My headline news: dance people will absolutely love The White Crow. Most everything — in dance terms — about this rapturous feature film depicting the early life of ballet’s dark prince, Rudolf Nureyev, is spot on. (The film, based on Julie Kavanaugh’s biography, Nureyev: The Life, spans from the dancer’s birth on a hurtling train through his defection from the Soviet Union in June 1961.) It correctly captures the ballet world’s inimitable mix of romanticism, competitiveness and sweat, positing all as high art, including renderings of Nureyev, deeply entranced, touring through the Louvre — a detail I greatly appreciated.
Mostly, the movie gets the dance component right. That ephemeral sensibility that goes missing in so many dance movies — I hope The White Crow drives a stake through the heart of Black Swan as anything more than a horror/genre film — is present in spades. Its weighty tour, in gorgeous close-ups, of deep combre backbends; muscular-and-mighty multiple tours-en-l’air; repeating battement-tendu banging into the ankle against a wooden floor thrillingly heralds classical ballet. As does the energy and tension of a brooding backstage warrior donning a marvelous turquoise turban as he bursts forth in his Paris debut.
I am a Nureyev girl, and left the screening most satisfied that this amazing man who gave his life to an art form, sacrificing everything and directing dance nearly from his death bed, was well represented in the film’s vivid mise-en-scenes, right down to the carefully reconstructed scene at Le Bourget Airport where he made an existential decision no one should ever encounter, but he did.
I have quibbles. The title for this poetic movie is awful! Come on, David Hare [scenarist] … really? Second, director Ralph Fiennes’ portrayal of a namby-pamby Alexander Pushkin (he is more Mr. Push-Over) gives zero evidence of how this quiet man forcefully formed the two greatest male dancers of the latter 20th century (Misha also studied with him). Finally, our friend Sergei Polunin, playing Soviet firebrand dancer, Yuri Soloviev, does not really get a good scene and looks out of sorts throughout.
The film has a highly active camera, lots of soulful Russian scenery, and is populated by juicy character roles, all wonderfully cast. I appreciated its evocation of Nureyev’s dirt-poor background, and how he fell prey, nearly as a pawn, to a Cold War conundrum. Film’s visual representations of the period ring true … particularly the costumes by the great sixties period-expert Madeline Fontaine. I love how the director places Nureyev — himself a formidable, self-created architectural structure — amidst the grand squares, theaters and plazas of Petersburg and Paris. That is fitting.
The White Crow is getting (thoughtful) negative commentaries from film critics for its extreme zigzagging through time, via flashbacks. Dance lovers will burn through these obstacles. With his piercing, moody, determined, melancholy and insolent eyes, actor Oleg Ivanko brings it. He brings it for Rudik. And that’s before he dances, which he does beautifully.
arts·meme founder/dance critic Debra Levine authored this review.
THE WHITE CROW | opens April 26