Nureyev: The Unconquerable Will

Explore how dance was shaped by prevailing social, political, and cultural forces of a given time period, and how that development influenced dance in Russia


Key Staff

Primary Instructor

Key Skills

Developing Arts Literacies: Understanding Genres, Analyzing and Evaluating - Critique
Global Connections: Connecting to History and Culture


This lesson provides an overview of how creative expression developed in the West, particularly in the development of dance. Students will also explore how dance was shaped by prevailing social, political, and cultural forces of a given time period and how that development influenced dance in Russia.

Learning Objectives

Students will:

  • Accumulate understanding of the formality of Classicism as the prevailing tone of 18th century (Neo-Classicism) social dance and classical ballet
  • Become acquainted with the geography and history of Russia
  • Become aware that the Mongol Tatar (Tartar) tribes were considered “wild” and “barbaric” by the Russians
  • Gain insight into ways ballet developed in early Italian and French Courts, and became an important element of Court social life
  • Recognize that classical ballet was “imported” to Russia by Italian and French dancing teachers
  • Recognize the bitter tensions that have existed between Russia and Mongolia for generations

Teaching Approach

  • Thematic
  • Project-Based Learning
  • Comprehensive Arts Education

Teaching Methods

  • Discovery Learning
  • Discussion
  • Experiential Learning
  • Reflection
  • Research

Assessment Type



What You'll Need

Required Technology
  • 1 Computer per Learner
  • 1 Computer per Small Group
  • 1 Computer per Classroom
  • VCR
  • Television
  • DVD Player
  • Projector
  • Speakers
Lesson Setup

Teacher Background

Teachers should familiarize themselves with Russian history, Nureyev’s work, and the concepts of modern dance, Romanticism Modernism using the following sources:


  • Abrams, Donaldson, etc. The Norton Anthology of English Literature, 5th edition, vol. 2. New York: W.W. Norton & Company.
  • DeMille, Agnes. Martha: The Life and Works of Martha Graham. New York: Vintage Books, 1992.
  • Jowitt. Time and the Dancing Image. Berkley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1988.
  • Kirstein, Lincoln. Four Centuries of Ballet. New York: Dover Publications, Inc., 1984.
  • McKay, Hill, and Buckler. A History of Western Culture, 6th edition. New York: Houghton-Mifflin, 1999.
  • Sinyavsky, Andrei. Soviet Civilization: A Cultural History. Arcadia, Greenfield, WI, 1990.
  • Stuart, Otis. Perpetual Motion. The Public and Private Lives of Rudolf Nureyev: Penguin Books, 1996. (Recommended for Teacher Use Only)
  • Solway, Diane. Nureyev: His Life. New York: William Morrow and Company, Inc, 1998.


  • Nureyev, Rudolf. Giselle. The Bolshoi Ballet Company. 78 min. Kultur International Films, Ltd. 1979. Videocassette.
  • Nureyev, Rudolf. La Sylphide. Paris Opera Ballet. Kultur International Films, Ltd. 1990. Videocassette.


The style of introduction, the technique of class management and depth of coverage should be governed by the grade level and course in which the activity is introduced. The main goal is to provide students with a general overview to be used for the study of Nureyev’s work. Divisions of the assignment, however, could be integrated into larger units of study in other disciplines to: (1) reinforce the far-reaching impact of changing philosophical views on many aspects of a culture, particularly the fine and performing arts, and (2) re-emphasize the resonating aspects of the impact of diverse genres of the fine and performing arts on other themes and genres in history.

Prior Student Knowledge

Students should be familiar with the basic notions of dance and ballet. Students should have a general knowledge of Russian history.

Physical Space



Small Group Instruction

Accessibility Notes

Students with visual impairments or disabilities may need modified handouts or texts.


Resources in Reach

Here are the resources you'll need for each activity, in order of instruction.



1. Initiate this lesson by having students examine a map of Russia. Next, provide students with an overview of the climate, early history involving Mongolia and the Tatars (Tartars), the nature of the population, and students’ general perception of Russian history and life.

