белая ворона, or ‘white crow’, is a term for an outsider, one who does not fit the mould. Ralph Fiennes’ film demonstrates how the sometimes obscure life of Rudolf Nureyev was that of someone whose purpose was always that of art, not of fitting into society. With Oleg Ivenko as Nureyev (startlingly like the original, not just facially but in his movements, too), the film explores Nureyev’s life up to the point of his defection to the West in the early 1960s. The film moves between different periods of his life, from his early days in poverty in Ufa, which is filmed in an emblematic monochrome, through his years studying under the unexpectedly mild-mannered teacher Pushkin (played by Fiennes), to the trip to Paris where the West marvelled at the technical excellence of the Russian ballet. These shifts are done with a light touch, though, encouraging the audience to use imaginative leaps to see, for example, the parallels between his friend Clara Saint’s accusation that he is the most selfish person she has ever met, his preoccupation with living only for art, and his determination to defect from Russia despite the chance he will never see his beloved mother again.
The film asks and begins to answer some big questions about art, artistic practice and art and life, too. Pushkin asks Nureyev to consider why dance. Why strive for technical perfection? What is dance for? It is, he concludes, to tell a story – whatever that story is, and to do so requires the dancer to exceed technical perfection, a concept nicely mirrored in the film’s early focus on obsessive practice, but much wider concepts of artistic exploration as the dancer grows. In Paris, Nureyev’s eyes are opened: we know he was reading before, learning English, finding out about a whole world of art, but in Paris where he can visit the Louvre to look at the Rembrandts, go to hear Yehudi Menhuin, and talk about art with the French dancers, he finds a new world of freedom – the freedom that comes with mastery of technique. But, although Nureyev is apparently oblivious to politics, others aren’t, and his desire for freedom which will enrich his own art: the freedom to experience art, life, society and a different mental and social structure, is very much politicised and potentially endangers him. The restrictive nature of life in the Soviet Union is in many ways underplayed – we see less of it than we feel; its effects on Nureyev and the other characters is more significant than what we see, on the whole (although the few Russian bureaucrats we see do remind me of Bond villains).
A clear but nonetheless complex development of Nureyev’s character-forming experience is created, against a stunning backdrop of Russia and Paris. The significance of the Russian visit to Paris is indicated (and as a recent article in the Dancing Times pointed out, we shouldn’t underestimate the importance of ballet as a weapon in the Cold War), but those who are less interested in politics and more in artistic creation can see how such a clash of ideologies is both constructive and heart-breaking. This culminates in the tense airport scene where his decision to defect to the West happens; knowing what will happen doesn’t take away the tension from the restrained drama, and it’s to the film’s credit that it doesn’t end on this dramatic note but instead continues. One does not, perhaps, like Nureyev more for seeing this film, but one feels a certain understanding of him (and after all, don’t we expect great artistes to be selfish, obsessive, complicated?) And of course there is the ballet: gravity-defying leaps where Ivenko seems to hover mid-jete, impossible turns and feats of muscular strength, with all the sweat and tears that accompanies it. Given my interest in ballet this film has a particular appeal for me, but with its beautiful filming and screenplay by David Hare, and its focus on art and politics, it should have a wide appeal to a thinking public.