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Ailing Nureyev gets ovation: A frail and gaunt Rudolf Nureyev blinked back tears as the audience at the Paris Opera surrounded him with flowers and leapt to its feet for a 10-minute ovation at the premiere of his choreography of La Bayadere.

His thin frame wrapped in a red cape, his head held high, the ailing 54-year-old dancer walked slowly onto the stage Thursday, supported by lead dancers Isabelle Guerin and Laurent Hilaire.

Within seconds, the stage was covered by dozens of bouquets thrown by enthusiastic fans witnessing what might be the great Nureyev's final creative effort. Fittingly, perhaps, it was La Bayadere, the 19th-century Marius Petipa classic, that helped make the Soviet-born dancer an icon in the West when he defected after a performance in Paris in 1961.

In a private ceremony after the production, Culture Minister Jack Lang decorated Nureyev with the insignia of the commander of arts and letters, one of France's highest awards for a lifetime of excellence in the arts.

Nureyev was seated throughout the ceremony, apparently too weak to stand to accept the award.

Paris Opera officials confirm that Nureyev has been ill for sometime, but refuse to specify the nature of the illness. According to French news reports, he underwent heart surgery three months ago.

The popular daily Le Parisien, reflecting widespread speculation that Nureyev may be dying, headlined its review, "Nureyev's Will" and said the sumptuous production "would mark dance history in more than one way."

Desperately seeking Madonna: Madonna, in Paris to promote her new book Sex, in which she poses naked in erotic pictures, may lose more than her clothes if the French get their way.

Madonna, who arrived from Hamburg by private jet Thursday and is staying in a $9,000 a night suite at the Ritz Hotel, faces a tax bill for $2.1-million, the French daily Liberation reported Friday.

It said the bill arose from two concerts in France in 1987 for which Madonna failed to declare earnings. The sum had been compounded by interest and penalties.

Her lawyers disputed the amount and have asked the tax authorities to annul or reduce the debt, Liberation said.