The White Crow: Performance of Rebellion
Words by S. Collins
The year is 1961 and a bus transporting the Kirov Ballet Company arrives in France with a wide-eyed, hopeful group of young performers. The legendary group of Soviet dancers swiftly become the talk of the town in Paris. One dancer among them will transcend to become known as “The Lord of Dance”.
The White Crow is a film about the definitive year of Rudolf Nureyev’s career that catapults him into the stratosphere of a cultural icon. The prolific Ralph Fiennes (The Invisible Woman, 2013) takes on the controversial figure with his third directorial outing. He directs and costars in a tumultuous, yet delicate film that follows the story of the legendary dancer in the year of his defection. The enduring performer is portrayed by newcomer and first time actor Oleg Ivenko. Although Fiennes is better known for his acting, the two time Oscar nominee takes the helm as director with dexterous precision and compassionate care for sensitive subject matter. He also steps artfully in front of the lens as a passive and deflated Pushkin: Rudolf Nureyev’s coach (a relationship that serves as bookends to the film).
In the most timely of fashion, The White Crow is the story of an artist completely rejecting submission to any form of nationalism.
Whether the young dance sensation likes it or not, his art becomes intrinsically intertwined with the sociopolitical atmosphere of his times. Nureyev (often referred to as his nickname ‘Rudy’) openly expresses disdain for any form of political entanglement into performance art. Unfortunately for Rudy, his ambition to prove he is the best dancer in the world makes him a valuable economic and political commodity for the Soviet Union. And he knows this. He walks a fine tightrope between self-awareness and arrogance. Ivenko does strong work capturing the rising star’s growing bravado mixed with heightened paranoia .
His desire to be free and his desire to achieve social influence seem to battle with each other. Nureyev danced in the peak of geopolitical contentiousness of the Cold War era. Capitalism was viewed as the Soviet enemy, and the self-made Rudy seemingly loves everything the West stands for. Thus, Rudy’s talent is carefully monitored with all the power of the iron curtain.
He seeks his freedom in the bright lights of Paris.
The film utilizes a beautiful, golden film grade with heavy grain to romanticize Paris though the young dancer’s virgin-Parisian eyes. This is balanced with partially black and white flashbacks to Nureyev’s past. Scenes of this past are colored with a smog like palette to paint the idea of a childhood steeped in hardship and poverty (the star is quite literally born on a train). In doing so, the film makes it clear that this Nureyev does not look back upon his youth in the east with rose colored glasses. In fact, color barely emerges from the ink stained gray tones of his memory. There is a sense that somewhere nearby coal is burning and polluting the frigid air.
To contrast this, the young Nureyev is characterized as wide eyed and stoic - an open gate and nonreactive observer of the beauty around him (particularly trees, large paintings, and stained glass walls). This quality lingers into his adulthood.
Rudy gives the impression that even when he is with others he is still only really with himself and Ivenko does a convincing portrayal of a man consumed within his own ambitious imagination. His mind is impregnable to the agendas of influence and authority.
Yet, his mind seems to burrow deep into the minds of all around him. Women and Men alike flock to Nureyev as he moves with the focused grace of a man on a mission. Ivenko plays a volatile, explosive version of Rudy that gives the impression that he knows exactly where he is heading and those who slow him down will be met with the ferocity of his dormant anger. This makes for some brilliant moments of narrative drama. Cinematographer, Mike Eley, captures stunning and intimate imagery of actors in the heat of struggle for power with the slightest of eye movements or boldest of leaps across the lit stage.
The men and women in true positions of power around Rudy begin to see the value in his expansive personality.
From this narrative foundation, the plot follows scattered cookie crumbs on the trail towards Nureyev’s seemingly impulsive defection from the Soviet Union. Writer, David Hare, appears to make a forceful statement that the dancer’s impulsiveness is perhaps his most valuable attribute. It is hard to deny the advantages that come from his tendency towards swiftness in decision making. Ivenko’s self-assured version of Rudy moves within Soviet controlled spaces like a tea kettle ready to boil any moment. He captures the mercurial star standing tall, chin raised, as an unintentional, symbol of Western idealism (“liberté”) bleeding past the iron curtain through his art and influence. This frightens the Soviet handlers (particularly an antagonistic Alexinsky feverishly portrayed by Olivier Rabourdin).
A personal favorite, Adèle Exarchopoulos (Blue is the Warmest Color, 2013) plays Clara Saint, a Parisian, widowed heiress. Their platonic relationship shapes Nureyev’s experience of France and highlights his insecurities around class and social status (best exemplified over a conversation over a steak). She is a sedated, mourning character, but evolves into a compassionate and unexpectedly strong force of influence on screen. She seems to love Nureyev despite suspecting his fluid affections. Their contrasting personas play nicely off one another establishing a form of give in take. In fact, a lot of this film appears to explore that very dichotomy: What we give and what we take (from our nation, our lovers, and even our friends).
My biggest criticism is that I wish a film about the World’s greatest dancer included more dancing.
And as Pushkin (Fiennes) says it best, “He [Rudy] knows nothing about politics. It’s about dance.”
Little did Rudy know just how political his dance would become. This film is a serving of international philosophy performed on the most magnified of scales: the ballet stage.
And, I enjoyed it immensely.