Rudolf Nureyev, Wee Jimmy and the Arlington Baths

There are lots of tall stories told in the Arlington Baths.

Members mull them over in the hot room of the Turkish Bath and wonder which are fact and which are just fiction.

When the History Group had the chance to delve in the unsorted archive boxes in the Bath’s basement, we made a discovery that has proved one of our tall tales to be true; a discovery which confirms the Arlington’s connection to one of the most famous, talented and glamorous men of the 20th century!

The Lord of the Dance

Rudolf Nureyev was one of the world’s greatest dancers. Following his defection from the Soviet Union in 1961, he was invited to join The Royal Ballet in London where he and Margot Fonteyn created a brilliant stage partnership.

Here they are dancing together in a short ballet called Les Sylphides – not to be confused with La Sylphide, a romantic ballet set in Scotland, which Nureyev often performed.

Both Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn also often worked with the newly-founded Scottish Ballet, led at that time by innovative director Peter Darrell.

Dance critic Mary Brennan wrote in 2009:

Photo of Nureyev in a short kilt and turquoise velvet jacket
Poster for 1977 Le Festival Noureev in Paris. Reproduced with permission of University of Glasgow Library, Scottish Theatre Archive STA SB 13/2c

“Nureyev came to look on this young, go-getting company as something of a backing band, requesting that they support him at various festival seasons staged in the 1970s under his own name. One programme cover shows him resplendent in his costume for La Sylphide. The jacket is a brilliant turquoise velvet, the kilt made in a matching tartan and with a knee-revealing brevity. After one particularly successful collaboration, the company presented Nureyev with a full, and more authentic, Highland Dress. He had, after all, done much to draw the public’s attention to the fledgling Scottish Ballet. However, the turquoise ensemble still travelled in the wardrobe trunk, ready to catch the limelight whenever La Sylphide was on the programme.”

The Herald: Scottish Ballet celebrates 40 years

And thanks to his enthusiasm for working with Scottish Ballet, Rudolf Nureyev also had the opportunity to enjoy a visit to the Arlington Baths!

Nureyev in Scotland

Colour photograph of Rudolf Nureyev in a sleeveless leotard and woolly hat, looking at the camera and his back reflected in two mirrors behind him
Nureyev in his dressing room Royal Ballet School, London, 1973. Photographer: Allan Warren. Published on Wikimedia with a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license

Nureyev was a global star and performed all over the world. He was filmed for a documentary called I Am A Dancer; these clips show him rehearsing in December 1970.

In early September 1975 Nureyev came to Scotland for the Edinburgh International Festival. He was working with The Royal Ballet, dancing frequently with fellow ballet stars Lynn Seymour and Vyvyan Lorrayne. Here’s the programme, as advertised in the magazine Dance and Dancers (September 1975):

  • Sept 1 & 2: Raymonda, Act 3 (Seymour, Nureyev), Grosse FugeRomeo and Juliet p/d (Seymour, Nureyev), Prodigal Son (Lorrayne, Nureyev),
  • Sept 3 & 4: Concerto, Giselle (Seymour, Nureyev)
  • Sept 5 & 6 The Dream (Tait, Nureyev), Apollo (Seymour, Nureyev), El Amor Brujo (by Peter Wright, premiere – Lorrayne, Highwood, Jeffries, O’Brien)

Following those performances, he joined Scottish Ballet to prepare for a six-week dance festival in Madrid. Getty Images has a photo of him at Glasgow Airport on 14 September, presumably on his way to Spain.

Dance and Dancers, October 1975, had the details:

Text from Dance Diary saying “Rudolf Nureyev had been in Scotland too, first for a week with the Royal Ballet’s touring company that proved one of the most sought-after events of the Edinburgh Festival, then to rehearse for a visit to the Madrid Festival with the Scottish Ballet (which, incidentally, had enjoyed its own highly successful pre-Festival season in Edinburgh).   “In Madrid, the Scottish Ballet opened an eight-week International Dance Festival. Highlight of this engagement was the premiere of Moments, created by Murray Louis to Ravel’s string quartet for Nureyev and four other men. Nureyev also danced for the first time in Béjart’s Sonate à troisand Flindt’s The Lesson, and the company gave its first performance of Dolin’s Variations for Four. Afterwards, Scottish Ballet made tracks for another festival in Barcelona (where Niels Kehlet joined them to dance in La Sylphide) and Nureyev travelled to Amsterdam to work on Rudi van Dantzig’s first creation of the season for the Dutch National Ballet.”
Dance Diary in Dance and Dancers, October 1975. Reproduced by permission of the Scottish Theatre Archive, University of Glasgow Library Special Collections (STA Cf 9)

Nureyev at the Arlington

It was during this collaboration with Scottish Ballet that Nureyev came to the Baths. In the 1970s the Baths employed a masseur known as ‘Wee Jimmy’ and the dancer came to him for a massage. The visit was described in the Baths’ newsletter, recently discovered in a box file in the Club’s basement.

