Rudolf Nureyev was arguably the best male ballet dancer of the twentieth century, but he was much more as well. Nureyev’s handsome features and magnetic personality, coupled with a taste for wearing the latest fashions and a gift for appearing at ease in any circumstance, made him a favorite on television talk shows. Add to that his status as a Russian who defected to the West during the height of the Cold War, which made him a heroic figure to many who would not otherwise have cared one way or the other about ballet, and it’s easy to see why he became so well-known outside ballet circles. And for those who did care about the ballet, he was a revelation, infusing self-evident heart and soul to an art form that is often unfairly accused of being overly controlled and cerebral. Jacqui and David Morris’s documentary Nureyev celebrates not only Nureyev the dancer, but also Nureyev the man and Nureyev the public figure, producing a well-rounded portrait that is a must-see for ballet fans but also has a lot to offer even if you don’t know an allongé from a jeté battu.
Nureyev was something of an outsider even in the Soviet Union, being born to a Tatar family in Siberia and not formally enrolling in ballet school until age 17. However, his obvious talent could not be denied, and after graduation he quickly rose through the ranks to become one of the stars of Russian ballet. Performing with the Mariinsky company offered Nureyev the opportunity to travel abroad, and he took full advantage of the freedoms thus granted him. In 1961, while performing in Paris, Nureyev drew the ire of Soviet officials by visiting gay clubs, and was nearly hustled back to Moscow. He managed to evade his would-be captors, however, and defected, becoming an immediate political celebrity as well as a much sought-after soloist and choreographer.
Nureyev may be best remembered today for the many roles he danced with Dame Margot Fonteyn and the Royal Ballet in London, but he also made solo appearances with many companies and later became the Director of the Paris Opera Ballet. It’s our good fortune that many of his performances were captured on film (I do feel a longing for the good old days of the television variety show, where you could be watching classical ballet one minute and Erich Brenn spinning plates the next). Numerous clips from his performances are included in this documentary, so you can see for yourself what all the fuss is about. Nureyev’s career is placed in context through many comments drawn from interviews with his contemporaries as well as a generous selection of clips from Nureyev’s talk show appearances. Sadly, Rudolf Nureyev died too soon, from AIDS-related illness at age 54, but Nureyev gives you an appreciation of how fully he lived those years and how much he accomplished during the time he was granted. | Sarah Boslaugh
Nureyev is playing at the Hot Docs Ted Rogers Cinema in Toronto beginning April 19. Karen Kain, Artistic Director of the National Ballet of Canada, will conduct at Q & A session following the 6:30 pm screening on April 22.