Rudolf Nureyev documentary unearths unseen avant-garde footage

Previously unknown ‘amateur-shot’ film shows ballet dancer’s sexually provocative side

Previously unknown footage of Rudolf Nureyev will be seen for the first time in a new British documentary to be released in cinemas worldwide.

Ballet’s most famous star can be seen performing, choreographing and rehearsing in material unearthed by the film-maker Jacqui Morris.

She was taken aback to find about 16 minutes of unseen footage relating to the greatest male ballet dancer of all time.

In one clip, Nureyev can be seen rehearsing the Nutcracker with Claude de Vulpian, choreographing her while dancing together.

Most of the footage shows modern works created with leading choreographers such as Martha Graham.

Morris said of the footage: “You see him on stage, dancing very provocatively throughout … This is very avant-garde, very sexually provocative – the opposite of him playing the prince in ballet. In one section, he’s polishing a scaffolding pole in the most provocative way imaginable.”

She said the discovery was so important because prior to now there was very little footage of his contemporary work.

Morris described the material as “amateur-shot”: “Nureyev didn’t like being filmed because he knew his best angles when he was performing on stage, but he couldn’t control the camera. He knew what an audience was going to see live.

The archival material was unearthed by the film-maker Jacqui Morris.
The archival material was unearthed by the film-maker Jacqui Morris. Photograph: PR

“But he had good friends, particularly quite wealthy women, who followed him around the world, and he did allow them to film. There’s a couple of bits that we’ve found from other people who surreptitiously filmed in theatres.”

The documentary– Nureyev: All The World His Stage – will be released in September. Morris is a co-directer, with her brother David. Their previous documentaries include McCullin, about the war photographer Don McCullin, which received two Bafta nominations.

Nureyev died in 1993 aged 54. The Nureyev Foundation gave the film-makers access to around 20 boxes of old VHS tapes, among other material in a vast archive held in the New York public library.

David Morris said: “There’s about 16 minutes of dance footage that even the most diehard fan has never seen … There are things the Nureyev Foundation didn’t know existed.”

Over two yearswading through the archive, Jacqui Morris realised that labels did not fully detail their contents.

Thierry Fouquet, vice-president of the Nureyev Foundation, was excited by the discovery. “There were lots of things I hadn’t seen before,” he said.

In her 2017 autobiography, the former prima ballerina Dame Beryl Grey recalled how Nureyev could transfix his audiences with the grace and beauty of his movement, but said he was also capable of brutal behaviour.

He could be rude even to his legendary dancing partner Margot Fonteyn, whom he adored. Grey remembered him kicking a ballerina so hard she required medical treatment.

Jacqui Morris said: “He could be a monster and he did hit people. There’s no question of it. But in the footage we’ve got, you can just see how hard he’s working and how much those dancers adored him because he pushed them. He would slap them, but they’d come out of it going, ‘you know what, I’ve just given a performance of a lifetime’. Dance was his whole life.”

Saturday marked the anniversary of Nureyev’s dramatic defection from the Soviet Union in 1961. He gave his minders the slip in Paris and presented the west with one of the greatest propaganda coups of the cold war.

David Morris said it marked a pivotal moment in history. “Nureyev’s life was dominated by politics, although he wasn’t political himself.”

He said the documentary would reflect the great tragedy of Nureyev’s life: “That he came to the west, was the great star of his age, but that he couldn’t see his mother.”

Trevor Beattie, the documentary’s producer, said the time that Nureyev lived in was not as “camera-obsessed” as it is now, so there is not “wall-to-wall” footage of Nureyev that someone of his fame and genius would now attract. “Imagine the footage that there would be [if Nureyev had his career today] … It would be non-stop. So, in comparison, there’s very little.

“He was a performer on the big classical stage, and those things were not filmed every night … Cameras were also more cumbersome than they are today. A camera on a tripod would be fixed to the floor at the back of row Z … and it wouldn’t move.”

The film-makers say that, even a quarter of a century after hisdeath, Nureyev’s story has never been more relevant. “His defection to the west is symbolic as Russia and the west struggle once more to reconcile conflicting values.”

The documentary takes an innovative approach to the form. As well as interviews with those who knew Nureyev, there are contemporary dance sequences choreographed by Russell Maliphant that tell his story where no archival footage exists.


Dalya Alberge

The GuardianTramp

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