Newsletter text saying: For the Arlington Baths Club, September, in Chairman Mao-fashion, was the month of the Dance. Rudolf Nureyev, no doubt dreading the prospect of taking Scottish Ballet to Madrid and Paris and after the strain of the Edinburgh Festival, felt a trifle weak at the knees. A rapid antidote had to be found for this world-famous figure form the Steppes of Central Russia. Jimmy, our Masseur, and the Arlington Baths were the remedy. Heat, massage and the magic Club atmosphere sent Nureyev pirouetting on his way. It is perhaps a little disappointing that we have not had an application for a life membership but the incident is now in the Club annals. We would ask all admirers not to use Jimmy’s marble slab as a high altar. Anyone, including the most ardent balletomane, found taking small chips of marble from the high altar to boast to their friends that the statuesque thighs and calves have lain on the slab, will not be the Club’s favourite son or daughter.
Arlington Baths Club newsletter circa October 1975. Arlington Baths Archive: Box 15

As well as the massage, it appears that Nureyev possibly spent some time in the Turkish Bath soaking up the heat and enjoying the exotic atmosphere.

The visit obviously caused some excitement. We’d love to be able to earwig on the talk at the Baths that day… and find out what Rudolf and Jimmy chatted about!

At least one of our current members recalls having seen the star in the building. Apparently Nureyev also left an autograph which was pinned to the noticeboard for members to see, until the day it was pinched!

The massage bench remains in the Baths, thankfully unchipped…

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Dancing La Sylphide with Elaine McDonald

The Scottish Ballet performances in Spain were well received, according to a review by critic John Percival.

Black and white photograph of Rudolf Nureyev in the centre balancing on one leg and his left arm across his chest with Roy Campbell-Moore (left) and Brian Burn (right) behind him , all dressed in sleeveless leotards cut away at the front so their chests are bare
Nureyev (centre) with Roy Campbell-Moore (left) and Brian Burn (right) in Moment by Murray Louis. Published in Dance and Dancers, November 1975. Reproduced by permission of the Scottish Theatre Archive, University of Glasgow Library Special Collections (STA Cf 9)

The company performed a mixture of classic and modern pieces in the Madrid festival with Nureyev appearing in many, though not quite all, of them: Moment; Apollo; Variations for Four; Paquita; Three Dances to Japanese Music; The LessonO Caritas; La Sylphide; and Sonate à trois.

They opened with a piece called Moment, created by Murray Louis to music by Ravel, which featured four male dancers.

John Percival wrote: “They wore yellow leotards which had been cut away so deeply at front and back that they seemed scarcely more than bathing trunks…The inner edge of the cut-out sections was trimmed in red.” (Dance and Dancers, November 1975)

Nureyev’s partner in La Sylphide was acclaimed ballerina Elaine McDonald.

“The other programme given by Scottish Ballet in Madrid was a double bill of La Sylphide and Sonate à trois. Nureyev was in splendid form as James: he seems to like to take the Bournonville solos a little on the fast side, but performs them with brilliant strength and clarity. I had not seen McDonald before in the title part (she was on leave of absence when the company first mounted it); she really is very good indeed, very sweet and gentle, and a dancing with a charmingly open manner. She makes a good match to Nureyev’s virile style and lively acting; and the production gives these two outstanding performances a setting worthy of them. I was glad to see that although Nureyev’s fame had been responsible for the completely sold out houses, McDonald shared the applause equally with him and the whole company was received with enthusiasm.”

John Percival, Dance and Dancers, November 1975

Nureyev and McDonald also performed together in The Lesson, and the following summer they danced the same roles in the Nureyev Festival at the London Coliseum.

A black and white photograph in Dance and Dancers magazine showing Rudolf Nureyev behind Elaine McDonald, both with arms outstretched as they take a curtain call after their performance together
Nureyev and McDonald take a curtain call, in Dance and Dancers, November 1975. Reproduced by permission of the Scottish Theatre Archive, University of Glasgow Library Special Collections (STA Cf 9)

Elaine McDonald danced with Scottish Ballet throughout her career. When she died in December 2018 Scottish Ballet published an appreciation of her work and dedication to the company. There was also an obituary in The Herald.

Nureyev carried on touring the world, and became director of the Paris Opera Ballet. And he continued to don a kilt to perform in La Sylphide. This clip shows him dancing with Russian ballerina Zhanna Ayupova in 1989 in St Petersburg, just a few years before his untimely death.

The star’s visit to the Baths has entered Arlington lore. It was re-imagined in the short story Starlight at the Arlington by member Nanzie McLeod in her book Tales of the Arlington.

We are very excited to now have documentary evidence to prove that this story is true but we’d love to know more!

  • Do you remember ‘Wee Jimmy’?
  • Were you there on the day Rudolf Nureyev came to the Arlington Baths?
  • Or did you spot him around Glasgow?
  • Maybe you saw him dance, here in Scotland or elsewhere?

We’d love to hear your memories; please comment below!

Researchers: Lucy, Will, Colin.

With thanks to Alison, Jon and Kay for helping to organise the Bath’s basement archive materials.

Sources:

2 thoughts on “Rudolf Nureyev, Wee Jimmy and the Arlington Baths

  1. I saw Nureyev dance at the playhouse in Edinburgh. I think it was 1992. My sister and I were in the stalls about the 7th row.

    I seem to remember the first piece being called The Pupil or The Student.

    He peeked out from behind a curtain in character then ran to front of stage. I swear to god everyone gasped.

    Even at 54 his physique and presence was astounding.

    Fire retardant clothing required in the first few rows. I feel very very blessed to have seen him dance.

    Like

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