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
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.