Dancer by Colum McCann

This is not a new book. It was published in 2003 and I picked it up mainly because the cover appealed to me (looks do count). I also loved McCann’s recent novel, Let the Whole World Spin, and thought I would give this one a try. This is a work of fiction about Rudolf Nureyev, which McCann wrote using documented facts about Nureyev’s life. So it’s about a real life, which made it more interesting, but even without that it would have been a great read.




English: portrait of Rudolph Nureyev
English: portrait of Rudolph Nureyev (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I’ve always been fascinated by Nureyev, his exotic life, his talent and his unusual looks – and this novel exposes the reader to all of that, but with such skill that I could not even call this book a fictionalised biography. It is rather vignettes of Nureyev’s life, glimpses into his character, explosions of excitement, passionate descriptions of his dancing. McCann has used multiple narrators, often from the point of view of minor characters, in different settings and often I didn’t know who the narrator was until I read deeper into the chapter. Chapters vary in length, chop and change, keep the reader guessing and fascinated.




Nureyev does not come across as a pleasant character – he’s vain, disdainful, impetuous, rude, inconsiderate, yet dancing is everything to him, it’s that which gives his life meaning. Fascinating insights are given about his life – how he used the same shoe maker all the time as a dancer and how he kept all his old shoes; how he was gay at a time when it was illegal and he had to search for illicit sex; just how debauched his life was – it’s a miracle to me that he managed to dance like he did. His friendship with Margot Fonteyn was only a friendship, they weren’t lovers, but they merged on stage to make the perfect dancing couple. How he mingled with many famous people, how his fans adored him, how rich he became.


The cleverness of using different narrators is that Nureyev’s life is exposed to us in shards, so for example, McCann doesn’t tell us that Nureyev has defected – we just gather it from his family in Russia who are having to deal with the recriminations. We get to know him through the eyes of two of his lovers, and through his housekeeper.

Nureyev died of Aids in 1993, although this was not cited at the time as the cause of death.

Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn in La Bayadère.



If you like Nureyev, I would recommend this for an unusual insight into his life. If you like Colum McCann’s writing, I would also recommend it and, in fact, I think it is a good read all round. For writers, it is a useful reference for examining the effectiveness of using multiple narrators.





Author: Nella

Constant reader, sometime writer, school resource manager. I can't imagine a life without books, nor my children, my cats, my dog, my family, my friends. I belong to two book clubs, and I don't mind whether I read a paper book or an electronic one - as long as I read.

4 thoughts on “Dancer by Colum McCann”

  1. This is one of those books that has sat on my shelf for years, something drew me towards it, but not enough to make me read it, although I did read his Let the Great World Spin which I enjoyed, though not as much as the hype indicated. I don’t know the dancer, but still feel intrigued to pick this up one day for all the other reasons you cite.

    Happy Reading for 2013, look forward to continuing to follow your reading journey. 🙂

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