When The Muppet Show was airing on Nickelodeon, I would tape episodes—the ‘90s, everyone—as I had the chance. One of my tapes was unofficially labeled “Miss Piggy Flirts With the Dead Gay Guest Stars,” and we’ll be paying tribute to those two men this month. Starting with the one who was the bigger talent, honestly. Now, being a lesser talent than Rudolf Nureyev is a low bar. He was one of the greatest dancers of the twentieth century. It’s not an insult to say he was amazing, and you’re not as amazing as he was. Still.
Rudolf Nureyev was born to Tatar Muslim and Bashkir parents—on the Trans-Siberian Railway. As in, apparently on the train, where his mother was on her way to Vladivostok, where his father, a political commissar, was stationed. His dancing ability was discovered young, and eventually he managed to push through Soviet bureaucracy to have the career he wanted. (Because he knew what company he thought would be the best fit for him, and you just didn’t get to make that choice in the Soviet Union at the time.) Then he decided that in fact the career he wanted was not in the Soviet Union.
Apparently one of the things he was doing while on tour in Paris that worried the KGB was . . . visiting gay bars. You know, as was so popular with the US government at the time as well. Anyway, he managed to dodge his handlers and defect, the first artist to do so. When the French specifically request your appearance with your ballet’s touring company because you’re so good, it’s definitely evidence that you’re really good. And Nureyev took advantage of that request, despite the Soviet determination that he should stay a proof of Soviet artistic superiority.
Obviously he did not take himself too seriously. No one who guest starred on The Muppet Show took themselves too seriously. He also established his artistry in multiple fields; he tap danced and sang “Baby It’s Cold Outside” and danced to Swine Lake. He played Rudolph Valentino in a movie. He launched fully into the role of a Western pop culture figure. He even got arrested in San Francisco in 1967 for—and it’s astounding that this is a crime—visiting a location where marijuana was used. Though charges were later dropped.
I don’t know for sure that he was the only guest star propositioned by Richard Hunt on the set of The Muppet Show. It doesn’t seem fully improbable, though. For many years, he was in a relationship with Erik Bruhn of the Royal Danish Ballet; Bruhn officially died of lung cancer but may have died of AIDS instead. Nureyev himself lived for a long time with the disease, especially by ‘80s standards—and he tested positive in 1984, when that could give a life expectancy of months. To survive nearly a decade, dancing almost the whole time, is impressive. We are fortunate to have had that extra time.