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'The White Crow' Shows The Complicated Life Of Russian Ballet Star Rudolf Nureyev


Twenty-three-year-old dancer Rudolf Nureyev was just becoming a household name in Russia when he became a Cold War sensation by defecting to the West. Movie critic Bob Mondello says that incident which took place in a Paris airport in 1961 is the centerpiece of a new Nureyev biopic called The White Crow.

BOB MONDELLO, BYLINE: Charismatic, yes - brilliant, sure, but a team player the film's Rudolf Nureyev is not. At a glittering-but-tense welcoming reception in Paris, Soviet dancers stand apart, peering warily at their French hosts. Nureyev, ignoring the glares of his KGB handlers, crosses the room.


OLEG IVENKO: (As Rudolf Nureyev) I know who you are. You're Pierre Lacotte. And you're Claire Motte. I see you in dance magazines.

RAPHAEL PERSONNAZ: (As Pierre Lacotte) We were wondering if you were allowed to speak to us.

IVENKO: (As Rudolf Nureyev) I decided to build the bridge - Rudolf Nureyev.

CALYPSO VALOIS: (As Claire Motte) Did you dance tonight?

IVENKO: (As Rudolf Nureyev) If I had danced, you would remember.

MONDELLO: All right then - not a blushing flower. His brazen overtures earn him admiring press and, once he's triumphed onstage, invitations to dinner and nightclubs which his handlers reluctantly allow as long as he has chaperones.


IVENKO: (As Rudolf Nureyev) We're told not to speak to foreigners, especially not foreign dancers - not to go out with them, not to eat with them. Stay together - socialists only.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Aren't you frightened?

IVENKO: (As Rudolf Nureyev) What can they do? Can't stop me in the street, can't arrest me.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) No, but when you get back home, can they make your life difficult?

MONDELLO: That life back home is something the film shows us in flashbacks and in Russian with subtitles, flashbacks to a childhood rendered in black and white and to a teenage Rudy struggling to catch up with his peers. He didn't get into a major ballet school until he was 17 and then drove himself so hard that his instructor's wife started bringing him soup to keep up his strength. After an injury, she and her husband, who's played gently and in Russian by the film's director, Ralph Fiennes, take young Rudy into their one-room apartment. And from there, things get emotionally and physically complicated, as one of Nureyev's male lovers notes.


UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) You like living with her. Suits you, does it? (Speaking Russian). Friends talk about things.

IVENKO: (As Rudolf Nureyev) I don't want to be friends.

MONDELLO: Nureyev is played by Oleg Ivenko, a Ukrainian dancer making his acting debut here and a credible one. His strength, though, and the reason Fiennes cast him is the film's dance sequences where when he's not whirling dervishlike, he seems at times to simply hang in the air. He makes Nureyev's arrogance understandable even as it annoys his handlers and leads to the airport confrontation the film has always been building to when the KGB tells Nureyev he's not going to London with the rest of the company but back to Moscow.


IVENKO: (As Rudolf Nureyev) They're trying to kidnap me.

MONDELLO: Panicked, he begs his new French friends to stay with him, and one of them alerts the airport police. The rest, as they say, is history.


IVENKO: (As Rudolf Nureyev) My name is Rudolf Nureyev. I want to stay in your country.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #3: (As character) No.

IVENKO: (As Rudolf Nureyev) I want political asylum.

MONDELLO: The film's structure is unnecessarily complicated and may leave audiences confused about what's going on in the head of its impetuous young hero, but "White Crow" is smart about explaining Nureyev's place in the art form he championed. In an era when choreographers tended to treat male dancers as heroic statues who lifted the ballerinas who got the applause, this insolent 23-year-old insisted on holding the audience's gaze himself. And for a brief moment, for reasons both on point and politically pointed, the whole world watched. I'm Bob Mondello. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Bob Mondello, who jokes that he was a jinx at the beginning of his critical career — hired to write for every small paper that ever folded in Washington, just as it was about to collapse — saw that jinx broken in 1984 when he came to NPR.