On June 16, 1961, an obscure Russian ballet dancer made newspaper headlines across the world. Though a rising star in his own country, Rudolf Nureyev was little known outside the Soviet Union until he came to France as part of a Mariinsky company tour. His superiors, and the corps’ KGB minders, considered the volatile, headstrong Tatar a danger to shipping, and had tried to block his passage. But backstage intriguing by fellow dancers outfoxed the authorities, and Nureyev travelled to Paris with the company.
There he wowed audiences with a series of stunning performances at Palais Garnier. While critics gushed, KGB flunkies fretted: Rudy liked the limelight, and had begun ignoring company curfews to cruise the city’s fleshpots in the company of a wealthy young woman called Clara Saint. There were rumours he’d visited gay bars, and by the time the Mariinsky were due to move on to London for the final leg of their tour, Rudy’s minders had enough.
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At Le Bourget Airport, he was informed out of the blue that he would not be travelling on to London, but would return instead to Moscow to give a special performance for Nikita Khrushchev. To Nureyev, this sounded like code for a trip to the gulags, so with Clara’s help, he approached to French police officials and announced he wanted to defect. The travelling KGB were furious, but could do nothing: Rudy was free.
This emotionally charged moment forms the core of The White Crow, Ralph Fiennes’ sombre, elegant, poetic biopic which will be released here next week.
The title comes from a childhood nickname for Nureyev, who was always furiously individualistic, and determined to stand out from the crowd. Fiennes made The White Crow in collaboration with playwright and screenwriter David Hare.
Like a lot of movies, it took a long time to put together.
“I had a vague sense of this Nureyev story, which I’d come across many years ago when I read Julie Kavanagh’s biography,” Fiennes tells me. “Then our producer Carolyn Marks Blackwood pushed me to try and get to grips with it. And I thought David was the best person to approach to write it, because he’s brilliant at writing these high definition characters.”
“We did a lot of research,” Hare explains. “We went to Petersburg, we went to France and met the people involved, and to Ufo, where Nureyev was born, and saw the circumstances in which he lived. We spoke to people who knew him, like Baryshnikov, and Clara Saint, and Pierre Lacotte. I read all the first-hand accounts I could of what it was like to work with him, and know him.”
That hard work is evident in The White Crow, which takes no shortcuts, makes no cheap jokes about Nureyev’s legendary temper and leaves it to you to make your own judgments about him. “Myself and David talked a lot about what are we going to put in,” Fiennes tells me, “because obviously there’s so much you could have dealt with.”
“Yes,” Hare adds, “and I think what we wanted was almost, ‘becoming Rudolf Nureyev’ – it’s about that moment in which his character crystallises. That’s not just about the defection, it’s also about him being received in the west as a great dancer, and settling on his sexuality. He isn’t yet the monster with the mask, so it was that moment in which his character is fluid: he’s kind of a creature of mood, and catching him at that point is what we both wanted to do. And Oleg Ivenko is wonderful at conveying all that.”
Ivenko, the film’s star, is an accomplished ballet dancer, good enough to seemingly hang in the air during those spectacular grand sautés, as Nureyev famously did.
“From the start,” Fiennes says, “I was pushing to cast an unknown, and to have Russian actors speaking Russian. We did a big search through all the Russian ballet companies and schools, then Oleg appeared. He’s a very strong dancer, which meant you don’t have to cut around him in a scene. But I think he’s also a really talented screen actor, who can access interior emotions, and changes in thought and feeling.”
Some of those changes in feeling were pretty swift and in The White Crow, we do get a glimpse of the famous Nureyev temper when the dancer lets rip at a Russian waiter in a fancy Parisian restaurant.
“Some of his tantrums were to do with his feeling sensitive about where he came from,” says Hare. “And with that scene in the restaurant, it’s the fact that he feels that the Russian waiters are looking down on him as a peasant – he felt condescended to. And then some of his temperament was about his perfectionism and wanting to do it better than anyone else. So there were different reasons for all these behaviours, but he was a hopeless victim of his own moods – he couldn’t control them.”
In the movie, Fiennes plays the small but crucial role of Pushkin, Nureyev’s teacher at the Vaganova Academy in Saint Petersburg – a kindly, put-upon man who nurtures the young dancer’s talent and even invites him to live in his flat. And Pushkin’s wife Xenia goes above and beyond the call of duty in giving Nureyev a sexual education.
“It is pretty much accepted that Xenia had affairs with young dancers,” Fiennes tells me, “and some people I talked to suggested that Pushkin might have been latently homosexual, but they were very together, they were very generous to young dancers, had them over for tea, and the cultured atmosphere of their apartment was very important to people like Nureyev. And Pushkin was supposed to have been this very kind, gentle person, a great teacher who was not at all demonstratively corrective, which suited Nureyev perfectly.”
Fiennes’ attention to detail as an actor is legendary, as he’s proved in everything from Schindler’s List and The Duchess to In Bruges and Grand Budapest Hotel. In The White Crow he speaks Russian with what sounds like, to my uneducated ear, alarming fluency.
“Well I have a little bit of Russian,” he says modestly. “To be honest, it’s quite basic – it’s not the level of the Russian I speak in the film, but I have enough of a platform to work quite hard with a Russian dialect coach.
“Also, nowadays you can really correct a lot with the technical resources of post production, so I would do 20 takes in post-production with a Russian sound editor, and then they’d go that’s the one.
“So my spoken Russian on the day was fine, but we did a lot of work afterwards: accents, you know, phonetics, there are subtleties which the western ear wouldn’t pick up. They would go ‘that one, not that one’, and I couldn’t tell the difference.”
The film’s climax, naturally, is the defection scene at Le Bourget Airport, which Fiennes handles skilfully, never letting us forget what’s at stake: as one KGB man points out to Rudy, if he defects, he may never see his mother or family again, not to mention the retribution that might be meted out by a vengeful state.
“I wrote a version of the scene,” says David Hare, “and then Ralph did a huge amount of research to make that moment as authentic as it was. This film takes very little [poetic] licence, and Ralph is a terrier on research: the Le Bourget you see is exactly as Le Bourget was. There are people who have different versions: some people say that Nureyev became hysterical, some say that he was shouting and screaming, others say that he took it quite quietly. But we really did listen to everybody.”
Fiennes nods thoughtfully, adding “it really did seem to be this spontaneous, spur-of-the-moment thing”.
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