From his birth in a 5th-class carriage crossing the Russian Steppes to world acclaim as one of the greatest male ballet dancers, from his defection from the Soviet Union to his early death at the age of 54 from HIV/AIDS, Rudolf Nureyev’s life was extraordinary.
Acute poverty, a Tartar Muslim family, Nureyev’s path to dance was far from obvious. It was a 12 day train journey from home to the scholarship position in Leningrad and the Mariinsky! Just six years later, in 1961, a star of the renamed Kirov Ballet and performing in Paris, Nureyev defected. He was 23 years old.
His life from thereon in is well documented – his pop-star adoration, the partnering with Dame Margot Fonteyn at The Royal Ballet, a tempestuous love affair with dancer Erik Bruhn – and Nureyev, co-directed by David Morris and Jacqui Morris (McCullin, Attacking the Devil) covers this with archive footage, voiceovers and interviews.
Yet the documentary of the charismatic yet arrogant dancer is wholly unsatisfying. How can you do justice for such an enigma? Described as a panther on stage, there are few glimpses of Nureyev in action and, inexplicably, only a few seconds of his lifetime dream of mounting La Bayadere (his final work in Paris). Whilst beautifully choreographed by Russell Maliphant, interpretative scenes of his childhood are romanticised misplacements. Ultimately, Nureyev tries to achieve too much in too little time (109 minutes) and becomes a greatest hits selection. Rarely seen footage is a delight but why no mention of his partner of the last 15 years, Robert Tracy?