A time to mourn and a time to dance

Paris would not be the same without its cemeteries. Père-Lachaise is world famous, but south of the city there is another graveyard, whose occupants led vivacious lives and whose stories seem to symbolise the 20th century.

The Cimitière de Liers at Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois became Russian Orthodox in 1926 after a group of White émigrés settled nearby. It is the burial place of more than 3,000 Russians exiled after the Revolution, including Ivan Bunin, who won the 1933 Nobel Prize for Literature, the first Russian to receive the award. Conservative in style, his fiction has a kinship with the 19th century Russian masters, especially that of his friend Anton Chekhov.  He is best known for his short novels The Village (1910) and Dry Valley (1912), his autobiographical novel The Life of Arseniev (1933, 1939), the book of short stories Dark Avenues (1946) and his diary of 1917-18 Cursed Days (1926).

Other less well-known authors are here, alongside the painters Konstantin Somov (who studied under Ilya Repin) and Zinaida Serebriakova (among the first female Russian painters of distinction). Here are the graves of  the philosophers Sergei Bulgakov and Nikolai Lossky, the photographer Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky (best known for his pioneering work in colour photography of early 20th-century Russia), the filmmaker Andrei Tarkovsky, the courtier Felix Yusupov (who may or may not have killed Rasputin), and the dancers Serge Lifar, Mathilde Kschessinska and Rudolf Nureyev,

Mathilde Kschessinska (right) was 18-years old and a student dancer with the Imperial Ballet in Saint Petersburg when she met the 22-year-old Tsarevich Nicholas in 1890 when he and his family attended the student’s graduation performance. The two were lovers for three years, but marriage was out of the question. As Tsar, Nicholas would marry the German princess Alexandra of Hesse, while Mathilde shared her bed with two of his uncles, the Grand Dukes Sergei Mikhailovich and Andrei Vladimirovich.

After the Russian Revolution, Kschessinska moved to Paris, where in 1921 she married one of the Tsar’s cousins, Grand Duke Andrei Vladimirovich of Russia, the possible father of her son Vova. Although Kschessinska’s life in Paris was modest compared with the lavish life she had enjoyed in Russia, she lived on happily for over fifty years. In 1929, she opened her own ballet school, where she taught such students as Margot Fonteyn (who partnered Rudolf Nureyev), Alicia Markova, André Eglevsky, Tatiana Riabouchinska and Tamara Toumanova. She performed for the last time at the age of 64, for a charity event with the Royal Ballet at Covent Garden, dying in 1971 in Paris, just short of her 100th birthday.

The Russian-born dancer and choreographer Rudolph Nureyev (1938-93) gained international acclaim as the greatest male ballet dancer of the 1960s and 1970s. His virtuosity, versatility and charisma were expressed in countless classical and contemporary roles on stage and screen. In the introduction to Nureyev: Aspects of the Dancer (1975), English ballet critic John Percival writes:

“No male dancer ever had more influence on the history, style and public perception of ballet than Rudolf Nureyev. He changed people’s expectations. Starting out from inauspicious beginnings in a remote town in the Urals, he ended up changing the whole face of the art. By indefatigably performing a uniquely wide repertoire night after night, month after month, year after year, all over the world, he reached a wider audience than any rival, to which must be added millions more who saw him only in films and on television (he was filmed more than any other dancer before or probably since). But more important than the size of his audience was the effect on them of his charismatic personality and the utter dedication with which he performed.”

The memorial covering on Nureyev’s tomb was unveiled on 6 May 1996. With artwork by Italian costume designer and art director Ezio Frigerio, the mosaic resembles one of the oriental kilim rugs that Nureyev loved so much. Hopefully its presence will help deter the municipal authorities of Sainte-Geneviève-des-Bois from closing the cemetery, which they have periodically tried to do. Nureyev’s tomb is a tribute to his flamboyant life, but also to the involuntary pas de deux of nostalgia and exile.

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One comment on “A time to mourn and a time to dance

  1. Kristine says:

    Love this entry Philip. I may go to see the cemetery when I am in Paris in a few weeks.

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