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Pierre Lacotte: French dancer who helped Rudolf Nureyev defect dies aged 91

Pierre Lacotte and his wife Ghislaine Thesmar in the ballet 'Penthésilée' - 19 February 1964.
Pierre Lacotte and his wife Ghislaine Thesmar in the ballet 'Penthésilée' - 19 February 1964. Copyright AFP
Copyright AFP
By David Mouriquand
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Pierre Lacotte, the French dancer at the heart of a cloak-and-dagger intrigue in 1961 when he helped Rudolf Nureyev defect, has died.


Pierre Lacotte, the celebrated French ballet dancer turned choreographer who helped Rudolf Nureyev defect from the Soviet Union, has died aged 91.

"He was full of energy," said his wife of 55 years Ghislaine Thesmar, a retired principal dancer. "It's very sad. He still had so many projects and was writing a book," she added, stating that her husband died after a cut became septic.

Born in 4 April 1932 in Chatou, just outside Paris, Lacotte started his career at the Paris Opera Ballet as a teenager and later turned his attention to the revival of forgotten 19th Century productions.

He founded the Ballets de la tour Eiffel company in the late 50s, after resigning from the Paris Opera.

In 1961, he became friends with Nureyev, one of the greatest dancers of his generation, while he was on tour in Paris. When Nureyev was told he was to be sent home, he asked Lacotte not to leave his side at the airport. On 16 June 1961, Lacotte helped him escape his KGB minders at Le Bourget airport, mere minutes before the dancer was due to board a plane back to the Soviet Union. He asked Clara Saint, ex-fiancée of a son of André Malraux, then Minister of Culture, to ask the French police for help, and the dancer made his much-publicised jump to the West.

While the defection worked, Nureyev was only allowed back to the USSR more than 25 years later when his mother was dying.

Lacotte's role in the defection was recounted in the 2018 biopic The White Crow directed by actor-director Ralph Fiennes.

Having sustained an ankle injury, Lacotte began to choreograph. His 'La Sylphide' was the first ballet to be performed completely on pointe – on the tips of the toes. He also revived other 19th century classics including 'La Fille du pharaon' and 'Paquita'. These reconstructions became his passion, and he would soon be called the "archaeologist of ballet".

Pierre LacotteAFP

Lacotte's last work in 2021 was a production for the Paris Opera of 'The Red and the Black' based on the 1830 novel by the French writer Stendhal.

"He loved the Opera, it was his one and only home," said his wife. 

Watch the clip above for extracts of his final work.

Additional sources • AFP

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