BOOK REVIEW by Willard Manus

DANCER, the novel based on the life of famed Russian dancer Rudolf Nureyev, opens with a list of things that were flung onstage during his first season in Paris. Among the objects were "ten one-hundred-franc bills held together with an elastic band...a packet of Russian tea...daffodils stolen from the gardens in the Louvre...eighteen pairs of women's underwear, most of them discreetly wrapped in ribbons, but at least two pairs that had been whipped off in a frenzy, one of which he picked up after the last curtain, delighting the stagehands by sniffing them flamboyantly."

Also on the list was "broken glass thrown by Communist protestors, stopping the show for twenty minutes, while the shards were swept up, and provoking such a fury that an emergency meeting of the Parisian Party branch was held because of the negative publicity caused." (Nureyev's celebrated defection from the Soviet Union was the trigger mechanism here).

Politics, sex, money and romance typified Nureyev's life in many ways but they paled beside his main motive: an overwhelming desire to dance. The desire took hold of him when he was small, no more than five or six, when he impulsively performed folk dances for the wounded vets in a military hospital, and it never slackened, not even when his Bolshevik father returned from the war and, horrified by the prospect of having a sissy for a son, beat Rudik mercilessly every time he took to the stage.

Nureyev persisted in his quest to become a dancer, driving himself with fanatical discipline for forty-plus years, hoping beyond hope to achieve not just greatness but perfection.

Colum McCann takes liberties with the biographical details of Nureyev's life. In DANCER, he acknowledges in a postscript, "many changes in names and locations have been made to protect the privacy of people living, and also to give shape to various fictional creations. On occasion, I condensed two or more historical figures into one, or distributed the traits of one person over two or more characters."

It doesn't matter. DANCER still rings with truth and authenticity, not only where Nureyev is concerned but with the likes of Margot Fonteyn (his longtime dance partner), Eric Bruhn (his dance rival--and lover), Andy Warhol, John Lennon, Truman Capote and Jackie Kennedy, to name but a few. McCann's canvas is large; he traces the arc of Nureyev's life from the 40s to the 80s, including such stops as St. Petersburg (where Rudy bolted to the top of his class at the Kirov), Paris, London, New York and a dozen other major cities, all of which fought to book him, adore him, fling money (and panties) at him.

McCann tells his story in an impressionistic way. Each stage of Nureyev's life is portrayed through the voice or point of view of a different person, such as Anna, his first ballet teacher; Yulia, a frustrated writer who tutored him in literature (and offered him her bed); RosaMaria, a beautiful young Chilean poet who also slept with him; Victor, a gay Venezuelan hustler who guided him through New York's exploding underground sex scene in the 70s and 80s.

Nureyev's sex drive was a force of nature; it was nothing for him to make love to six, seven, maybe even a dozen men in a single night--and keep it up for weeks at a time, fueled of course by coke, speed, booze and mammoth amounts of food. Through it all, through all the cruising, partying and binging, Nureyev kept dancing, kept driving himself as an artist. This isn't to say that it made him a likable person. On the contrary, he was a bastard in many ways--arrogant, brash, insulting, selfish.

By the end of the 80s, all roads of excess (leading to Blakean wisdom, presumably) had collapsed, thanks to AIDS, drug and alcohol addiction. Yet Nureyev still refused to quit the stage, despite being afflicted with jammed bones, pain, blisters, "left lateral tipping of the hip," and worse.

As Margot Fonteyn muses as she watches Nureyev at the wedding of his French housekeeper (which he generously paid for in its entirety), "he seemed distant...people spoke of it as loneliness..but it wasn't loneliness. Loneliness...caused a certain madness. It was more, a search for that thing beyond dance, a desire for the human." (Picador ppbk, $15).