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The moment when Nureyev became Nureyev
[UFA, Russia] Oblivious to the freezing cold, a small boy, seated at the edge of a hill overlooking the wide Belaya River, held a wooden train high above his head. He angled it so that it appeared poised on a bridge spanning the gray water, taking people and goods perhaps to the far-off metropolises of Moscow or Leningrad.
"You are dreaming," Ralph Fiennes said in Russian to Maksimilian Grigoriyev, playing the 8-year-old Rudolf Nureyev. "Dreaming of places far away."
It was November 2017, and Fiennes, director of the newly released "The White Crow," was shooting some of the final scenes for the story of the early life of the man who would become one of the world's most influential dancers. Nureyev was fiercely charismatic, immensely talented and obsessed by dance. By the time he was in his mid-20s, he would be as famous as a pop star.
The film isn't exactly a biopic, although we see elements of Nureyev's impoverished childhood in this city some 800 miles east of Moscow, and his formative years at the Vaganova Ballet Academy in Leningrad, where he was schooled by famed teacher Alexander Pushkin (played by Fiennes). Written by David Hare, "The White Crow" is a portrait of the artist as a young man, an attempt to show the complex array of factors — biographical, psychological, social, political — that led to the moment when, at 23, the dancer made a decision that would change the history of ballet: Nureyev became Nureyev by defecting from Russia to the West at Le Bourget airport in France in June 1961.
As the film shows, there was little about his family or upbringing to suggest he would become one of the greatest male dancers of the 20th century, and probably the most important influence on male ballet style and technique since Vaslav Nijinsky. Throughout "The White Crow," Fiennes and Hare suggest the extraordinary will and curiosity that drove Nureyev to dance, and to seek out art and culture wherever he could.
Hare said that he wanted to show "the sheer dedication needed to work at the level Nureyev worked at."
"He worked longer and harder and more obsessively than anyone else," Hare said. "I wanted people to understand that genius doesn't come fully formed."
Nureyev was born in 1938 on a train as his mother traveled from Ufa with his three sisters to join her husband, who was serving in the Red Army. He was raised in poverty, often went hungry and was a loner from an early age. But his life changed one day when his mother smuggled the family into Ufa's opera house to see a ballet. "I knew," he wrote in his autobiography. "That's it, that's my life." He started folk-dance classes, then ballet lessons, and by 17 had managed to secure a scholarship to the Vaganova academy, a feeder school for the Kirov Ballet (now known as the Mariinsky), which he joined three years later.
Although he wasn't the most technically accomplished male dancer in the company, Nureyev's passion, raw energy and naturalness onstage quickly made him a star. Despite his rebellious behavior, the Kirov management decided to take him on tour to Paris and London in 1961. Thrilled to be in Europe, he ignored the company's official outings. Instead, he spent his free time in galleries, at concerts and with French dancers, haughtily ignoring warnings from Soviet minders.
By the time the Kirov was due to move on to London, officialdom had quite enough. At the airport he was told he would be flying to Moscow. Knowing that this meant disgrace and probable exile, he took "six steps exactly," as he wrote in his autobiography, toward two French airport policemen. (They had been alerted to a potential problem by Clara Saint, one of Nureyev's new friends in Paris. She had rushed to the airport after receiving a call explaining the situation.) "I would like to stay in your country," he said.
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That scene (with Nureyev played by Oleg Ivenko, 26, a principal dancer with the Tatar State Ballet in Kazan, Russia) provides a tense climax to the film. "I felt it was almost like a thriller," Fiennes said. "That heightened moment of self-realization, the context of the Cold War, the way chance determined almost everything. I think it was happenstance, he was caught by surprise, and events that unfolded second by second."
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Nureyev's defection made headlines around the world. While it brought opprobrium upon his friends and family in Russia, it also gave an extra fillip to the sensation caused by his dancing, his long hair, fierce expression and sexual allure — "like a predator let loose in a drawing room," one British critic wrote of his performance. Choreographer Frederick Ashton described him as a mixture of faun and lost urchin.
Nureyev went on to form a legendary partnership with British ballerina Margot Fonteyn and joined the Royal Ballet in London, performed and staged ballets all over the world, and became director of the Paris Opera Ballet in the 1980s, developing a new generation of choreographers and star dancers.
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Nureyev's glamour and celebrity — he was a regular at Studio 54, where he hobnobbed with the likes of Liza Minnelli and Truman Capote — gave ballet a new allure, which wasn't hampered by his reputation for perfectionism, arrogance and tantrums. In 1973, ballerina Natalia Makarova accused him of deliberately dropping her onstage, and there are innumerable stories of abusive behavior toward fellow dancers.
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His influence is still felt today in male ballet technique and style. Even in his Kirov years, Nureyev brought an unusual feminine grace to his dancing, rising higher on the ball of the foot than was standard, and constantly working on what is known in ballet as "line": the elongation of the limbs into a harmonious, full-bodied alignment. At the same time, the masculine power and unapologetic sensuality of his pantherine, explosive performances charged male dancing with new drama and intensity.
These innovations have changed expectations for subsequent generations. Ivenko, who was born two years before Nureyev's death from AIDS in 1993, at 54, said that he and his classmates grew up watching videos of the dancer. "He has this amazing, wonderful energy and authentic emotion when he danced that we all wanted to take from him," Ivenko said.
Fiennes said he had always been clear that he wanted to tell Nureyev's story until the defection. (A new documentary, "Nureyev," just released in the United States, does tell the full story of his life.) "I wasn't interested in what happened afterwards, with Fonteyn, the fame, the jet-setting," he said. "For me, the story was about self-realization, the discovery — this is what I want to do. I found it very moving, this poor boy who hasn't had a formal education, hasn't been introduced to the history of art or music, and then dance is the springboard."
Fiennes added that he wanted to show that Nureyev's "armor of attitude" was more than narcissism or outrageousness.
"There is a parablelike aspect: a boy with a destiny, and a knife-edge personality, who won't tolerate anything but perfection," he said. "Something in me finds that ruthless commitment exciting. In a weird way, he is a kind of superhero."