Nureyev lifts the curtain on the ecstasy and tragedy of Russia’s greatest male ballet dancer | Film of the Week

Nureyev lifts the curtain on the ecstasy and tragedy of Russia’s greatest male ballet dancer | Film of the Week
Rudolf Nureyev in 1937. Image: Allan Warren under a CC licence

19 August 2021

Chronicling the life of Rudolf Nureyev, erotic icon and one of the the 20th century’s greatest male ballet dancers, is no easy feat — particularly in just under two hours. Born in 1937 on a Trans-Siberian train near Irkutsk to a Bashkir-Tatar family, he started his career in Leningrad’s Kirov Ballet, now known as the Mariinsky Ballet. During his 1961 tour in Paris, he defected from the Soviet Union and stayed in Europe, despite the KGB’s efforts to make him return. After a prolific European career in London, Paris, Vienna, and beyond, he tested positive for HIV in 1984, and passed away in 1993, having returned to his native Tatarstan only once.

The Nureyev documentary follows the dancer’s life chronologically, mixing fragments of his most famous performances — such as the 1959 rendition of Le Corsaire in Moscow — with unseen footage. Interviews with Nureyev’s friends and biographers give the film its emotional charge.

The documentary also features balletic dramatisations of Nureyev’s life, choreographed by British dancer Russell Maliphant. In one scene, we see his pregnant mother dancing in snow-covered ruins. In others we get glimpses Nureyev’s childhood: dancing with his friends and dreaming of one day performing in Leningrad.

Particularly poignant is the film’s portrayal of Nureyev’s defection, narrated directly from his journal. A voice-over recounts how he was left alone in a room at Orly airport and given five minutes to make the life-changing decision to leave the USSR knowing he would never see his family again. Here, Nureyev’s turmoil is beautifully reimagined through choreography, a dancer in the woods standing for his impending isolation.

While the film has been criticised for blending fact and fiction, it is this range of styles which enables filmmakers to vividly conjure all of Nureyev’s life: the moments which were recorded — his performances and public appearances — and those which weren’t, namely his struggles leaving the USSR, and his death in the midst of the AIDS epidemic.

The choice to release the film in black and white is most satisfying in the dance scenes, where Nureyev’s spectacular movements are the centre of attention. Dazzling, dynamic, and enigmatic, Nureyev lays bare the reality of being a ballet icon in late Cold War Europe in a style that is fitting with his trials and tribulations, making this a must-watch for ballet-lovers and curious audiences alike.

Watch on Netflix.

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