The White Crow

My Rudi story – everyone should have one: aged 16, company class, Barons Court. Halfway through the barre, Henry Legerton (poor man) appears apologetically: “Mr Nureyev, please could you move your car, it is blocking the entrance.” Nothing. Ten minutes later, he appears again. “Mr Nureyev, please will you move your car. The oil lorry’s entrance is blocked.” Boom, whoosh. Exit from studio, as an incendiary Mr Nureyev departs. Ouch.

Three years earlier, dancing for the Bolshoi in School for Ballet in its season at the Royal Opera House: the feel of rough woollen tights, canvass shoes stuck with fish glue; the smell of Russian cigarettes; the sight of bone-thin, flat-chested women and heroic male dancers: Vasiliev, Fadeyachev, Liepa. A revelation; a different world.

The White Crow – one who stands out from the crowd - is the title of Ralph Fiennes’s cinematic attempt to define the dancing genius that was Rudolf Nureyev. It was guided by Julie Kavanagh’s biography, scripted by David Hare and confined to three defining moments and places - his childhood in the Urals in the 1940s and early 1950s (wide-screen, desaturated colour), his training in Leningrad (now St Petersburg) and his escape to the West, in 1961, when the Kirov Ballet was performing in Paris for the first time - the first 150 pages of the 698 in Kavanagh’s incisive account of the dancer’s tumultuous life.

Fiennes’s decision to restrict himself to three episodes begs questions, chiefly because it’s what Nureyev went on to do that renders the early life so significant. If he had fled to the West and disappeared into ballet oblivion the film would never have been made. The life is indivisible, and it is impossible to watch the film without being acutely aware of the luminous, irresistible presence that Nureyev became as danseur noble, character artist, modernist, director, producer and choreographer. His curiosity, determination and talent paid handsome dividends, and it left a legacy.

There are very few dancers who get over the ‘gain line’ and reach a wider public. In the UK Alicia Markova, Margot Fonteyn, Wayne Sleep, Darcey Bussell have done so. In his day Nureyev undoubtedly did, but his presence is fading. 

A younger generation knows nothing, as Fiennes found out in his research. Fiennes’s film is now necessarily for the cognoscenti, and it is doubtful that it will reach a wider audience, unlike the intended shock-jock Black Swan. But that is not to deny its virtues: meticulous attention to detailed storytelling and a unique and convincing combination of the lyric and dramatic, supported by Ilan Eshkeri’s redolent score and Anne Seibel’s and Madeline Fontaine’s production designs and costumes, which pretty much nail period and place. It is in every respect film-making of a high order.

The search for ‘Nureyev’ was extensive, and it led to an award-winning Ukranian dancer, Oleg Ivenko, a passable likeness, sans the cheek bones, who finds an impressive way with words, Russian and heavily accented English, accessing the vulnerable life embedded in Hare’s perceptive script. It is rare to move seamlessly between the two arts, but, coached by Fiennes, Ivenko does so with extraordinary facility. Equally convincing is Fiennes’s portrayal of Alexander Pushkin, the principal ballet teacher in Leningrad. Fiennes’s fluent Russian serves an admirable purpose, but it is his understated physicality that provides a persuasive portrait of the legendary teacher, as he demonstrates the ballet vocabulary and moulds his students’ movements.

Bookended by Nureyev’s birth on a train and an early experience of folkloric dance, the film builds towards Nureyev’s decision to seek asylum in Paris when he is required by his KGB minders to return to Moscow rather than accompany the dancers to London. It is a bumpy ride as the film shifts between Tartar origins, training at the Leningrad State Choreographic School and the performances in Paris, although verisimilitude is served as the film was shot in both cities.

The women in Nureyev’s young life stand out. The film explains the later significance of Nureyev’s inability to see or support his mother after his banishment from the Soviet Union. His somewhat surprising liaison with Xenia Pushkin, while being cared for as an impoverished student by the Pushkins, is played imaginatively by Chulpan Khamatova, one of Russia’s leading actresses, although there is something speculative about it. David Hare is sure it happened, and no one can disprove it. It adds interest, but not necessarily legitimacy. 

What is certain is that the couple introduced him to life and art in Leningrad, to Leonid and Liuba Romankova and to their social and intellectual circle, all of whom are seen enjoying increased confidence following Stalin’s death in 1953. The determined devotion of Clara Saint, while she mourns her boyfriend’s and his brother’s deaths (the sons of novelist and French Minister of Culture André Malraux) in 1961, is effectively brought to life by French actress Adèle Exarchopoulos (Blue is the Warmest Colour). It was Clara who, at Le Bourget Airport, had the nous, the presence of mind, to alert the French police to Nureyev’s wish to seek asylum, which enabled him to do so. And the rest is history…

But it is by no means an all-women show. Sergei Polunin puts in a curious appearance as Nureyev’s room-mate, Yuri Soloviev, who remained in the Soviet Union, only to solve the problem by taking his own life, to which the film does not and cannot allude, while Raphaël Personnaz is cast as Pierre Lacotte who, together with Claire Motte (Calypso Valois), provided the supporting network in Paris that Nureyev needed to face the hostilities of the Soviet authorities. It was the start of life-long friendships. Strizhevsky, the KGB officer assigned to monitor Nureyev in Paris, is no mere thug, but an astute guardian of Soviet values, subtly brought to life by Aleksei Morozov; he loses the plot when he realises that he has to return to Moscow empty handed. Imagine those conversations. German actor Louis Hofmann is the German dancer, Teja Kremke, who studied in Leningrad and offered Nureyev the sexual alternative to which he was drawn and later pursued.

Fiennes has provided a vivid portrait of Nureyev, processing the insecurities of his peasant youth and then his climactic decision to defect. The explanation seems to be that it wasn’t premeditated, but Nureyev’s immediate response to his forced repatriation, up with which he would not put. His success and pleasure in Paris provided him with sufficient assurance that another life awaited him in the West, which undoubtedly it did. Could there be a sequel? Possibly. The Fonteyn Years, perhaps?


Originally published in Dance Europe
no. 237, March 2019