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Documentary on Nureyev's Russian years illuminates influences before his defection

Documentary on Nureyev's Russian years illuminates influences before his defection

Rudolf Nureyev brought celebrity to dance, with his animalistic energy on stage, volatile attitude off stage and his exquisite partnering with prima ballerina Margot Fonteyn.
His life as a dance icon has been celebrated in countless books and documentaries, but little has been said about the Russian dancer's life before his defection from the then-Soviet Union to the West in 1961 at Le Bourget Airport outside Paris.
"Nureyev: The Russian Years," a documentary premiering Wednesday, Aug. 29, at 9 p.m. EDT in the U.S. on public television channel Public Broadcasting Sericve's "Great Performances" series, attempts to fill the void.
This gem of a film examines Nureyev's early formation as a dancer, beautifully weaving rarely seen archival footage of him during his days as a student in Leningrad with interviews of those who knew him in Russia.
"There was a whole part of his life that hadn't received much attention," John Bridcut, writer and producer of the film, said. "It wasn't that he was plucked out of obscurity to become something amazing in the West. He was the leading male dancer at the Kirov, and he already had the characteristic traits he's famous for in terms of being rebellious and difficult."
Fellow Leningrad ballet school student Alik Bikchurin recalls in the documentary, "He said it openly, 'I will be the number one dancer in the world.' He'd just arrived at the school, and he suddenly comes out with something like that. It's not the best way to make friends."
But Nureyev did make friends, and those friends provided incredible insight and honesty to the film. Accounts given by Ninal Kurgapkina, Nureyev's partner at the Kirov Ballet, Cuban dancer Menia Martinez, whom Nureyev loved, and others are charming, devoted and scathingly truthful.
Ultimately, Nureyev's greatness is framed by well-chosen dance footage that gives a sample of the his obvious brilliance in grand leaps, dizzying turns and stunning technique.
In 90 minutes or so, it is hard to cover all of his early years and influences, but this mighty attempt successfully covers a great deal of terrain with insight and sophistication. Viewers will be able to get a strong understanding of Nureyev's difficult beginnings, his true stamina to grow as a dancer and the consequences of being his friend: After his defection, many were not allowed to travel and hounded by the KGB.
A highlight in the documentary is footage from Teja Kremke, a German student with whom Nureyev fell in love in Leningrad. Kremke's films, though brief, will thrill dance enthusiasts. They include a mock defection video put together by Kremke that shows Nureyev walking up stairs into glaring light as the image switches to passing glances of Nureyev's friends and then him on a train, Nureyev's final Kirov appearances in "Swan Lake" sequences and "The Sleeping Beauty" and shots of the dancer backstage.
The chronology of the dance footage is not exactly accurate, but Bridcut acknowledged that he edited the ballet sequences to illustrate the stories being told. For example, when discussing Nureyev's early relationship with Martinez, which took place in the 1950s, Bridcut used a 1970s version of Nureyev dancing in "Don Quixote" with a dancer who resembled Martinez. And while a ballet school peer discusses Nureyev's unforgiving work ethic, rehearsal footage of "Bach Fantasia" from 1963 is shown.
But the sequencing produces a lovely rhythm throughout the film and a true dance between audio and visual.
Much of the research for the documentary and its archival footage is owed to the nearly 10 years of work done by writer and former dancer, Julie Kavanaugh, who consulted on the film, and whose biography, "Rudolf Nureyev: The Life," comes out in October.
"I didn't think there was anything new I could discover when I started," Kavanaugh said. But she did find a gold mine of letters and KGB files that combined with Kremke's footage help make "Nureyev: The Russian Years" an exciting, engaging, masterful documentary.
"I fell in love with his mind. He had such an intelligence," Kavanaugh said.


Updated : 2021-05-16 15:18 GMT+08:00