Ralph Fiennes’ The White Crow (2018) tells the story of legendary Russian ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev’s 1961 defection to the West. The event may have been more unexpected for Nureyev, a dancer who was never concerned with politics, than for the rest of the world. Creating authenticity to the movie’s atmosphere, Fiennes cast almost exclusively Russian actors to play the part of Russian characters and French actors for the French roles, with the notable exception being himself. Fiennes plays the role of Alexander Pushkin (no, not the poet), Nureyev’s teacher and mentor at the Leningrad State Choreographic School. For the part of Nureyev, Fiennes cast the young Ukrainian dancer Oleg Ivenko. Though perhaps this choice meant sacrificing something in the acting, as The White Crow was Ivanenko’s first film, it was counterweighed by the preservation of language and knowledge of dance.
Fiennes puts a limit on the scope of his story, not going beyond Nureyev’s defection. A full biographical feature would have led to either a very long film or a confusingly fast plot. But by forcing an end to the story at a time when Nureyev was only twenty-three years old, something of the magnitude of his talent and his personality is lost. It becomes hard to catch a true glimpse of Nureyev’s wild talent and fame in the short time-span. There is also little attention given to the dancer’s romantic life—an important piece of information when thinking about the dancer at large. Even when we see Nureyev wake up in bed with Teja Kremke (Louis Hofmann), a young dancer from East Germany, or cast longing glances at male couples dancing in Parisian clubs, it doesn’t feel like a foreshadowing of his tumultuous relationship with Danish dancer Erik Bruhn or 1993 death of AIDs.
Loosely featuring The Kirov Ballet’s 1961 tour in Paris as the leading storyline, The White Crowis far from sequential. Vignettes of Nureyev’s years as a student in Leningrad, the place Nureyev meets Pushkin and his wife Xsenia (Chulpan Khamatova), who, each in their own way, nurture him as an individual and professionally, run parallel to the Parisian timeline. Flashbacks to Nureyev’s childhood in rural Ufa are also interspersed through the film. The almost monochrome tones seem to convey Nureyev’s emotional reaction to the poverty of his upbringing: Rudolf waking up in a bed shared by himself, his three sisters, and mother, his first glimpse of a ballet theater; his father returning home from the war. The result is a choppy feeling, appropriate for the life-changing events of 1961.
One of the most memorable and telling scenes of Rudolf’s personality is set at a restaurant in Paris. The offender: pepper-sauce. Rudolf becomes indignant at there being pepper-sauce on his steak. Disgusted at this mistake, he refuses to speak to the waiter himself, afraid of getting a who is he to complain look or comment from the waiter. Instead, he demands that his dinner companion asks for a new steak. It all causes a small scene at the table. Perhaps the reason the episode is so compelling is that it has nothing to do with politics. Throughout the film, when Nureyev sneaks out of the hotel or meets with Parisian dancers our mind runs to restrictions he lives under as a Soviet dancer. We feel, at least subconsciously, that these late night in cabarets and cafes are political, defiant. Even Nureyev’s arrogance, as he asks the Kirov director to leave a rehearsal can feel quasi-political. But what the restaurant scene shows is that Nureyev was just as angry about not getting the steak he wanted as he was about not being able to come and go from the hotel as he pleased. And while asking the director to leave might have had something to do with his frustrations over the politics of theater, more likely, he was simple upset at the distraction. And in a more positive way, Nureyev was just as enamored by Rembrandt’s Prodigal Son at the Hermitage as Delacroix The Raft of the Medusa at the Louvre, both of which featured in the film. The point is that Nureyev did not care about the circumstances or politics. He wanted only to learn how to further his dance.
Somewhat ironically contradicting the defection as the story’s climax, The White Crow opens and closes with the same scene: Pushkin being questioned by a state official about Nureyev’s defection. Pushkin meekly explains, “It’s all about dance, not a political act.” Rudolf did not plan to defect. He did so because he believed it was the only way to keep dancing and you will have to see the movie to learn those circumstances. But for now, the question remains: can the film successfully communicate the apolitical nature of the dancer when the climax is defection, the most political act of all? Can we remain convinced that for Nureyev it is all about dance? If the film centers on defection, then maybe it is not wholly about Nureyev. Truly, The White Crow is seasoned with powerful hints of who Rudolf Nureyev was, but to know him as the true force and energy he was, to understand his impact, you must go further, you must see more.