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The White Crow

A new film focusses on Rudolf Nureyev’s Great Leap to Freedom

In a time where Instagram celebrities are two a penny, it can be hard to understand what true celebrity was like a generation or two ago. Fame and celebrity wasn’t confined to singers and movie stars. Opera singers such as Maria Callas caused mass hysteria amongst fans to rival Beatlemania, especially her gay fans. In the world of Ballet there was no one like Rudolf Nureyev, the great Russian dancer. He was ballet’s first pop icon. In April 1965, TIME magazine noted that he “stands out as one of the most electrifying male dancers of all time.” He possessed an unashamed sensuality, a sense of danger on the stage, always on edge. Playwright David Hare said that Nureyev was a contradiction, like many artists, and he displayed “extreme sensitivity and astonishing selfishness”.

Nureyev came to international attention when defected to the West at the height of the Cold War, an act considered treason in the Soviet Union. The defection thrust the Russian dancer, whose talent drew millions of new fans to the theatre, into the public eye for the next 30 years.  Ralph Fiennes’ film The White Crow examines Nureyev at the most critical part of his life. In 1961, Nureyev, having created a sensation during the Kirov Ballet’s visit to Paris, was summoned back to Moscow. With Soviet minders hovering at the airport, he saw a chance to claim asylum, and the history of ballet changed irrevocably with just six nervous steps. Nureyev was unpopular with Soviet authorities even before he decided to leave. His overt admiration for the West alarmed them and was seen as a betrayal to the motherland’s communist ideals. He drew particular attention because ballet was a key propaganda tool used by the Soviet authorities to display its cultural supremacy to the West. 

The White Crow, a childhood nickname for Nureyev, because he was unusual, is based on Julie Kavanagh’s 2007 biography of the dancer, with a script by British playwright David Hare and directed by Ralph Fiennes. Kavanagh, a journalist who also trained as a dancer, researched the dancer’s life for over a decade, prising open old Soviet archives and interviewing dozens of those who were close to him. Oleg Ivenko, the 26-year-old Ukrainian dancer and actor who plays Nureyev in the new movie says that when in Paris, “He was like a wild animal out of a cage. He got a taste of freedom and another world.” There was no going back.

The White Crow doesn’t shy away from Nureyev’s non-traditional love life, still controversial enough in Russia that Kirill Serebrennikov’s ballet Nureyev was banned last year. Director Fiennes does show the rising star experimenting with partners of both genders, but it is mostly his alliances with male lovers that dominates

Hare cleverly suggests Nureyev’s mixture of courage, hauteur, emotional damage and cool self-appraisal; the Soviet authorities cannot threaten him through his family because he long ago left them behind. While the Kirov company is in Paris, its KGB handlers impose tight curfews, shadowing Nureyev as he goes out partying with his new French friends to risqué cabarets and beatnik clubs. It was this behaviour that concerned the KGB, which twice ordered Nureyev’s minders to send him back to Russia. For years, it was believed that Nureyev had premeditated his defection, but The White Crow offers a different interpretation, treating it as a spontaneous decision, and one of the dancer’s most life-altering caprices. The film is very much a portrait of the artist as a young man, with its loneliness, imagination and possibilities.

And possibilities abounded in the West after his defection. Nureyev was without doubt the greatest ballet dancer of his time. But it was a time cut short, when he died in January 1993, at the age of 54, cut down by AIDS related illness

The White crow is currently on circuit in South Africa