Nureyev review – a meticulous, heartbreaking tour de force

Documentary with wonderful footage of the Russian ballet dancer and defector deftly captures the times he lived through

Co-directors (and siblings) Jacqui and David Morris’s immaculate documentary about Rudolf Nureyev is more than just essential viewing for anyone interested ballet and dance. Like any great biography, it casts a light through its prismatic subject, whose unique story refracts out colourful strands touching on art, politics, history, identity and so much more. It helps that Nureyev, the title subject and one of the last century’s greatest dancers and performers, was such an extraordinarily magnetic figure, likened several times by interviewees here to a panther, all savage beauty and muscular grace.

It’s lucky he just so happened to have come of age in a time when he could be filmed so much, not just performing on stage, but also talking to TV interviewers such as Dick Cavett and Michael Parkinson, or seen in newsreel footage slipping through adoring crowds in a procession of groovy outfits from the early 1960s to the 90s. (The 70s matching snakeskin jacket and knee-high boots are a particular highlight.)

With so much material to work with, the film unspools the footage while voices, not shown on camera, talk on, an approach that worked very well in Asif Kapadia’s doc Amy, on Amy Winehouse, for example. There are readings from Siân Phillips from Nureyev’s memoirs, soundbites from the man himself and his closest friends and colleagues, and fresh interviews that honour his gifts but don’t necessarily gush. Like so many people who work in or write about this particular art form, one that almost never uses speech on stage, most are strikingly articulate, prone to pithy bon mots such as: “He loved the ballet the way a child would love a god.”

Perhaps by accident or design, the bits which touch on the cold war seem extra relevant in this time of strained tensions with Nureyev’s homeland Russia. Indeed, this also makes for a great companion piece to Paweł Pawlikowski’s wonderful recent feature Cold War, both pictures offering up lashings of creamy black and white footage of Parisian nightclubs and gorgeous Slavic artists with knife-sharp cheek bones. And then there’s Nureyev’s heartbreaking last act, wherein he lives long enough to see his mother one more time after years in exile, only to die not long after the fall of the Berlin Wall from Aids-related illness. Although it’s a pity still-living celebrity friends such as Liza Minnelli and Mick Jagger aren’t heard from here, there is perhaps more insightful input offered from dance partners such as Antoinette Sibley. Abundant archive footage of Nureyev with his most famous stage partner and dearest female friend Margot Fonteyn, and with his long-time lover, Danish dancer Erik Bruhn, speaks eloquently enough through dance and silent Super 8 to draw tears.


Leslie Felperin

The GuardianTramp

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