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Every day we post 10 new Classical CD and DVD reviews. A free weekly summary is available by e-mail. MusicWeb is not a subscription site. To keep it free please purchase discs through our links.

  Classical Editor Rob Barnett    



DVD REVIEW

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Nureyev
With Dame Margot Fonteyn, Dame Ninette de Valois, Dame Merle Park, Maude Lloyd, Sylvie Guillem, David Wall, Roland Petit, Natalia Dudinskaya, Razida Evegrafova, Taisiam Khalturina, Anna Undeltsova and Manira Vivien
Narrator: Cliff Morgan
Pianist: Philip Gammon
Producer and director: Patricia Foy
Produced in 1991
EMI CLASSICS 2165729 [c.90:00]
Experience Classicsonline

“Ask anyone to name a dancer – the chances are that they will say “Rudolf Nureyev”. Since his first appearance in the west in 1961, hailed as the most exciting dancer of his time, he has dominated the dance scene... His commitment to his profession is absolute. His fiery Tartar temperament leads to recurrent clashes with authority and is part of the Nureyev legend. With the charisma of a pop superstar, known to a vast public, he has given more performances a year – and been seen by more audiences worldwide – than any other dancer, so great is his urge to dance...”
 
Well, to tell the truth, by that point – just 3½ minutes into the documentary – I already felt like switching off. “Ask anyone to name a dancer – the chances are that they will say “Rudolf Nureyev”. Really? Anyone? Let’s get real here. What might just be true of the metropolitan glitterati in the Kings Road, Chelsea, is pretty unlikely to have been the case in Kings Road, Cleethorpes, or in Kings Road, Colwyn Bay.
 
In one sense, this film was simply made too early. The fact that it was produced during Nureyev’s lifetime – and clearly with his co-operation – seems to have compromised its critical judgement. Were that syrupy opening commentary to be rewritten today, 16 years after Nureyev’s death in Paris at the age of just 54, it would surely, in these more cynical and celebrity-debunking times, be nowhere near as uncritically gushing. It would, after all, have had to take into account the far less than attractive human being – greedy, self-centred and in many ways misanthropic – so convincingly pictured in Julie Kavanagh’s acclaimed 800-pages doorstopper Rudolf Nureyev: the life (London, 2007).
 
But perhaps, after all, we ought to be grateful that Ms. Foy’s film was made when it was, for while the year 1991 was, thanks to Gorbachev’s reforms, late enough to allow ordinary Russians to talk on the record more freely, it was still early enough to catch several invaluable contributors while they were yet alive (one of them, ex-Ballets Russes dancer Anna Undeltsova, was actually interviewed at the age of 101!)
 
So switching off would, in fact, have been a mistake, as this turns out to be a worthwhile and enlightening way of spending 90 minutes or so – because of the dramatic story it tells, the compelling witnesses it produces and, above all, for another opportunity to see some quite stunning recordings of Nureyev on stage.
 
The dramatic story is well known. Born of Tartar origins – a fact repeatedly referred to in order, it seems, to both explain and excuse some of his unconventional behaviour – and raised in the most unpromising circumstances (bleak poverty, remote provincial location, unsympathetic father), Nureyev enjoyed a less than promising start in life. But, so the story goes, his utterly single-minded determination to use his innate dancing abilities to escape to a more colourful, glamorous world propelled him from Bashkir folk dancing classes to the school of the Kirov Ballet (and there could be no better proof of the sheer dreariness of his Bashkir childhood home than the fact that to him even grey 1950s Leningrad appeared glamorous in comparison). Then, after years spent first under the Kirov’s frighteningly strict training regime and subsequently as a rising young soloist, came his dramatic 1961 defection to the west – like something straight out of a tale by Ian Fleming, with KGB “nurses” desperate to give him a tranquillising injection for his “nerves” so that he could be quickly bundled onto a plane back to Russia.
 
Thereafter the story, at least as told here, becomes one of huge artistic and personal success, with western audiences bowled over by Nureyev’s well-attested technical ability, artistry, charisma and sex appeal – a potent combination not hitherto generally exhibited by male dancers this side of the Iron Curtain.
 
While the film’s retelling of the Nureyev saga holds no surprises – indeed, it ignores altogether many interesting but rather less flattering aspects of his life – it does turn up some quite fascinating interviewees. The Russian ones from his youth offer particular insights: as the film points out, news of Nureyev’s successes in the west was deliberately withheld from the Soviet public, so such testimony emerges untainted by any hint of uncritical western idolatry of the “Rudi-mania” variety. It is fascinating to note, too, some divergences of opinion. Thus, while Anna Undeltsova (spelled thus on the DVD cover but as “Udeltsova” on the film itself) loyally adheres to the Party line that Nureyev ought never to have defected from the Soviet Union, his old school teacher Taisiam Khalturina opines that fleeing to freedom was the best thing that he could ever have done.
 
For many viewers, of course, the highlights of this documentary will be provided by the film of Nureyev in action. The clips – some quite brief but one or two others quite substantial – range in date from 1958 (a short excerpt from Le Corsair in a Soviet newsreel showing him winning that year’s Moscow Dance Contest) to 1978. We see Nureyev performing in some of the great staples of the Romantic repertoire: The Sleeping Beauty (a home movie fragment from 1961 and a stage performance from 1977), The Nutcracker (briefly in film from 1961 and then at length with ballerina Merle Park in 1968), Swan Lake (two clips from a 1966 stage production and a 1977 performance with no less than TV superstar Miss Piggy) and Giselle (1962 with a limpid but radiant Margot Fonteyn). Also included are brief excerpts from Don Quixote (1973), the Frederick Ashton/Cecil Beaton Marguerite & Armand (1977), Cinderella (1978) and, perhaps more challengingly – both for Nureyev and his audience – Apollo (1973), Glenn Tetley’s Pierrot Lunaire (1977) and Aureole (1978). Throughout it is abundantly clear that Nureyev’s energy, imagination and willingness to test his body to its limit all combined to make him the focus of every eye in the theatre.
 
Sadly, the film seems to tail off rapidly towards its close, almost as though there was really nothing more to say. Of course, there really was quite a lot more to say. We all know that by 1991 there was a whole side to the Nureyev story that was being skirted around nervously, taking its lead from the dancer himself as he remained in denial about his AIDS-related illness right up to the very end of his life.
 
This film is, then, something of a curiosity, telling us almost as much about the time it was made as it does about its subject. Were it to be remade today, it would no doubt adopt an entirely different tone and approach. But, whether it did or did not, it could never diminish the impact of the sheer talent and animal magnetism that deservedly made Rudolf Nureyev the pre-eminent male dancer of the second half of the twentieth century.
 
Rob Maynard

 


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