Build Knowledge

1. Have students work in groups to research the development of dance. This activity is designed to help students recognize: (1) some ways dance emerged and was positioned in the social and political arenas of Renaissance court life and the 18th century salons and theaters of the "Augustan" Age of Enlightenment, and (2) the influence of both the ebullient European Baroque style and the formality of 18th century European Neo-Classic form on the development of dance in Russia. Assign each group of 3-5 students one of the topics below to be explored in print, Web, and/or video media. The following Internet resources are good places to start:

2. Clarify that each member of the group will be expected to contribute research findings when the collaborative group shares a synthesis of the information in large group discussion; also, that each group will be expected to turn in a well-developed written summary, complete with bibliography. Suggested topics for research:

  • Early development of ballet in 15th and 16th century Europe.
    • Explore the nature of Italian court life in the 15th and 16th centuries, with attention to the social implications of elaborate dance spectacles.
    • Gather background on ballet performances in the court of Queen Catherine de Medicis (Le Ballet de la Reine). Who performed? What was the nature of the choreography?
  • Development of professional ballet in 17th century Europe.
    • Probe the development of ballet under the reign of Louis XIV (the establishment of the Royal Academy of Music and Dance, and the Paris Opera Ballet; court performances of tableaus; and formal spectacles such as the ballet de cour).
    • Present findings on the work of French choreographer Pierre Beauchamp; consider demonstrating and leading the class in learning the five basic positions created by Beauchamp.
    • Summarize the place of the arts in the court of England’s Queen Elizabeth, explaining “patronage” as a concept supporting the arts.
    • Explore the impact of the introduction of female dancers in ballet performances.
    • Share examples of where Moliere infuses ballet interludes into his plays; comment on his artistic purpose.
  • Dance as an extension of the philosophical emphasis on logic and reason and as a social and political “art” of the “man-centered” world of 17th and 18th century Europe and America.
    • Investigate 18th century social dance patterns as a reflection of the order, balance, and symmetry of design, and of the formal styles and manners inherent in the Neo-Classic age.
    • Compare the structural patterns and tone quality of the Minuet dances to that of other genres; for instance: the music composition patterns of Bach and Mozart; the heroic couplet form and the themes of Alexander Pope; The tone quality of Addison and Steele satires; the mathematical composition in and portraits of Neo-Classic painting; the balance and symmetry of 18th century architectural design.
    • Demonstrate 18th century structural patterns and formality of tone by dancing a Minuet and/or leading members of the class in a "lesson" in a Minuet.
    • Share findings on the decorum of the 18th century ballroom; for instance, the dedication to the "Presence."
    • Examine the early dance training of the children of 18th century aristocrats; for instance: the emphasis on ballroom manners and precision of movement; the role of the fencing master as dance master.
  • Expansion of professional classical ballet in Europe in the 17th and 18th century.
    • Collect detail on the emergence of Paris as a ballet "capital," including the role of the Paris Opera Ballet.
    • Find examples of costuming and stage presentation of ballet as a mirror of Neo- Classic form, manners and mores, and high fashion.
    • Explain and draw upon student(s) with classical dance training to demonstrate the formulation of "Classicism" as a prevailing mode of dance expression; for instance, the codifying, in French, of barre movements and individual steps used in combinations.
  • Development of ballet in 18th century Tsarist Russia.
    • Outline the development of St. Petersburg as a cultural mecca under the reigns of Peter the Great and Catherine the Great, including the influences of European Baroque style on architectural design, fashion, and court manners.
    • Summarize the influence of imported French and Italian dancing masters to teach social dancing to the nobility and their children.
    • Present detail on the founding, in 1738, of a ballet school under the reign of the Empress Anna; explain the role of patronage in developing the school.
    • Gather information on the establishing of ballet classes in the Moscow Orphanage in 1773 (to become Moscow ballet/Bolshoi in 1778).
    • Explain the implication of "Classicism" (Neo-Classicism) as a prevailing mode of dance expression in the early history of the Imperial Ballet School of St. Petersburg. Illustrate through drawings and/or dance demonstration such aspects as the linear structure in presentation, symmetry in choreographic patterns, "purity" in execution of conventional steps, etc.
    • Explain the introduction of pointe work in Russian ballet, clarifying that pointe work had developed in Europe earlier. Show samples of pointe shoes, perhaps explaining some of the technology of their development; have student(s) with training in pointe work give a demonstration
    • Note the introduction of dramatic themes in choreography in the second half of the 18th century, within the conventional framework of Classicism (Neo-Classicism)

3. Engage students in a discussion of Romanticism. Explain to students that because Romanticism had such an influence on the development of choreography in what many perceive as the "golden years" of Russian ballet, and since that choreography had much influence on Rudolf Nureyev’s work, the intellectual framework of Romanticism needs special attention.

