Rudolf Nureyev brought ballet to new heights of popularity when he danced with the Royal Ballet in London and he took The Muppet Show to new levels of prestige when he danced with Miss Piggy. Yet, these career highlights were made possible by the most dramatic episode of his life: his defection from the Soviet Union. Nureyev’s fateful goodwill tour of France with the Kirov Ballet is the focus of Ralph Fiennes terrific The White Crow, which opens this Friday in New York.
Nureyev was born on a Transiberian train car, far away from the Kirov (a.k.a. Mariinsky) ballet in Leningrad (St. Petersburg). Despite the bad timing of being born during WWII, Nureyev’s raw talent and drive would eventually take him to the Vaganova Academy in Leningrad, where ballet master Alexander Ivanovich Pushkin would take him under his wing, as the audiences sees in flashbacks. (Mikhail Baryshnikov would later study under Pushkin as well).
By the time Nureyev reached Paris, he already had a reputation for being the most electrifying dancer of his generation—and for being difficult for his minders to control. Despite attempts to shield him Parisian society, Nureyev quickly befriended French dancer Pierre Lacotte and Chilean expat Clara Saint, the former fiancée of French Culture Minister Andre Malraux’s late son, with whom he enthusiastically partook of Paris’s nightclubs, parties, and after-hours scene. For a while, Strizhevsky, the KGB agent assigned to the Kirov tour, gives Nureyev some slack, but eventually, the liberties he takes become to much for the apparatchik to bear.
However, when Strizhevsky tries to pull him from the tour in the Paris airport, Nureyev immediately senses something is wrong. Refusing to return to Moscow, a conflict of wills ensues, overseen by the quick-thinking gendarmes assigned to the airport, with Saint operating behind the scenes as a liaison to the press and the French government.
The White Crow (a Russian expression meaning something like “a rare bird” and “an odd duck”) is a little over two-hours long, but it feels like it runs less than ninety minutes, because the climatic airport defection scene is so tightly and tensely helmed by Fiennes. This is easily his best film as a director (even though his Coriolanus was also quite good), because his has such a strong aptitude both for the Cold War thriller elements and the dance sequences.
Fiennes gives himself an important assist with his achingly conflicted and humanistic portrayal of Pushkin. Of course, the critical casting coup was real-life Ukrainian-born ballet dancer Oleg Ivenko, who looks and moves like Nureyev (which is saying a lot). He projects the magnetism that had such a potent effect on Nureyev’s admirers, but it is far from a hagiographic portrayal. In fact, he also quite vividly conveys the dancer’s ambition and diva-like arrogance.
Aleksey Morozov is almost as compelling as Strizhevsky, whose desperation to keep Nureyev in the fold and in his shackles is intensely palpable. Adele Exarchopoulos (Blue is the Warmest Color) is rather a dreary, whiny presence throughout the first hour of the film, yet somehow, she snaps to during the crucial airport standoff. The ensemble is impressive, both in their dramatic roles and when applicable, as dancers. Plus, the period production is seamlessly crafted (it is easy to see why it would be hard to keep someone in the Worker’s Paradise, after seeing Paris in the early 1960s).
Nureyev, along with Baryshnikov and Alexander Godunov, established freedom-seeking Soviet ballet dancers were some of the gutsiest, most principled artists during the Cold War. Indeed, it is worth noting Sergei Polunin’s engaging performance as Nureyev’s friend and troupe-mate, Yuri Soloviev, who refused to join the Communist Party, even after Nureyev’s defection, despite the thuggish pressure exerted by the KGB. Fiennes nicely captures the tenor of the times and the passion of Nureyev’s dancing, making it a worthy companion film to Bruce Beresford’s criminally under-appreciated Mao’s Last Dancer. Very highly recommended, The White Crow opens this Friday (4/26) in New York, at the Angelika Film Center.