Rudolf Nureyev is rightly remembered as one of the 20th century’s most talented dancers. His defection from the USSR to the west during a working trip to Paris in 1961 took him from fame in the dance world to household-name status.
Although the subject of several documentaries, The White Crow is a dramatization based on an authoritative Nureyev biography by Julie Kavanagh.
It focuses on that fateful five-week trip to Paris and the dramatic defection at the airport on his departure.
Early life and discovering dance
In flashback, we see scenes from Nureyev’s (Oleg Ivenko) impoverished childhood in rural Ufa. Then there are his dance studies, when he spent time training beneath a benevolent, famed instructor, Pushkin (Ralph Fiennes).
During a period of recovery from injury, Pushkin and his wife, Xenia (Chulpan Khamatova) take Nureyev into their home. He has a brief affair with the latter, possibly with Pushkin’s unspoken approval.
He also establishes his tempestuous reputation, lashing out at Pushkin and others superior to him. However, his undeniable talent see him quickly rise up the ranks of the Russian ballet scene.
Attitude and talent
Despite his rudeness and impulsive nature making him unpopular with some peers, he is chosen to join the high-profile trip to Paris. It’s the first time the Kirov ballet undertakes performances in the West in its 200-year history.
Whilst in France, Nureyev revels in the city’s love for ‘liberté’. He immediately upsets his near-constant KGB minders by befriending French dancers and hitting the city’s nightlife scene.
A friendship develops with a rich, young Chilean socialite: Clara Saint. She seeks purpose in life and he seeks freedom from USSR oppression.
His disrespect for the rules and fondness for late-night excursions prompt reprimand from his KGB minders.
At the end of his Paris run, Nureyev expects to fly to London with the rest of the company. However, upon arriving at the airport, he is informed the Kremlin has demanded he return to Moscow to give a special performance.
Realizing he is to be punished, an on-the-second decision to defect is set in motion.
‘Beauty, athleticness and haughty demeanour’
The White Crow has been directed by actor Ralph Fiennes. It’s his third directorial offering after 2011’s Coriolanus and 2013’s The Invisible Woman. It’s been penned by David Hare, one of the UK’s most noted screenwriters and playwrights (The Blue Room and the 2002 movie, The Hours, among many others).
In his debut acting role, Ukranian ballet dancer Oleg Ivenko makes for a convincing Nureyev. He successfully conveys his handsome beauty, athleticness and haughty demeanour.
Hare’s script, adapted from Kavanagh’s book Rudolf Nureyev: The Life, is something of a nuanced slow-burner. Some audiences may find it too slow burning: a few scenes of Nureyev’s early life and training could have been trimmed. They add little to the story.
However, the film’s climax, when Nureyev faces the stark choice to defect or not, and the ensuing drama at the airport, is gripping.
The movie succeeds in highlighting the oppressive nature of the USSR regime. The Soviets used those who excelled, whether athletes or cultural ambassadors such as Nureyev, as propaganda pawns.
Nureyev’s sexuality on screen
The White Crow focusses on Nureyev’s Paris trip and his life prior to this. He was 23 when he defected. We don’t see the Nureyev who partied at Studio 54, hung out with Andy Warhol or who had long-term relationships with men.
In fact, if you’re looking for Nureyev the queer icon, you may be disappointed.
If you thought Bohemian Rhapsody downplayed Freddie Mercury’s sexuality, The White Crow may even infuriate you. There has been some criticism online that there is no mention of his death from HIV, although to be fair, the movie makes no reference to his life post-defection.
Hare gives us one solitary scene in which Nureyev wakes up naked next to another young male dancer in Russia. But it could have almost been shoehorned in just to acknowledge Nureyev’s queerness. We see much more screen time of Nureyev in relationships with women.
Is this ‘straightwashing’ to appease international audiences? If one were to give the movie’s creators the benefit of doubt, another explanation is that Nureyev was firmly in the closet. Perhaps he barely explored his attraction to men while in Russia, fearful of how discovery might impact his career.
Gay men in the USSR in the 1950s faced arrest and imprisonment. The vast majority pretended to be straight in order to fit it. Nureyev inevitably did likewise.
Intensely private throughout his life, it’s also not clear whether he defined himself as gay or bisexual.
Part of the picture
Still, as a gay viewer, The White Crow left me wanting more: like a six-part TV drama that sweeps through his entire life.
It also suffers slightly from hitting screens just months after the acclaimed 2018 documentary Nureyev, which followed its subject from childhood to death. The 2015 BBC docu-drama Dance To Freedom is also worth checking out.
The White Crow is an interesting, it occasionally unfocussed, introduction to Rudolf Nureyev. Thankfully, there’s plenty of other material out there to complete the picture.
The White Crow comes to UK cinemas on 22 March and US theaters 26 April.