4. Have students research and construct an overview of absolute monarchism in Tsarist Russia preceding the 18th century (the reigns of Ivan the Terrible and his heirs, the Romanovs, Peter the Great, including attention to the history of the relationship of the Tsars with the Mongolians). Teachers could also cover this information in a lecture.


1. Have students read selected poems and segments of prose written by writers of the Romantic Age. (The texts of several poems can be found on the Library of Congress’s Web site Poetry 180.) The number of the selections and the level of difficulty of analysis will be governed by the grade level and discipline of study. The following are a few key literary sources to consider:

  • The “Prologue” to Lyrical Ballads by William Wordsworth.
  • Poems by William Wordsworth: "Tintern Abbey," "Ode on Intimations of Immortality," and "She Was A Phantom of Delight."
  • Poems by Samuel Taylor Coleridge: "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner" and "Kubla Khan."
  • Poems by Percy Bysshe Shelley: "Ode to the West Wind" and "Hymn to Intellectual Beauty."
  • Poems by George Gordon Byron: "She Walks in Beauty" and "Manfred."
  • One or two of Leo Tolstoi’s peasant stories or segments of his novel Anna Karenina.
  • The "Prologue" and first chapter of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s essay collection, Nature.
  • Vignettes of Goethe’s Faust, and/or other sources that incorporate the Faust legend.

2. Assign individual students to research and present information on composers and artists of other genres developed during the Romantic period; for instance, the music compositions of Tchaikovsky; the "Stages of Life" series painted by American artist Thomas Cole; engravings by Gustave Gore of Coleridge’s "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," etc.

3. Show excerpts of dances choreographed in a Romantic style, such as La Sylphide. Paris Opera Ballet or Giselle. The Bolshoi Ballet Company.

  • VHS/DVD: La Sylphide. Paris Opera Ballet
  • VHS/DVD: Giselle. The Bolshoi Ballet Company


1. Engage students in a discussion about the Romantic period and/or Tolstoi or assign them a cumulative essay in which they identify different elements of the Romantic aesthetic and how they connect to Nureyev’s work and dance at the time. Discussion, quizzes, and writing assignments on the Romantic poets should center, for the purposes of this lesson, on such themes as: the celebration of beauty in Nature; the concept of the "Sublime" in Nature; the role of the Supernatural; the violation of Fundamental Unity in Nature; the moral imperative in Nature; the articulation of the role of "demonic" in the Supernatural; the longing for fulfillment and the undercurrent of lament or tragedy; the value of living the simple life close to the land; the influence of Eastern thought on Western imagination and mysticism, etc. Special attention should be given to structural patterns, Nature images, characterization of "demonic" forces, and prevailing tone quality.

Discussion, quizzes, and brief writing assignments on Tolstoi should center, for the purposes of this lesson, on the social and political landscape—serfdom, bureaucracy, luxurious lifestyle of the aristocrats in Moscow and St. Petersburg, isolation of the aristocracy from peasant life, the celebration of simple peasant life, and living in Nature.


Use the Assessment Rubric, available to you in the Resource Carousel, to evaluate your students' work. You may also assess their work using the following criteria:

  • Quality of research
  • Contribution to class discussion and collaborative projects
  • Performance in oral presentations: substantive material relative to topic; good organization; rhetorical effectiveness; poise in delivery; voice modulation, etc.
  • Performance in writing assignments: substance in analysis; logical organization; effectiveness in structural design; specific and persuasive arguments; precise diction; rhetorical effectiveness, etc.
  • Evidence of genuine investment in work of the class
  • Participation in special projects
  • Evidence of discernment in inferencing, constructing hypotheses, mounting intellectual arguments of conclusions reached

Key Vocabulary

  • Nureyev
  • Dance
  • Modernism
  • 20th century
  • Artistic shifts
  • Choreography
  • Modern dance
  • Ballet
  • Russia
  • Romanticism
  • Tolstoi

Extending the Learning

Use the ARTSEDGE virtual exhibit, Capturing Nureyev: Jamie Wyeth Paints the Dancer, as further exploration of the connections between classical dance and the visual arts.


