It would be absurd to say that Rudolf Nureyev lived, or danced, in anyone’s shadow. He was a man who leapt and twirled and flew onstage, all muscle but light as a feather, with a freedom and force that reconfigured the human spirit. There’s no denying, though, that over the last few decades, and especially since 1993 (the year he died of AIDS), the image of Nureyev as the flashing erotic god of ballet has been eclipsed, more than a little bit, by that of his compatriot and inheritor Mikhail Baryshnikov. There are several generations who are now more familiar with the life story, and the unearthly grace, of Misha than they are with the florid Cold War animal magnetism of Nureyev.
That makes a finely crafted, impeccably researched documentary like “Nureyev” a very welcome experience. The film’s release, on April 19, is clearly timed to coincide with the April 26 release of “The White Crow,” the upcoming biopic written by David Hare and directed by Ralph Fiennes that dramatizes Nureyev’s defection to the West in 1961. And while there’s not necessarily any why-Nureyev-why-now? logic to this moment, the documentary feels not so much timely as eternal. To plunge into this saga, especially if you don’t know it, and to see what it was that made Rudolf Nureyev onstage such a furious and transporting poet-of-the-body, is to be at once moved and awed.
The directors of “Nureyev,” Jacqui Morris and David Morris, present a great deal of dance footage that has never been seen before, and it’s a thrill to behold; nothing tells Nureyev’s story half as well as simply staring at him in his prime (in pieces choreographed by Martha Graham, Paul Taylor, and Murray Lewis, among others, as well as older footage from his Russian days). The film has been made with straight-up chronological skill, but there’s a minor innovation to “Nureyev,” and it works beautifully. It’s structured as a talking-head documentary, with the voices of friends, associates, and biographers mixed into the narrative. But though each speaker is named on screen, we don’t see any of them speaking; their words, some culled from old interview tapes, become pure narration.
This serves to avoid breaking up the flow of the images, and it’s a fantastic strategy, since the archival sequences of Nureyev onstage are so mesmerizing that you don’t want the filmmakers to cut away. Some, like clips from the 1959 Moscow production of “Le Corsaire,” possess a ghostly quality: The images have a blurry black-and-white time-capsule softness that Nureyev’s electrifying movements seem to burst right through. It’s as if he’s spinning too quickly, too furiously, for the era — the world — he’s in.
Could that be one reason why he abandoned Russia? The movie touches on Nureyev’s early days in the frozen provinces, where he had to hide his passion for dance from his father, who thought dancing was for “sissies.” But after the death of Stalin, in 1953, this boy from a Tatar Muslim family, who was born on a train ride near the Siberian border, had an opportunity: The outer regions of Russia sought to draw attention to themselves, and the Soviet powers that be were looking to compete with the West through Russia’s pre-eminence in the classical arts. America owned the consumer culture (and popular culture, which the Soviets considered decadent). But the Russians owned ballet. The teenage Nureyev was sent by his family to study in Leningrad.
He rose rapidly, becoming a star in the Kirov company, but from the start there was a central contradiction. As the film describes it, to show off the best of itself Russia needed the very best people, like Nureyev — but that means that they were seeking artists who were self-centered and idiosyncratic and flamboyant, not so boxed in by Soviet thinking. After Kruschev came to power, the Soviets took a risk in sending the Kirov Ballet to Paris. On his own for the first time, the 23-year-old Nureyev was a free spirit who didn’t want to be told what to do. He clashed with KGB agents after nights out on the town (he could never get himself to come in by curfew), and he was already perceived as too flashy and dominant.
At the airport on June 16, 1961, he was told not to board the plane to the Kirov’s next destination; instead, he was summoned back to Moscow to dance for Kruschev in the Kremlin. In effect, he was being punished for his greatness. The moment is extraordinarily dramatic, like a thousand movie thrillers you’ve seen, only with heightened emotional stakes. Nureyev has not planned to defect. The prospect is thrust upon him when he’s presented with a stark choice: go back to Russia and be marginalized for the crime of being too free; or decide, at that very moment, to leave Russia — so that he’ll likely never see his family again. The choice tears Nureyev apart, but when he places himself in the arms of two French inspectors and gasps, “I want to stay! I want to stay!,” the choice, in a sense, has already been made for him. It’s there in his nature to soar toward freedom.
