Nureyev is an important new documentary about Rudolf Nureyev’s extraordinary life which will be shown in cinemas around the UK from 25 September.
BAFTA nominated directors Jacqui and David Morris have interviewed Nureyev’s colleagues from the dance world – Alla Osipenko, Ghislaine Thesmar, Dame Antoinette Sibley, Clement Crisp, Meredith Daneman – but sensibly don’t fill the screen with them sitting on sofas surrounded by ballet memorabilia, but illustrate their contributions with video clips and photos, enabling them to pack far more into the film’s already generous 1hr 50min running time. There is much to show because the filmmakers have unearthed 16 minutes of unseen video.
The documentary is divided into thematic blocks rather than being a simple chronology and these are interspersed with quotes, the first being from Napoleon, “Great people are meteors designed to burn so that the earth may be lighted,” and the film proceeds to show how greatly Nureyev illuminated the dance world.
There is an interesting archival recording of Yehudi Menuhin who says,
There is something in the background of any Russian, whether he be Jewish or a Tartar, which dramatizes a situation; it’s more potent, more intense. It probably comes from the fact that they have such an otherwise difficult life, as it’s always been for hundreds of years between snow and mud, and they are almost harnessed to the earth and the problems of life. It enables them when they are liberated on the stage to live life as they would have liked to have lived it, with all the abandon and the capacity for focusing, for dramatizing, for intensifying the emotion and the thought. It’s as if the sun were shining through a lens and you focus it on something and it started burning. The whole of life, the whole universe, focuses itself through the greatest Russians and they start burning, burning up the audience and burning up themselves.
These neatly connected quotes and thoughts pertinently explain Nureyev’s character, and is typical of the film’s sensitivity and understated reflections on the nature and career of this gigantic influencer. It has no sensationalism but is reflective and full of warmth.
Russell Maliphant has created scenes, sort of dance tableaux, which illustrate the mood of extracts from Nureyev’s memoirs, read by Siân Phillips, and other audio recollections and commentary – dancing in the snow, huddling among the Russian birch trees, folding sheets. Theatre composer Alex Baranowski — who wrote the score for Northern Ballet’s 1984 — has created a suggestive background for these scenes, indeed the whole film, and Lucia Lacarra and Marlon Dino are two of the dancers who appear.
The fascination with the West in the ‘50s drew young Russians to make homemade records of its evil pop music and to dance the jitterbug behind closed doors — including young ballet dancers. The film is outstanding at contextualising this and other periods of Nureyev’s life. While Russia didn’t have teenage dance moves or gigantic American fridges, it did have two powerful weapons at its disposal, the Kirov and the Bolshoi, and what better way to enhance Russian prestige around the world than by having these companies tour abroad.
The Kirov was in Paris in 1961. Alla Osipenko, one of Nureyev’s partners, says,
We were totally into the underground nightlife at the time and it was a real challenge to return unseen in the morning… Rudolf was a free spirit: “This is how I want my life to be and I will live it that way. I don’t want to live the way you order me to. I will walk my own path in life.”
Nureyev defected in Paris in 1961 on Osipenko’s 29th birthday. For this, she, and many others, paid a price.
I was not allowed to leave the country for 10 years. I knew how to block those things out, saying to myself, “It’s not vital to go to America.”
The film focuses on his relationship with Erik Bruhn — Sibley: “All my generation, us girls, were in love with Erik Bruhn.” — and that with Margot Fonteyn, who invited the young Nureyev to dance in a gala at the Theatre Royal, Drury Lane, on 2 November 1961. John Tooley, former director of the Royal Opera House has another slant on the story,
He wasn’t exactly invited over here – he arrived. He had written to Margot and said, I want to appear in your gala and I want to dance with you.
A Fonteyn quote:
Genius is another word for magic, and the whole point of magic is that it is inexplicable.
And ‘magic’ was the word used to describe the effect of their partnership on stage.
I believe that our partnership would not have been quite such a success if it hadn’t been for the difference in our ages, because what happened was that I’d go out on the stage thinking, who’s going to look at me with this young lion leaping ten feet high in the air and doing all those fantastic things. And then Rudolf had really this deep respect because I was this older, very famous, established ballerina. So it sort of charged the performance that we were both going out there inspired by the other one, and somehow it just worked.