Throughout the nation, standards of learning are being revised, published and adopted. During this time of transition, ARTSEDGE will continually add connections to the Common Core, Next Generation Science standards and other standards to our existing lessons, in addition to the previous versions of the National Standards across the subject areas.

The Arts Standards used in ARTSEDGE Lessons are the 1994 voluntary national arts standards. The Arts learning standards were revised in 2014; please visit the National Core Arts Standards (http://nationalartsstandards.org) for more. The Kennedy Center is working on developing new lessons to connect to these standards, while maintaining the existing lesson library aligned to the Common Core, other state standards, and the 1994 National Standards for Arts Education.

ArtsEdge Lessons connect to the National Standards for Arts Education, the Common Core Standards, and a range of other subject area standards.

Common Core/State Standards

Select state and grade(s) below, then click "Find" to display Common Core and state standards.

National Standards For Arts Education

Grade 9-12 Dance Standard 2: Understanding choreographic principles, processes, and structures

Grade 9-12 Dance Standard 6: Making connections between dance and healthful living

Grade 9-12 Dance Standard 7: Making connections between dance and other disciplines


Grade 9-12 Dance Standard 3: Understanding dance as a way to create and communicate meaning

Grade 9-12 Dance Standard 4: Applying and demonstrating critical and creative thinking skills in dance


Grade 9-12 Theater Standard 5: Researching by evaluating and synthesizing cultural and historical information to support artistic choices

Visual Arts

Grade 9-12 Visual Arts Standard 3: Choosing and evaluating a range of subject matter, symbols, and ideas

Grade 9-12 Visual Arts Standard 4: Understanding the visual arts in relation to history and cultures

National Standards in Other Subjects
Historical Understanding

Historical Understanding Standard 1: Understands and knows how to analyze chronological relationships and patterns

Historical Understanding Standard 2: Understands the historical perspective

World History

World History Standard 46: Understands long-term changes and recurring patterns in world history

Language Arts

Language Arts Standard 4: Gathers and uses information for research purposes

Language Arts Standard 5: Uses the general skills and strategies of the reading process

Language Arts Standard 6: Uses reading skills and strategies to understand and interpret a variety of literary texts

Language Arts Standard 7: Uses reading skills and strategies to understand and interpret a variety of informational texts



Jayne Karsten
Original Writer

Jen Westmoreland Bouchard

Email Print Share


- +
Email a link to this page
Share This Page



Use this collection of resources and articles to devise an approach for supporting individual needs in the classroom: from English Language Learners or students with disabilities, to conflict resolution and giving feedback.



© 1996-2019 John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts  

ArtsEdge is an education program of

The Kennedy Center 

with the support of

The US Department of Education 

ARTSEDGE, part of the Rubenstein Arts Access Program, is generously funded by David Rubenstein.

Additional support is provided by the U.S. Department of Education.

Kennedy Center education and related artistic programming is made possible through the generosity of the National Committee
for the Performing Arts and the President’s Advisory Committee on the Arts.

The contents of this Web site were developed under a grant from the U.S. Department of Education. However, those contents do not
necessarily represent the policy of the U.S. Department of Education, and you should not assume endorsement by the Federal government.
Unless otherwise stated, ArtsEdge materials may be copied, modified and otherwise utilized for non-commercial educational purposes
provided that ArtsEdge and any authors listed in the materials are credited and provided that you permit others to use them in the same manner.

Change Background:

Connect with us!    EMAIL US | YouTube | Facebook | iTunes | MORE!

© 1996-2019 John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts  
    Privacy Policy
| Terms and Conditions


You are now leaving the ArtsEdge website. Thank you for visiting!

If you are not automatically transferred, please click the link below:

ArtsEdge and The Kennedy Center are in no way responsible for the content of the destination site, its ongoing availability, links to other site or the legality or accuracy of information on the site or its resources.