…as [Nureyev’s] every experience of dance for the camera had fallen short of his expectations, he was determined to take charge of this venture from the start… Valentina Pereyaslavec, who was with him in Vienna during the filming of Swan Lake, remembers his irritation: ‘One day Rudolf say “What camera is this?” And Rudolf point to corner. And cameraman say, “This camera is for your jump.” Rudolf say, “I don’t want this camera here because we must see my jump, not one you invent with camera.”… Rudolf control everything for movie. Light. Camera. Camera front. Camera side. Everything.’ Julie Cavanagh Rudolf Nureyev: a life (London, 2008) p.446
This Blu-Ray disc – bolding proclaiming itself as “restored and remastered in high definition from the original film” – preserves what the opening credits trumpet, rather immodestly some might think, as “Rudolf Nureyev's film of Don Quixote”. Your reaction to it will, I think, depend a great deal on your own personal reaction to the co-director and leading man.
Other than a simple list of the seven scenes in which Nureyev’s version of the action takes place, Kultur have included no documentation with the disc at all, so Julie Kavanagh’s superbly authoritative biography offers invaluable background to the making of the film, which, it seems, was not a happy production. The star, for a start, was more than usually dictatorial and bad tempered on set. In fact, at one point he faced a strike by the company after he’d physically assaulted a dancer who’d disappointed him. Knowing that now makes it especially enlightening to listen to the repeated gritted-teeth references to Nureyev’s perfectionism by the contributors to an accompanying short promotional film made at the time.
In large part Nureyev’s frustrations and irritability were due to the constraints of time. He had just a single day with the company before work in front of the camera began and, with only three weeks available for filming because of his busy engagements schedule, any problems on set were magnified out of proportion. Extremely hot weather and poor air conditioning in the aircraft hangar where filming took place also made everyone uncomfortable and tetchy, while the unpredictability of the filming process took its toll on dancers who were kept hanging around for hours on end and then suddenly called upon to perform without being given adequate time to warm up.
All those factors – along with Nureyev’s monstrous ego - probably go a long way to explaining why he never seems to gel much on screen with the rest of the company. This is quite alarmingly apparent in the relationship with his heroine Lucette Aldous. The fact that she and Nureyev are not an especially good physical match might not matter so much if there were more of an emotional rapport between them, but in fact there is absolutely no on-screen chemistry at all. He looks either pretty po-faced or falsely jocular throughout, while she virtually never smiles. Any eventual future union between Basilio and Kitri will, one suspects, not be one of unalloyed joy. For the sake of comparison, try the Mariinsky’s Novikova and Sarafanov (see here), Tsygankova and Golding from the Dutch national ballet (see here) or the very youthful and sexy pairing of Viengsay Valdès and Romel Frómeta from the Ballet Nacional de Cuba (Bel Air DVD BAC036). Each of those couples makes a more convincing match than the one under consideration in this review.
In a ballet which gives so many opportunities to its star dancers to show off their technique, Lucette Aldous’s performance is also rather disappointingly low-key. Her consistent eschewal of flashiness in the role is somewhat disconcerting if you are used to the likes of, for instance, Nina Ananiashvili (see here). Did her partner, one wonders, direct her performance so as to ensure that the focus of “Rudolf Nureyev’s film of Don Quixote” remained on him?
Apart from problems with Nureyev and Aldous, my major reservation with this film is in John Lanchbery’s musical tinkerings. As well as actually composing some extra passages, he has elaborated Minkus’s orchestrations for the worse, adding plenty of extra twiddles and flourishes and underpointing some of the onscreen action quite unnecessarily with muted brass wah-wahs and the like. Miss Kavanagh explains that, to beef up the comedy in an earlier stage production of the ballet, Nureyev had commissioned Lanchbery to “inject the Minkus score with a lighter-hearted tone” (op.cit. p.342), but I think she is being rather too kind in that assessment. As I have suggested on these pages before (see here) these essentially rather vulgar re-arrangements do a huge disservice to the original score which, as can be demonstrated on many other performances on CD and DVD, works superbly well in its own right.
Having, however, recorded my by no means negligible reservations, I have to say that this film does, particularly in its present incarnation, have quite a lot going for it. Robert Helpmann turns in a charismatic performance as the non-dancing Quixote and his facial expressions are something at which to marvel. His sidekick Sancho Panza is well played by Ray Powell who, in spite of a substantial fat suit, proves pretty agile when necessary. Of the smaller featured roles, I was especially taken with Gailene Stock and Carolyn Rappell who display immense skill and energy.
The fact that filming was not confined to a theatre stage but utilised an immense aircraft hangar proves to be a real plus. Directors Nureyev and Helpmann thereby had far more space in which to set their dancers and clearly used it very well. The art director has created some quite lavish, detailed and well populated sets and the cameras have been given full rein over them. Fluid and imaginative camera work – utilising cranes, dollies and, in one or two places, hand-held cameras among the crowds of the corps de ballet – offers the viewer a far more interesting, involving and in-the-round experience than usual.
Also, because we have here a feature film rather than a filmed record of a theatrical performance, it was possible to edit down and rearrange longer scenes for dramatic effect. Thus, this version opens with the substantial scene in the town square, only for that to be divided into two by the briefer scene that introduces us to Don Quixote and his squire and which is more usually to be found placed first.
Anyone who knew old VHS or laserdisc versions of this film will probably be very pleasantly surprised by the restoration that has been applied to it. In a brief bonus track we can see, side by side, sections of unrestored and restored material, the former looking washed out and with a decided greenish hue while the latter boasts the bright Spanish colour palette as one imagines it was originally seen. You can only restore material to its original condition, however, and, even at its best, 1970s film stock will never equal material shot in HD, so please don’t expect the pin-sharp resolution that we take for granted these days.
The sound quality, though, is absolutely superb, even when the orchestra is playing those unnecessary Lanchbery tweakings, and you can easily imagine that it was recorded just yesterday. The rather odd fact that there appears to have been an inconsistent approach to sound in the original film – with ambient noise being completely absent in some scenes and present in others - so that the sound of a hubbub of voices as we begin the scene in the inn is very disconcerting – is a quirk that one quickly learns to live with.
When it was first seen by the public in 1973, this film garnered some rave reviews. Those quoted on the current packaging include “one of the best ballet films we’ve had to date” (New York Magazine), “the finest full-length dance film ever” (Dance Magazine) and “something more than cinema, greater than dance... like a moving painting by a great artist” (Atlantic Herald). Now, forty years later, I’m not sure that we would use quite so many superlatives but, nonetheless, seen as an historical record and appreciated for its inventive visuals, fine sound and some excellent dancing, this is a re-release well worthy of consideration. While not my top choice for a desert island Don Quixote (will anyone release a film of Ivan Vasiliev/Natalia Osipova/Bolshoi Ballet production that has been wowing audiences in recent years?) this is certainly a performance that I know I will watch again and with some pleasure in the future.