The White Crow: about craving for freedom and loyalty to art

The film about Rudolf Nuriyev is in Kazan cinemas

The film The White Crow is the first biographic film dedicated to Rudolf Nuriyev. There is special interest in the film in the Tatarstan capital – one of the latest projects of the great dancer are linked with the Kazan theatre, a classical ballet festival named after him takes place here, and prime dancer of the ballet company of the M. Jalil Tatar State Academy Opera and Ballet Theatre Oleg Ivenko finally performed the role of the ‘‘flying Tatar man’’. More is in Realnoe Vremya’s report.

‘‘I will think about it!’’

I am lucky – I have ‘‘my own Nuriyev’’. It was in May 1992. During the second visit of Mr Nuriyev to Kazan, which was possible thanks to Director of the M. Jalil Tatar State Academy Opera and Ballet Theatre Raufal Mukhametzyanov, I was the only journalist who interviewed him. For some reason, nobody was interested in Nuriyev then.

It was in cold May, rains followed by some alarming purple sunsets, Nuriyev was cold. He was wrapped up in a poncho and wore hats. When I first saw him in the concert hall, where the S. Saydashev State Big Concert Hall is located now, he was running fast upstairs backstage. He had a long black leather coat on.

In answer to my petition to interview Nuriyev who even didn’t look back, a phrase in English was heard: ‘‘I will think about it!’’ Later, after the talk, he said: ‘‘I didn’t even know who you were and who sent you.’’ Nuriyev was still scared of KGB, the article On Betrayal of Homeland against him wasn’t cancelled yet. But then without obtaining consent for an interview, I still entered the hall, went up to the highest row and sat there for 45 minutes – it’s how long the rehearsal was before a break. Then I went upstairs, repeated the petition and got a positive reply. I was offered to sit next to him, and we talked for two breaks.

‘‘My Nuriyev’’ was still beautiful despite the disease. Under his gaze of amber eyes, one could feel an ice cream melting under the sun. He answered all the questions in detail, didn’t get angry when I didn’t know something. He helped himself to answer with incredibly expressive arms.

He was very careful: after seeing I was shivering (influenza was beginning), he immediately poured tea from a thermos a service boy brought him. He offered to bring an English aspirin the next day: ‘‘Do you have such an aspirin with vitamin C? It really helps. Come to my rehearsal tomorrow, I will take.’’ My goodness, Kazan in 1992 and English aspirin!

He was rehearsing Tchaikovsky’s symphony poem Rome and Juliette with the Tatarstan symphony orchestra and conducted The Nutcracker at the ballet festival in the theatre, which began to bear his name a year later. He was rehearsing sitting, he wasn’t that strong. But he had an upright position – a ballet one. He was making plans – he wanted to stage La Bayadère in Kazan. He staged it in October in the same year in Opéra Garnier and was on the stage for the last time where had been dancing for so many years – he was on the stage accepting the biggest award of France but in a wheelchair.

During the interview, he said his escape to the West didn’t have any political foundation, he was never interested in politics. He was not only afraid that he would just become banned from travelling abroad but also he wouldn’t be allowed to dance any more. While dance for him was his life, as bombastic as might it sound. By that time Rudolf Nuriyev had been dancing seven leading roles on the stage of the Kirov Theatre, while ballet fans were mad about him. But he felt a negative attitude of the ballet company’s officials, particularly its boss Sergeyev. Nuriyev had already been ‘‘the white crow’’.

‘‘I heard a phrase of one of the officials of our ballet: ‘Nuriyev won’t go to the tour to London.’ I understood I wouldn’t probably be killed physically but I would be spiritually… I stayed. All my clothes, dash, flew away to Leningrad by plane,’’ he said in that interview.

He remained in Paris without clothes, 50 francs were in the pocket. It was possible to buy a cup of coffee. Ralph Fiennes’s The White Crow is precisely about that Paris tour and what was later called as ‘‘jump to freedom’’.

