The White Crow

 

            1961.  The Cold War is in full freeze.  American schoolchildren are taking time out of classes to practice hiding underneath their desks in case of nuclear attack by the Soviet Union.  Yes, some of the hysteria morphed into the absurd, but remember that 1961 was also the year of the ill-fated Bay of Pigs invasion, which was its own tragic farce.  So imagine the international shock waves surrounding the defection of the most famous ballet dancer in the world, Rudolf Nureyev.

            Director Ralph Fiennes presents the defection in the Paris airport as the climax of his movie, though Nureyev, defecting at the height of his stage prowess, would go on to enjoy and long and prosperous career in the West, not only as a dancer, but also a choreographer.  But it's the struggle of his early life that Mr. Fiennes is interested in presenting to us, with Fiennes himself playing Pushkin, Nureyev's Russian ballet teacher (and doing a very credible job with speaking Russian).

            Rudolf Nureyev (Oleg Ivenko) was born on a train, crossing Siberia near Irkutsk, in the Spring of 1938.  Because of the devastation of World War II, Nureyev was not able to officially enroll in a ballet school until he was 17, much later than most professional dancers.  However, it was soon evident that he had a special talent.  He loved all things rare and beautiful, including great works of art and architecture, and he performed with so much passion that audiences ignored his lack of formal training. It was his teacher Pushkin who taught Nureyev that great ballet is not about technique, anyway, but about the story which the technique is trying to convey.

            It didn't take long for Nureyev to be invited to dance with a touring Russian ballet, and he quickly emerged as the lead soloist.  However, he could be moody and temperamental, and his relentless dedication to his craft tended to isolate him, even among members of his own company.  Because of his singularity even among other dancers, they nicknamed him “The White Crow.” Pushkin was so enamored with Nureyev's prodigious potential that he invited him to live with him and his wife.  Director Fiennes clearly believes that there was more than casual interest between the wife and Nureyev, but he also indicates a relationship between Nureyev and one of the male dancers in the troupe, Teja (Louis Hofmann).  Fiennes also shows us how the KGB kept a close eye on Nureyev during the ballet company's visit to Paris.  Nureyev loved the Parisian night life, even tending toward the ribald burlesque, and was frequently accompanied by wealthy Parisian socialite Clara Saint (Adele Exarchopoulos).  He loved ignoring curfews and wearing out the KGB agents trying to keep track of him.  But in this film, his defection really wasn't political so much as personal.  He wanted to be free to do what he pleased.  He didn't want to go back to the Soviet Union because they could easily imprison him for even the suspicion of disloyalty, and he was afraid at the Paris airport that they were preparing to do exactly that.

            Yes, it's strictly an art-house film, with the subtitles and the sublime classical music and the frequent forays into ballet studios.  And yet, Oleg Ivenko, as the mercurial Nureyev, has quite a commanding screen presence, even though he's never acted before. The story is a compelling one, especially in the context of the Cold War.  And there are some pundits who are warning us that our relations with Russia are starting to get frosty all over again.

 

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen, DFW Film Critics Association