Jacqui and David Morris: Nureyev, at the Curzon Mayfair

Posted: October 1st, 2018 | Author: | Filed under: Film | Tags: , , , , , , | Comments Off on Jacqui and David Morris: Nureyev, at the Curzon Mayfair

Jacqui and David Morris, Nureyev, Curzon Mayfair, September 25


Rudolf Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn in Marguerite and Armand (photo: Frederika Davis)

Since Rudolf Nureyev defected to the West in 1961 there have been so many interviews, news items, reports, articles, performance videos, films and documentaries about him that a new documentary seems almost redundant. What sibling directors Jacqui and David Morris have evidently set out to achieve with their new biopic Nureyev is to expand the dancer’s life for the big screen by not only adding a theatrical treatment of his childhood but by placing his 32 years in the West within the context of the culture and politics of the Cold War. Dance lovers may already be familiar with much of the material — though there are hitherto unseen clips of his performances with Murray Louis, Paul Taylor and Martha Graham companies — but Nureyev is clearly conceived for a wider audience with, for some odd reason, a 12+ certification.

Just two months after Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin returned from space in 1961, placing the USSR’s technological achievements in full view of the world, Nureyev dealt a public relations bombshell to his native country by making a dash for freedom at Le Bourget Airport. Gagarin, the young hero and poster boy of the Soviet space program and Nureyev, the young soloist of the Kirov Ballet who had just created a sensation in the company’s Paris performances, may seem worlds apart* but in terms of soviet propaganda they were equally strategic and valuable icons. Nureyev’s defection was a devastating blow to the Soviet image and reprisals were taken against his family and fellow dancers. For Nureyev it was a huge risk whose personal price must have lain heavily on his conscience but he spent the rest of his life living and working voraciously — as the documentary demonstrates — to justify his belief in personal and artistic freedom; he beat the path subsequent classically-trained dancers have followed to experiment with contemporary dance forms. But even if he had left Russia, Russia never left him. The scenes of his return to his home city to visit his ailing mother and former teacher in 1989 for the first time since his defection are intensely moving not only as an insight into the heart of the man but as a reminder of how much he had maintained the values of Russian culture throughout his single-minded pursuit of a dancer’s life in the West.

Because the artist in Nureyev is indistinguishable from his person, the documentary invites us to discover both in what appears as a continuous performance, from footage of his dancing to interviews with Michael Parkinson and Dick Cavett to his detention in a New York police station to an intimate dinner party towards the end of his life in his Paris apartment; he is allowed to define himself in images and words, though rarely his own. There are a couple of clips from Patricia Foy’s 1991 documentary where he talks about his childhood but most of the comments come from his contemporaries, peers and critics as in the delightful appreciations by Antoinette Sibley, Yehudi Menuhin, Nigel Gosling and Clement Crisp.

Where Nureyev cannot represent himself is in his early years, for which the directors have substituted choreographic tableaux devised by Russell Maliphant. The invocation of Nureyev’s family in this way, like a film within a film, initially makes sense but as the tableaux try to cover his years in the Kirov school and company they no longer match the extraordinary self-will and charisma of their inspiration, a divergence that the superimposition of Nureyev’s early Kirov performances does little to mitigate. In an attempt to pull together the threads of the story, such cinematic devices, along with written quotations from various sources, generate a dense, rather fussy aesthetic that clutters rather than clarifies the rich canvas of archival material.

It seems in his single-minded desire to make up for lost time — he had only started training at the Kirov Ballet school at the age of 17 — Nureyev was drawn to older and more experienced dancers on whom to model himself and with whom to share his public and private life. One was Erik Bruhn whom he met soon after his defection and their mutual respect is captured in the wonderful footage of them working together at the barre in Vera Volkova’s studio in Copenhagen. The other legendary partnership on and off stage was with Margot Fonteyn and here again their relationship is allowed to speak poignantly through footage of their performances — the balcony scene and the tomb scene in Sir Kenneth MacMillan’s Romeo and Juliet.

For the last decade of his life Nureyev was director of the Paris Opera Ballet, building a legacy that endures in the Nureyev Foundation, who supported the making of this documentary; in suggesting there hasn’t been anybody to replace him in the ballet world, Nureyev is a convincing tribute.

*One of the many items flung onstage during Nureyev’s first season in Paris was a headshot of Gagarin with a message at the bottom reading, Soar, Rudi, Soar!