At the age of 14, former ballerina Stephanie Herman ditched school and waited in line for six hours at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House to see Rudolf Nureyev dance with Margot Fonteyn. Little did she know that a decade later, she would be dancing with the famed ballerino, whose career and costumes are the subject of the special exhibition Rudolf Nureyev: A Life in Dance, which opens tomorrow, October 6.
Herman, a prodigy of renowned choreographer George Balanchine, is now retired and lives in Menlo Park with her family and her two dogs, Mojo and Tallulah. Her life in ballet began at New York’s prestigious High School for the Performing Arts, which was the basis of Fame (and is now called LaGuardia High School). Every day after school, Herman dutifully took the subway to the School of American Ballet, where she studied under Balanchine.
When she graduated, however, Herman’s height prevented her from dancing in the Balanchine's company because he had no spots for tall dancers. Instead, he sent the statuesque ballerina to Switzerland, where former Balanchine dancer Patricia Neary had established a company at the Zurich Opera House. Two years later, Herman became a principal in the company at the age of 21.
The ballets of George Balanchine were well known and respected by Rudolf Nureyev, and the iconic dancer soon visited the Zurich dance company. When he first walked into the ballet studio, Herman recalls, “I was shaking—I remembered the first time that I saw him when I was 14, and now I had the opportunity to dance with him.” She says that she felt an immediate connection with Nureyev: “We’re both Russian, and as a dancer, I’m very artistic in my expression. We shared a very dramatic style.”
In 1981, Nureyev cast Herman as his mother in a ballet about Lord Byron called Manfred. “He re-choreographed the role for me, heightening its technical difficulty,” says Herman. “He really believed in my strengths as a dancer, and he pushed me.”
Two days before Manfred opened, legendary costume designer Nicholas Georgiadis brought the costumes from their original venue at the Paris Opera House. When she tried on her costume, Herman immediately realized she would not be able to dance the part as Nureyev had choreographed it for her in the sizable outfit. “It had a long train, and about 10 layers of skirting and weighed as many pounds.”
The moment Nureyev saw her, he exclaimed, “Bring me scissors!” Much to Georgiadis’s chagrin, Nureyev began cutting out the under-layers of the dress, nine in all. In response to Georgiadis’s protests, Nureyev stated simply, “She needs to dance.”
Moreover, the costume’s bust was oversized and unflattering. “I didn’t even have to say anything to him—when he saw me, he just said ‘Bring me needle and thread.’”
Perhaps Herman’s most meaningful exchange with Nureyev came about as a result of a “lost in translation” moment. Recounts Herman, “I was stretching and doing my foot exercises, when Nureyev came up to me and asked, ‘What size your boats?’” Herman soon realized Nureyev was talking about her feet. “He said, ‘your feet are big. I want your shoes.’” Herman agreed to sign and deliver her point shoes to him, but only in exchange for a signed pair of his ballet shoes.
Nureyev rarely gave away his ballet slippers, preferring rather to wear them out completely; but, as promised, he gave Herman a signed pair of his ballet slippers that she still treasures today. “Nureyev challenged and pushed me to dance my best, and even to choreograph. I felt that he really respected me.”
You can see Stephanie Herman’s prized pair of Nureyev’s ballet slippers in Rudolf Nureyev: A Life in Dance, on view October 6, 2012—February 17, 2013 at the de Young.