talking heads’ in this show, which the dance regulars in the audience may have found hard to maintain attention to (one man had no qualms with repeatedly yawning loudly). This is a fascinating production nonetheless, and as someone who knew next to nothing about Nureyev, I found it to be highly informative as well as entertaining. A decent and engaging piece of theatre.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

Dancing With The Devil, a dynamic visual performance about an imaginary meeting between dying Russian superstar ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev and Dame Margot Fonteyn in the last years of Nureyev’s life, will get its world premiere in five performances at the Lilian Baylis Studio, Sadler’s Wells, from Sunday 26 June – Wednesday 29 June.

Dancing With The Devil is set in the early nineties in Nureyev’s flat in Paris. He has AIDS and the illness is at an advanced stage. Refusing to accept his fate, and in his desperate hunger for life, he invokes the ghost of Margot Fonteyn (who died several years earlier) to find redemption. With Margot he re-lives his youth, his hardships, his destructive love affair with Erik Bruhn and his global success as a dancer. But he and Margot see the past with very different eyes and gradually he is forced to confront himself – the biggest battle of his life. The journey that these two blazing talents embark upon is not only a love story, but is intricately woven from the very roots and fibres that made Rudolf Nureyev both a cantankerous child and consummate artist. Nureyev recalls the first moment from his childhood in Russia when his passion for ballet began, his struggle with his father, his early years at the Vaganova Ballet, his first loves, his encounters with his teachers, Chelkov and Pushkin, his first major performance as a soloist, his defection from the Soviet Union, his visit to Russia after 26 years to see his family, his meeting with his sister Rezida, his encounters with Clara Saint, the French Socialite, Erik Bruhn, Margot Fonteyn, Maria Tallchief, Raymundo De Larrain and Cecil Beaton.

based on the life of the dancer
Rudolf Nureyev
by Aletta Lawson
Director Anastasia Revi
Set and Costume Designer Maira Vazeou
Lighting Designer Yiannis Katsaris
Producers Martina Reynolds, Giannis Exintaris

Benny Maslov, Jo Price, Helen Bang, Konstantinos Kavakiotis, Denise Moreno, Carolin Ott, Peter Rae

Lilian Baylis Studio
Sadler’s Wells
Rosebery Avenue
London EC1R 4TN

Performance Information
Age guidance: 12+
Running time: 1 hr 30 mins (no interval)
Sunday 26 June – Wednesday 29 June at 7.45pm
Wednesday 29 June at 2.30pm


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