Even if you already know Nureyev’s story, he’s a figure of such singular charisma that you can never get enough of The Look, especially when he’s in his prime: the sculpted cheekbones and slightly sunken hollows beneath them, the full lips and darkly knitted eyebrows, the gorgeous glower. From the moment he defected, the Western world was beset by Nureyev-mania: screaming fans, wild dinner parties, mobbed performances. You could make the case that Nureyev, often photographed onstage in heavy makeup, with thick mascara and gender-bending costumes, paved the way for the most revolutionary rock ‘n’ roller of the ’60s — Mick Jagger. Nureyev, especially after he grew his hair out, anticipated Jagger’s lurid sensuality, and though we now think of Mick as a quintessential masculine rock idol, the truth is that starting around 1970 his glitter look and rooster-on-acid moves were profoundly androgynous, setting the stage for glam.
But Nureyev got there first. In 1964, he did a fabled series of portraits with Richard Avedon, and as we see in the movie they are still jaw-dropping. The film quotes Avedon as saying, “His whole body was responding to a kind of wonder at himself. A narcissistic orgy of some kind. An orgy of one.” That’s as good a description of Nureyev’s power as exists. He transformed the ballet into a blazing erotic spectacle — which, of course, it always was. But Nureyev coaxed the sexual subtext to the surface and set it aflame. At the same time, the fact of his defection (the drama of it, the agony of it) lent his stardom a special danger and meaning. For a while in the West, he was like Nijinksy meets Mick Jagger meets Salman Rushdie: a freedom fighter in the body of a leaping rock-star god.
From the start, he saw himself not as a Russian but as a Tatar, a descendent of the Mongol Empire, and part of a warrior breed. “I can’t exactly define what it is to be a Tatar and not a Russian,” Nureyev is quoted as saying in the movie. “But I see the difference in my flesh. Our Tatar blood runs faster, somehow. It is always ready to boil. And yet it seems we are more languid than the Russians, more sensuous. We are a curious mixture of tenderness and brutality.” That quote is a testament to the eloquence of Nureyev’s mind, and it perfectly evokes his dance artistry. He was a swan infused with the lethality of a lion.
There are moments in “Nureyev” that have a Kenneth Anger pop sensibility, as when images of Nureyev dancing in the ’60s are juxtaposed with the Everly Brothers’ “All I Have to Do Is Dream.” (It’s not disjunctive. You think: No images could match this music better.) The movie also captures his key relationships: the partnership and ongoing platonic love affair (which the film, at one point, suggests may not have been so platonic) that he sustained with the great English ballerina Margot Fonteyn, and his tempestuous relationship with the Danish ballet virtuoso Eric Bruhn. He and Nureyev were two peas in a pod, but they were also competing deities in love. (It’s like imagining a relationship between Michelangelo’s David and Rodin’s The Thinker.)
“Nureyev” takes us back to a time when the classical arts were still at the center of the culture. We see clips of Nureyev on “The Dick Cavett Show,” where Cavett, with his civilized snark, jousts with Nureyev but becomes his admiring bard; when Nureyev arrives at the show, in a white lizard-skin jacket and boots, just after a performance at Lincoln Center, the audience gives him a two-minute ovation. And, inevitably, the film becomes another elegy for an artist who died of AIDS because — as it may look to us now — he had the misfortune to contract the disease several years too early. “Nureyev” delivers Nureyev’s life in all its ecstasy and tragedy. As a documentary, it’s not definitive, but it’s good enough to leave you thrilled and haunted by this man who, at the height of his artistry, seemed to leap off the earth and leave it behind.