“The White Crow”
Nureyev’s Early Years as a Dancer
Rudolf Nureyev was one of the 20th century’s most talented dancers. His defection from the USSR to the west during a working trip to Paris in 1961 took him from fame not just in the dance world. There have been several documentaries about Nureyev and aside from the Ken Russell opulent but unsatisfying film, there have been so fictionalized films about his life. Now we have The White Crow, a dramatization based on an authoritative Nureyev biography by Julie Kavanagh. The focuses is on that fateful five-week trip to Paris and Nureyev’s dramatic defection at the airport. on his departure.
In flashback, we see scenes from Nureyev’s (Oleg Ivenko) childhood in rural Ufa. We see his dance studies, when he spent time training beneath famed instructor, Pushkin (Ralph Fiennes, who also directed the film). During a period of recovery from injury, Pushkin and his wife, Xenia (Chulpan Khamatova) take Nureyev into their home and he has a brief affair with Xenia, possibly with Pushkin’s unspoken approval.
As he establishes his tempestuous reputation, he lashes out at Pushkin and others superior to him. However, it is his undeniable talent that makes quickly rise in the ranks of the Russian ballet scene. He was rude and impulsive nature and this made him unpopular with some peers, yet he is chosen to join the Kirov trip to Paris. It’s the first time that Kirov ballet performed in the West in its 200-year history. Nureyev revels in the city’s love for liberty upsets his near-constant KGB guards by befriending French dancers and hitting the city’s nightlife scene. He becomes involved with Clara Saint, a rich, young Chilean socialite who seeks purpose in life and he seeks freedom from USSR oppression. Nureyev’s disrespect for the rules and his late-night excursions brought him a reprimand from his KGB minders.
At the end of his Paris run, Nureyev expected to fly to London with the rest of the company. However, upon arriving at the airport, he was informed the Kremlin has demanded his return to Moscow to give a special performance. Realizing he was to be punished, he decided to defect.
In his debut acting role, Ukrainian ballet dancer Oleg Ivenko makes for a convincing Nureyev. He successfully conveys his handsome beauty and haughty demeanor. David Hare wrote the screenplay based on Kavanagh’s book is something of a nuanced slow-burner. Some audiences may find it too slow. However, the film’s climax, when Nureyev faces the stark choice to defect or not, and the ensuing drama at the airport, is gripping. The movie totally succeeds in highlighting the oppressive nature of the USSR regime. The Soviets used those who excelled, whether athletes or cultural ambassadors such as Nureyev, as propaganda pawns.
The film only goes to Nureyev’s defection when he was 23 so we don’t see the Nureyev who partied at Studio 54, hung out with Andy Warhol or who had long-term relationships with men.
There is one scene in which Nureyev wakes up naked next to another young male dancer in Russia. But it could have almost been stuck in just to acknowledge Nureyev’s gayness. We see much more screen time of Nureyev in relationships with women.
At this time Nureyev was in the closet. Perhaps he barely explored his attraction to men while in Russia, fearful of how discovery might impact his career. Gay men in the USSR in the 1950s faced arrest and imprisonment. The vast majority pretended to be straight in order to fit it. Nureyev inevitably did likewise. He was intensely private throughout his life, it’s also not clear whether he defined himself as gay or bisexual.
“The White Crow” is an interesting introduction to Rudolf Nureyev and there’s plenty of other material out there to complete the picture. Writer David Hare and director Ralph Fiennes have a good feel for the artistic world of the dancer and Oleg Ivenko does a more than creditable job in personifying one of the 20th century’s most celebrated artistic figure.
Most of us are unaware of how tense the actual circumstances were at Le Bourget Airport in Paris when Nureyev resisted orders from his Soviet minders to get on a plane back home. Nureyev’s life began in unimaginably humble circumstances — he was born aboard a train in Siberia in 1938, an event that opens the film and by the time he came of age as a dancer, the Cold War ruled out any possibility for young Soviet artists to pursue international careers.
Several brief, sequences show Nureyev dancing at various periods in his young life. These are nice, even impressive at times, but seem to be randomly placed in the narrative.
The language scheme of film is unusual and takes some time to adjust to. The Russian characters all speak in Russian, including Fiennes (who sounds very proficient), but in Paris, Nureyev insists upon speaking English instead of French, which he claims he doesn’t speak. This makes all the French characters speak in English rather than in French. I was reminded of an Israeli production of Martin Sherman’s “When She Danced” about the life and loves of Isadora Duncan in which each character spoke in his mother tongue. There were no translations so, in effect, it was bodily language that told the story.