Eight metres

Fiennes’s film has two parts – in black and white, it’s Rudolf’s memories about his childhood, and in colour – his life after leaving Ufa. The way is quite straightforward but it works. Fiennes, of course, loves and knows Russia. He played Onegin and shot in Vera Glagoleva’s film by Turgenev’s A Month in the Country for a reason. He quite fluently speaks Russian and dubs the role of Nuriyev’s teacher Pushkin. There is an accent, of course, but it doesn’t grate on me.

Of course, Fiennes doesn’t know Russia thoroughly, he has some idealistic picture of the country, he is in some captivity of propaganda. In the first film, Russians sing an old lyrical song at the table, in the second film a teacher in the Vaganov College gives a class, in a jacket and a tie, as if it’s a meeting in the regional committee of the party. Such things exist. It would be strange if they didn’t, but they can easily be forgiven.

The film is about another topic – about a person’s craving for freedom. There is a small symbol – Nuriyev who arrives in Paris with the company crosses the road without even entering the hotel to look over statues standing nearby. He reads the inscription on the first one: ‘‘Freedom’’. It’s clear that it’s statues in the Place de la République in the centre of Paris. It was freedom what Nuriyev chose staying in the capital of France in June 1961 and performing his famous jump at Aéroport Paris-Le Bourget when just eight metres separated him from that desired freedom. He just needed to run these eight metres and turn out in the Paris police’s hands.

The scene at the airport in the film is the tensest. Oleg Ivenko, the performer of Nuriyev’s role, is the biggest luck of the film. This scene was a bag of nerves. The eyes are huge, the size of the screen, they are full of fear, hope, despair. The film doesn’t have it, but witnesses remember that Nuriyev had a pair of sharp scissors in his pocket, and he could have suicided in case of bad luck. The way Ivenko feels it in this scene, one can believe so was it.

Oleg Ivenko really looks like Nuriyev, in his earlier portraits. Naturally, the only physical similarity isn’t enough, but the prime dancer of our ballet company performs in dance episodes of the film very well. The same high jump hanging in the air, the same crazy rotations.

Ralph Fiennes consciously refused to show all piquant details of Nuriyev’s biography, and it was a correct decision. Nuriyev never mixed his personal life and art, he didn’t show off, his bedroom was always shut down. He was an artist and fairly supposed that he could be interesting for the public only because of this. He really never dealt with politics and talked with emigrants from Russia. ‘‘When in Rome do as Romans do, it’s the best cure for nostalgia,’’ he told to these lines’ author in the interview.

In Fiennes’s film, we see unusual Nuriyev. Yes, a rebel but also a romantic who is ready to spend time in Paris museums all day long, he stays in front of a painting that interested him for hours. According to friends and colleagues, it’s the way he was. Arriving in Leningrad from Ufa, he used to go the Hermitage almost every day. The ‘‘flying Tatar man’’, ‘‘ballet Genghis Khan’’ developed his soul, looked for senses – why dance was needed, where he would take a spectator. This is why his dance was inspired. He was also a big child – a train set, the Oriental Express train was one of his first purchases. He was born on 17 March 1938 in the shared train car going to the Far East. Such a huge train set occupied one of the rooms in his luxurious flat in Paris on Voltaire’s embankment with a view on the Louvre.

This all ended very strangely: our festival that Rudolf Nuriyev named after himself when he saw the Kazan ballet company’s great state, our very talented Oleg Ivenko who was chosen among many candidates for Nuriyev’s role, the monument to Rudolf, which isn’t the best, not in a suitable place, but at the moment the only and in Kazan. His relatives still live in the city his mother born in. And La Bayadère that he wanted to stage in the Kazan theatre is on the stage, and it’s one of our best plays. Oleg Ivenko dances Solor’s part.

Fiennes’s film is good because Rudolf is ‘‘alive there, not a monument’’. Harsh, romantic, irreconcilable, disobedient, honest. In the small episode of his life shown in the film, his loyalty to art isn’t doubted. In answer to the question ‘‘Why did you begin conducting after you stopped dancing?’’ during that interview, he was a bit offended and replied: ‘‘What could I be doing? Planting radish?’’

By Tatiana Mamayeva. Scenes from the film: