On 16 June 1961, Russian ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev defected from the Soviet Union and sought asylum in France. It was a pivotal episode in the Cold War, a propaganda coup for the West and a seismic event in the world of dance, which had never before seen a male performer so powerfully charismatic.
Rudolf Nureyev soon became the rock star of dance, stunning audiences with his good looks, incredible physique and physical dexterity. His partnership with Margot Fonteyn was one of ballet’s greatest pairings; they were as famous in their day as Burton and Taylor. Yet none of it would have happened had he not decided to leave his home, knowing only too well that his friends and family would pay the price for his liberty.
Now, 80 years on from his birth on a train bound for Vladivostok, Nureyev’s story is brought vividly to life in Ralph Fiennes’ The White Crow, a portrait of Nureyev’s early life and rise to fame that culminates with the “leap to freedom” that made headlines around the globe. As tense as any thriller, this drama shows how Nureyev survived a poverty-stricken childhood in the Soviet city of Ufa, to blossom as a student dancer in Leningrad under the eye of instructor Alexander Pushkin. As his renown grows, however, so does his rebellious and nonconformist attitude – which is only stoked by the privations and restrictions of life under Communism.
Things reach a tipping point when the Kirov Ballet is invited to Paris and London, and the 22-year-old Nureyev takes his first trip outside Russia. Captivated by Parisian architecture, art and nightlife, Nureyev makes new friends, among them charming Chilean heiress Clara Saint (Adele Exarchopoulos). His KGB handlers are not happy and it’s decided to send him back to Moscow. The stage is set for a nail-biting stand-off at Paris’s Le Bourget airport, in a film that sets the exquisite beauty of classical dance against a backdrop of international intrigue.
Director/actor Ralph Fiennes became fascinated by Nureyev’s story 20 years ago and always knew it would make a great film. It’s appropriate, then, that he should be the man to make it, having earned his spurs as a director with both his muscular Shakespeare adaptation, Coriolanus, and The Invisible Woman, his stirringly romantic depiction of Charles Dickens’ relationship with his secret young lover. Teaming up with BAFTA-winning screenwriter David Hare, Fiennes not only directed the film, but also took on the role of Nureyev’s mentor. It’s a role he adopted off screen as well, coaxing a central performance from ballet dancer Oleg Ivenko of such intensity that it’s hard to believe he had never acted before. (“White crow”, by the way, is a Russian phrase for a unique and stand-out talent, words that definitely apply to this magnetic and handsome newcomer.) The dance sequences are stunning (performed by Ivenko, of course) and authenticity is added by the appearance of ballet bad boy, Sergei Polunin, as Nureyev’s roommate.
Aficionados of dance will need no introduction to Nureyev, and audiences of a certain age will well remember the media furore he generated a half-century ago. Yet you don’t need to know anything about ballet to get caught up in a story that, given the diplomatic tensions that now exist between East and West, could scarcely be more topical. Churchill once called Russia “a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma”.He might have also been speaking about Nureyev himself, a singular artist who, 26 years on from his death, remains as mesmeric and fascinating as ever.
The White Crow is out 22 March.
Preview and Satellite Q&A with director Ralph Fiennes on 12 March.
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