At first impression, you might think “The White Crow” was the name of an exotic bird in a nature film.  But it was actually the name given to one of the world’s premier ballet dancers, Rudolf Nureyev.

To the Russians, overwhelmed by his natural skill, the term “white crow” identified someone whom we in the West might call “a loner”, an extraordinary person, not like others, who lives by his own rules.

Rudolf Nureyev was just that sort of person.  Born in 1938 on a train traveling to Siberia, he was, as an adored young boy, taken by his mother to a ballet performance.  That experience changed his life.

His passion for dance, which became his obsession, is documented beautifully in a new film, “The White Crow”, in which director Ralph Fiennes chronicles the life and times of this often bad-tempered genius.

Based on the book “Nureyev: The Life” by Julie Kavanagh, it was adapted for the screen by the much-admired playwright David Hare.  And it stars Oleg Ivanko, a formidable dancer who even looks like the young Nureyev. Among the ten “stars” in the film, however, it is probable that only Ralph Fiennes will be identifiable to an American audience.

Fiennes plays a teacher, Alexander Ivanovich Pushkin, who becomes a mentor and friend to the young man, and teaches him the importance of having a purpose in life.  At one point he challenges the dancer by asking “What is the purpose of dancing?” To which Nureyev replies, “Escape!” And Pushkin adds, “To tell a story…”

The story told by this film follows scenes from Nureyev’s boyhood, filmed in black and white, and returns again and again, in glorious color, to his obsessive practice sessions, usually alone in the practice room for endless hours on end.  He is training so hard because he feels that he started late, years after the other young men in his class, and he is determined to catch up.

And catch up he does of course, and is soon welcomed into the Marlinsky Ballet in St. Petersburg.  But even though he had been recognized for his outstanding skill at a young age, his anticipated enrollment in the Vaganova Academy of Russian Ballet, the associate school of the Marlinsky Ballet, was postponed during the turmoil of World War Two, and he didn’t begin there until he was 17.

Nevertheless, he danced 15 roles in his three years with the Marlinsky Ballet, and upon his graduation he became a principal dancer with the Kirov Ballet.  By the late 1950s he had become the most prominent dancer in the Soviet Union, but when the ballet company was invited to go on a tour to Paris and London, the question of his going with them became problematic.  He had an established reputation for being obstreperous, rebellious, arrogant, and for breaking every rule that he didn’t agree with. But eventually, after an intervention by the French organizers, he was allowed to go.

The beauty of Paris enthralled him and he spent many days exploring the museums and churches of the city.  And then it was time to go on to London and the KGB stepped in and stopped him. They were afraid to let him roam freely in London as he had in Paris, and they told him that he had to return to Moscow to dance in a program at the order of President Krushchev.  When Nureyev resisted, the KGB changed their story and told him his mother was dying. The film then entered a long and terrifying scene in the French airport — a scene that soon echoed in the world’s headlines — before Nureyev managed to apply for amnesty from the French police and successfully defect to the West.

The film ends Nureyev’s story here, but the story is actually secondary to the dance.  The most exciting and beautiful moments in the film are watching the extra-ordinary leaps and twirls of Oleg Ivanko.  But in the long shots of the dancer in the middle distance it was hard not to believe that the dancer was Nureyev himself.

“The White Crow” opened last Friday at the Arclight, but  will soon be showing in theaters all over Los Angeles.

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  1. I saw this movie yesterday. My family left Latvia in 1944 as Stalin was threatening our western border. We lived in refugee camps until 1950 when we got a sponsor and visa to come to America. I still tear up at my memories of my excitement at the prospect. This movie showed the contrast of a communist state with observers reminding Nureyev of what he owed to the state, basically his soul and life. As he defected, he said he wanted freedom. This movie shows the contrast of what we take for granted here and the horror of the Soviet system that many of us managed to escape.

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