Nureyev – the man, the dancer – in a stimulating documentary 1

Dance · Film

A rich companion piece to the soon-opening feature film, The White Crow (our review here), is the cleverly constructed new documentary, Nureyev, co-directed by BAFTA-nominated directors Jacqui Morris and David Morris. This doc, with its very unusual structure, was made with the support of the Nureyev Foundation.

Released by CineLife Entertainment, Nureyev is a reworking of the co-directors’ prior An Orgy of One (words with which photographer Richard Avedon described Rudi) augmented by new footage and original dance tableaux choreographed by the Royal Ballet’s Russell Maliphant.

Opening in major cities starting April 19, a week prior to The White Crow, Nureyev presents an artist whose life intersected, both triumphantly and tragically, with political and cultural currents of his time. Because his blazing presence on Planet Earth took place so very recently (I saw him dance in my hometown circa 1970), we have yet to fully reckon with Nureyev’s impact on classical ballet. It was immense. This documentary adds to the knowledge base.

Nureyev’s rise through his own will and hard labor (there is no other way to put it) from dirt-poor beginnings in a post-War Stalinist Russia to his emergence as a glamorous globe-trotting prince of his own design is a nearly unrivaled tale of human achievement. In charting his trajectory, the film posits a little boy’s shaky start abused by a roughshod father; a galvanizing moment at the receiving end of mundane political cruelty at Le Bourget Airport in 1961; a young man’s deep and symbiotic personal relationship with Erik Bruhn and his unlikely pairing with a true princess, Dame Margot Fonteyn. The closing episode shows his tragic undoing by AIDS — although even AIDS could not entirely suppress the ego and force of Rudolf Nureyev.

Nureyev includes never-seen dance footage choreographed by Martha Graham, Paul Taylor and Murray Lewis as well as classical ballet stagings by Kenneth MacMillan and Frederic Ashton. The film’s unusual mix of on-stage and backstage footage, news reels, and dance tableaux place Nureyev, as documentary, out of the box. It delivers its compelling hero — dance has never seen an equivalent beauty — in chapter format, with inter-titles that quote pithy thinkers and their relevant sound bites.

The film lacks a steady rhythm, and especially in the latter half, feels slightly disjointed with chapters closing preemptively. I regretted seeing dance footage compromised by text overlays identifying talking heads. (I would prefer seeing this footage pristine, but if text is necessary, I’d prefer the ballet, choreographer and year identified, as documentaries bear the burden of an educational function.) The selection of talking heads is a bit all over the map, ranging between first-hand observations by the late, venerable, dance critic John Gruen, to Cold War historian historian Evan Mawdsley, to the chirpings of NYCB ballerina Heather Watts. But these flaws are minor.

The movie takes a European view of the Cold War that is more nuanced than the bipolar version we see in recent American movies. Its discovery come from revelations of Nureyev’s presumed love affair with Margot Fonteyn, which coincided with his deepest performances (his description of gaining her trust is beautiful). A more amusing episode comes when the two ’60s icons suffered a wrong-place-wrong-time ‘drug bust’ in San Francisco. (They were not using drugs.)

As a Nureyev junkie, I would not miss this movie. On that basis, as well as for its adventurous interpolation of original dance sequences that I found very effective (why shouldn’t a choreographer use Nureyev’s life as inspiration?) I recommend it heartily. Don’t choose between The White Crow and Nureyev. See both.

Finally, in full disclosure, arts·meme is very proud to host advertisements for Nureyev.

One comment on “Nureyev – the man, the dancer – in a stimulating documentary

  1. Tim Dunn Apr 24,2019 11:38 am

    Thank you, Debra. I’m looking forward to White Crow opening here in Costa Mesa in early May – just saw the marquee

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