PARIS -- The coffin carrying the body of the Russian ballet star Rudolf Nureyev entered the Opera Garnier in Paris Tuesday amid an impressive silence -- in sharp contrast to the thunderous applause that marked his dancing career.
In front of a crowd of hundreds of friends, relatives and colleagues gathered from around the world, six former stars of the Paris Opera Ballet, on the verge of tears, carried the dancer to the top of the grand staircase for a moving tribute to the legendary dancer.
The coffin was set down at the top of the giant, marble staircase in the main entrance to the Opera on the right bank of the River Seine. At its foot, the Cross of the Legion of Honor was set on a blue velvet cushion.
Outside, about 1,000 people gathered to pay silent homage to Nureyev, widely considered one of the century's most brilliant and charismatic male dancers.
During the 45-minute ceremony inside the opera house, 24 dancers of the Paris Opera Ballet lined the grand staircase with bouquets of white chrysanthemums, while excerpts of poems by Pushkin, Byron, Michelangelo, Goethe and Rimbaud, punctuated with musical pieces from Bach and Tchaikovsky, were read in their original languages.
One of the most notable passages, charged with symbolism, was that of 'Eugene Oneguine' read by Nureyev's former dance partner Ninel Kourgapkina. 'When will you come, my liberty? The hour has rung and I am calling you! When will I sail peaceful and strong? I must leave these sad shores, the hostility of this fatherland...'
Nureyev, who died Jan. 6 apparently from AIDS, was one of the Soviet Union's leading ballet stars in 1961 when he slipped away during a Paris tour and was granted political asylum in France. Since then, Nureyev played an important role in Paris' ballet history. He was named to the head of Paris Opera Ballet in 1983 by French Culture Minister Jack Lang.
Nureyev was one of the Soviet Union's leading ballet stars and on tour in Paris in 1961 when he slipped away and sought asylum in the West.
In the climate of the East-West cold war, his decision drew more excitement than the defection of any communist spy. He lived up to his billing, making news with dazzling performances and exuberant partying.
Nureyev was only 20 years old when he was dancing with all the top ballerinas in Russia's Kirov ballet company.
Lang recalled the life and destiny of the brilliant performer, praising his clairvoyance and courage in the face of sickness and death.
'Astronomers say the light of hundreds of stars shine long after their disappearance. From within the pantheon of beauty, his only true residence, Rudolf Nureyev continues to shine for us,' Lang said. 'You have chosen to be burried in France, may she treat you kindly and hospitably.'
Dear Rudolph, we love you,' Lang said.
In addition to Lang, dozens of personalities from the worlds of politics and the performing arts attended the ceremony, including Francois Leotard, who as culture minister in 1988 accompanied Nureyev on his first trip to the Soviet Union after 27 years in exile.
Also present were Patrick Dupond, who succeeded Nureyev as artistic director of the Paris Opera Ballet, and two of Nureyev's sisters, Rosa Francois and Rasida Efgrafova. Past stars of the ballet, including Nina Vyroubova, Carla Fracci, Marika Besobrasova, as well as the choreographers John Neumeier, Rudy Van Dantzig, Flemming Flindt, and John Taras.
At the end of the ceremony the coffin was brought down the staircase to an excerpt from Mahler's 'Song to the Roving Companion.'
The dancer was then taken to the village of Sainte-Genevieve-des-Bois outside Paris, where he was buried in a simple ceremony in the twon's Russian Orthodox cemetery.
There were no prayers or homilies at the burial ceremony, which as attended by about 100 persons. Nureyev's burial place is about 60 feet from the black marble tomb of the choreographer Serge Lifar.