'Nureyev': Film Review

Courtesy of Frith Street Films
Instantly essential.
4/19/2019

Jacqui and David Morris' documentary about the legendary dancer includes much never-before-seen footage.

There has been no shortage of documentaries about Rudolf Nureyev, but the new film directed by siblings Jacqui and David Morris makes a valuable contribution with its plethora of previously unseen footage and insightful historical context about his life and times. Although it's puzzling that Nureyev is being theatrically released before, rather than after, Ralph Fiennes' drama The White Crow, about the dancer's defection to the West, the documentary should nonetheless prove irresistible to dance fans and enjoy a long ancillary life.

"Nureyev was a human panther," observes of the many unseen commentators, many of them friends and colleagues of the dancer. The assertion is amply proved in the abundance of dance footage showcasing his tremendous lithe physicality, model-ready looks and burning charisma. While some of it will be familiar to anyone who's versed in Nureyev career, there are also stunning never-before-seen scenes of him performing dances by such choreographers as Martha Graham, Paul Taylor and Murray Lewis, as well as rare archival clips of his early performances in Russia

Nureyev himself provides much of the commentary in the film, ranging from lengthy excerpts from his diaries read by Welsh actress Sian Phillips (pretentiously billed as "Dame Sian Phillips" in the credits) and excerpts from television interviews, including illuminating exchanges with a clearly awestruck Dick Cavett. Nureyev displays a rakish charm and insightful self-awareness in the clips shown. When asked what he most feels a sense of belonging to, he doesn't hesitate before answering, "Dance."

The film relates its subject's biography in unfussy, chronological fashion, from his birth on a train near Siberia (he makes much of the fact that he considers himself not a Russian, but rather a Tartan) to his sadly premature 1993 death from AIDS. His dramatic defection, while performing with the Kirov Ballet in Paris, inevitably proves a dramatic highlight. Nureyev was not to return to his native country again until the Perestroika era of the 1980s, when he was finally reunited with his elderly mother shortly before her death.

Among the film's most visually dazzling sections are a series of extremely sensual black-and-white photographs of the dancer shot by Richard Avedon, who famously commented of his subject, "His whole body was responding to a kind of wonder at himself. A narcissistic orgy of some kind...an orgy of one."

Nureyev's romantic relationship with Danish dancer Erik Bruhn and professional partnership, friendship (and possibly, the film hints, physical relationship as well) with famed British ballerina Margot Fonteyn are key elements in the film, the latter subject proving particularly moving. In an audio interview, Fonteyn, who was nearly two decades older than Nureyev when she started dancing with him, poignantly confesses her fear that when they were onstage together, everyone would be only looking at him. The footage of their performances in such ballets as Romeo and Juliet are among the film's highlights.

Considering how much magnificent footage of Nureyev is on display here, it seems curious that the filmmakers chose to augment it with elaborately staged modern dance interludes, choreographed by Russell Maliphant, dramatizing aspects of their subject's life. Although well performed by a young ensemble, they seem awkward and out of place amidst the otherwise straightforward proceedings.

Production: Little Compton Films, Rattling Stick Films
Distributor: CineLife Entertainment
Directors-screenwriters: Jacquie Morris, David Morris
Producers: Jacqui Morris, Trevor Beattie
Executive producers: Trevor Beattie, Jeremy Chatterton, Angus Neil, Aaron Lau, Bil Bungay, Victoria Steventon
Director of photography: Michael Wood
Editors: David Fairhead, Timothy Moss
Composer: Alex Baranowski

109 minutes