Nureyev almost immediately rustled feathers at The Royal Ballet when he modified its production of Swan Lake after Fonteyn had agreed to do it his way. He justified his approach,
We became one body, one soul, we moved in one way, it was very complimentary, every arm movement, every head movement, there were no more cultural gaps or age difference, we were absorbed in characterisation. We became the part.
It was revolutionary and most of the audience loved it. One of the Covent Garden establishment said that Nureyev was like the Great War, wiping out a generation of male dancers on his arrival. The success of the Fonteyn/Nureyev partnership was unprecedented. Sibley says,
Footballers must have this all the time, this yelling and screaming, and it was unbelievable. It was out of all proportion to anything one had been accustomed to before.
A section of the documentary devoted to Nureyev’s often difficult character hears him describing his Tartar blood:
It runs faster somehow, it is always ready to boil, and yet it seems that we are more languid than the Russians, more sensuous — we are a curious mixture of tenderness and brutality.
English National Opera’s master carpenter, Ted Murphy, remembers some of the fights,
Over the years he’d have different people looking after him on stage and he used to kick them, punch them, slap them – I’ve seen all of that happening – but it was all to do about how his performance was really.
National Ballet School of Canada’s Betty Oliphant tells the story of her student who was playing a pageboy, excitedly telling her that Nureyev had spoken to him:
I said, “Oh that’s wonderful. Was he nice?” And he said, “Well, he told me to fuck off.”
On love and relationships, the film documents the competitive love affair between Nureyev and Bruhn, which turned sour as Nureyev began to overshadow his former mentor. Pierre Lacotte recalls witnessing tremendous arguments between them.
As he told me one day — says Ghislaine Thesmar — you have to choose between giving your energy to love a human being or to love your art. You have to choose, you can’t have both… If you give yourself to art, nobody can take the place of art, it’s impossible. They can accompany you as long as they can stand it but then if you lose them you lose them, it’s not important.
When talk show host Michael Parkinson asked him if he had a sense of belonging anywhere, he replied simply, “Dance”.
Nureyev was open to newer forms of dance, different ways to move. He admired Martha Graham greatly, who remembered,
Rudolf came to see me backstage and just stood and looked at me and we didn’t talk about anything. Finally, it came out that he has an appetite for the new and he wants to experience everything to its fullest. He said, “I do not mind if I make a fool of myself.”
There is some previously unreleased amateur footage of him in some of the Graham works he performed. Other unseen clips of Nureyev in action show him rehearsing Nutcracker with Claude de Vulpian during his time as the Artistic Director of the Paris Opera Ballet.
The clubbing and cruising part of his life is coloured with moody archive footage of bathhouses and discos. Former New York City Ballet Principal Dancer, Heather Watts, was one of the first artists to join the fight against AIDS in the mid-1980s:
The year is ’82 and suddenly we start hearing about boys dying, just dying, and there’s real fear. The partying stopped, the fun stopped, and we started burying our friends. It was like a war.
In 1987 when Nureyev was finally allowed to return to Russia to visit his dying mother, his face had started to look slightly gaunt. He had been diagnosed with HIV in 1984.
Margot Fonteyn died in 1991. He said,
It was very lucky for us to have those glorious years. She became a very, very great friend of mine. To me she is part of my family. That all what I have – only her.
His own death came less than two years later.
I really think this man was exceptional. I don’t mean the Rudolf of photos, making faces or scandals and all these cheapy things, I mean the real man he was… I think he defended the world of ballet. He loved ballet like a child would love a god, it was beautiful to see that.
An emotional Antoinette Sibley chokes as she says,
He was a very special person, and I feel very proud to have been part of it.
Nureyev, the film, will be launching in cinemas nationwide from 25 September 2018 with daily previews at Curzon Mayfair, London from 21 September.
Graham Spicer is a writer, director and photographer in Milan, blogging (under the name ‘Gramilano’) about dance, opera, music and photography for people “who are a bit like me and like some of the things I like”. He was a regular columnist for Opera Now magazine and wrote for the BBC until transferring to Italy.
His scribblings have appeared in various publications from Woman’s Weekly to Gay Times, and he wrote the ‘Danza in Italia’ column for Dancing Times magazine.