Artistry and the Cold War collide in biopic on dancer Nureyev

There's little dance but lots of attitude in this Ralph Fiennes-directed film, which explores the life of the great Russian dancer Rudolf Nureyev.

Courtesy of Sony Pictures Classics
First-time actor Oleg Ivenko as Rudolf Nureyev in ‘The White Crow.’ In the biopic, Nureyev rebels against the way male ballet dancers were expected to ‘serve the ballerina.’

Very few movies have ever successfully conveyed what it’s like to be an artistic genius. The creative process, almost by definition, resists depiction. It’s too intuitive and mysterious to be captured, let alone dramatized.

The highly uneven “The White Crow” deals with the formative early years of the great Russian dancer Rudolf Nureyev leading up to his defection in Paris in 1961 at the height of the Cold War. It has a slight advantage over, say, the biopics of comparably famous authors or composers because at least here we can see, literally step by step, the physical progression that made him the extraordinary artist he became.

The Ukrainian Oleg Ivenko, the first-time actor who plays Nureyev, certainly cannot match the master, but he’s a trained dancer of adequate force who has the added advantage of resembling the young Nureyev, who was 22 when he defected.

Drawing on the biography “Nureyev: The Life” by Julie Kavanagh and directed by Ralph Fiennes from a screenplay by David Hare, “The White Crow” is a warts and all presentation of a genius for whom the freedom to create meant everything. Often contemptuous of those who cared most for him, the Nureyev of this movie is something of a monster. But, in the filmmakers’ view, he is a sacred monster.

It’s a romanticized conception but in this case not without its core of truth. The mistake of so many biopics about the greatly talented is that monstrousness – madness – is equated with genius. The recent Van Gogh movie “At Eternity’s Gate,” along with a much earlier Van Gogh movie by Robert Altman, “Vincent & Theo,” are the exception to this rule. Those films depicted a genius who was great despite, rather than because of, his torments.

In “The White Crow,” it is clear from the beginning of his career that Nureyev sought the freedom to dance to the full height of his powers. The film, structured in flashbacks, opens in 1961 with his Kirov Ballet company instructor Alexander Pushkin (Fiennes, speaking fluent Russian, with a balding pate) telling a KGB inquisitor that his star pupil did not defect because of politics. Nureyev, he affirms, was not political. Instead, he says, ruefully, “It’s likely he had an explosion of character.”

This explosiveness comes through in almost everything Nureyev does. Born into poverty, an autodidact, Nureyev is seen gazing at the paintings in the Hermitage in Leningrad (present day St. Petersburg) and later, in Paris, in the Louvre with ardent devotion. For him, Rembrandt, Matisse, and Géricault are kindred spirits, rebels against the established order. What Nureyev was rebelling against was the way male ballet dancers were expected to “serve the ballerina,” as he puts it in the film. He did not want to be a stolid piece of human scenery. “I took from woman,” he explains, describing how he draws on the expressiveness of women dancers.

I wish more dancing had been featured in “The White Crow.” Although Fiennes, as director, offers up a few revelatory performance snippets, it’s not enough. The point is made that Nureyev was technically sloppy early on, but most of the time we have to take the film’s word for it – mostly from Pushkin, who schools his protégé in the purpose of dance and the “logic of the steps.”

I also wish the film had dispensed with that confusing flashback structure, which shuttles back and forth between Nureyev’s childhood years in the late 1940s, the Leningrad years from 1955 to 1961, and Paris in 1961.

Fiennes is too conventional a director for such an eruptive and wide-ranging subject. It’s telling that the film’s best sequence is not about dancing. Instead, it’s the defection scene in Le Bourget Airport in Paris, which functions as a well-done thriller set piece.

Despite all these defects, “The White Crow” fitfully does justice to Nureyev’s overwhelming desire to be an artist, and that’s not a negligible achievement. His ruthlessness was a major component of that desire, but given what he accomplished as a dancer, who can really blame him? There’s a scene at a Paris party where a guest wonders if she saw him dance, and he responds, “If I had danced, you would have remembered.” The man had a right to his arrogance. Grade: B (Rated R for some sexuality, graphic nudity, and language. In English, French, and Russian, with subtitles.)

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