The early career and defection of Rudolf Nureyev who captivated Paris

Oleg Ivenko as Rudolf Nureyev in The White Crow.

David Hare tells Esther McCarthy about writing a film on the early career and defection of Rudolf Nureyev.

He was the rising megastar of dance who captivated Paris — and whose shock defection at the very height of the Cold War created a crisis.

Now a new movie about Russian ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev — regarded as the very greatest male dancer of all time — aims to piece together why he made the life-changing decision to turn his back on his home country.

Gifted and charismatic but also notoriously volatile and difficult, The White Crow focuses on Nureyev’s earlier career and the period leading up to his defection to the west while on tour with the Kirov Ballet in Paris in 1961.

As far as the film’s screenwriter David Hare is concerned, it was driven by a desire to dance rather than a political motivation.

“It was nothing to do with politics. It was to do with freedom and freedom to dance specifically,” Hare believes.

“He knew the minute they said to him: ‘You’ve got to go back home to dance for Khrushchev’. He smelt a rat. And then they changed the story and said: ‘No actually your mother’s ill’.

He got two stories and he knew that was the end of him as a dancer. He would never get out of Russia again. He would never get to dance the parts he wants to dance. It was a choice between being able to dance and not being able to dance.

Nureyev had irked Russian authorities by ignoring strict supervision rules during the Paris tour, partying late at night with western dancers and intellectuals. But there were other reasons not to return to Moscow, believes Hare.

“He wanted to dance modern. He loved the classical repertory but he felt that modern dance was happening in the west.

"And secondly he was in a very difficult menage with the wife of his ballet teacher who was having an affair with him.

"And they were living three in a small room. I don’t think he was desperate to go back to that.”

FIENNES TIME

Hare, a renowned playwright and theatre director who has penned two Oscar-nominated screenplays (for The Reader and The Hours) was invited to script the movie by long-term collaborator and the film’s director, Ralph Fiennes.

“He wanted to get me interested in the ballet which is very unlikely because I knew absolutely nothing about ballet.

“But he got me to read this Julie Kavanagh book first of all which is an official biography of Nureyev.

"We quickly decided that we only wanted to concentrate on his youth and that the idea would be that we’d make a film about Nureyev before he became the sacred monster that he later became, before the mask became the mask and before his character became fixed.

I suppose we wanted to catch that moment which fixed it and to look at his defection, what it was about, why he defected and all the influences on him which is why we felt we had to go back to Russia.

"We then set about researching it, meeting the people who are still alive, of whom the most important is obviously Clara Saint who is the woman who actually effected his defection.

“She hasn’t talked a lot about it but who trusted us and wanted to talk to us. And I think also now she’s older, she’s at the end of her career. I think she felt that she would like the record to be set straight.”

Intriguingly, Hare had actually met Nureyev a number of times while the dancer was dancing in London with Margot Fonteyn. By then he had become a huge star and they had a mutual friend who was Russian.

“Nureyev tended to enjoy the company of Russians and so he would go down to their house in the country for a few days at a time to get away from all the hysteria in London. So if I went with my friend he would be there. I don’t think I’ve ever since met anybody who so dominated a room.

“It was a characteristic he had that everybody was just worrying about him all the time. Everyone would be going is Rudy all right? Was Rudy enjoying himself? Is Rudy bored, is Rudy hungry?

"He just had this ability to make everybody in the room directed towards him. You couldn’t look at anybody else in the room when he was in it. He was commanding as a person and he brought that same quality of command to the stage.”

Screenwriter David Hare.

Did the young Hare ever approach the star to speak with him? “I was terrified of him,” he smiles in response.

“I was 19 years old and he was the most famous dancer in the world. I was absolutely scared stiff of him. Most people were.”

Fiennes and his team took the brave and challenging step of casting a dancer in the lead role. Russian dancer Oleg Ivenko is captivating as Nureyev but is unknown in film and hadn’t acted on screen before.

Hare agreed with Fiennes’ belief that he could teach a dancer to act but not an actor to dance to the standard required. Casting directors trawled through several Russian ballet companies looking for the right person.

“It just seemed to both me and to Ralph that Oleg was outstanding. But then Oleg became this wonderful actor as he went along. He had to learn to speak English as well, he didn’t speak a word of English.”

DIFFICULT PROJECT

You get the sense that The White Crow was a difficult project to get over the line.

“It was probably the most apprehensive film I’ve ever worked. The financiers were apprehensive because Ralph was insisting that 50% of it is in Russian.

"Everybody was apprehensive about the film being carried by a young man who had no experience.

“Kevin O’Hare who is the director of the Royal Ballet in London, saw the film recently and he said this is the first film ever made about ballet in which there are no cringe-making moments for the professional.”

Despite his many film successes, Hare has stayed close to his theatrical roots, where plays like Plenty, Pravda and Racing Demon first established him as a major force in British and international theatre.

I was over 50 when I was first nominated for an Oscar so that the great thing was it was too late to turn my head. I didn’t get knocked off course but it would be true to say, you know, I’ve spent more time on television this decade. I did the Worricker Trilogy. I did Collateral.

"Ever since The Hours, basically, it’s been much easier for me to get to make the work I want on film and television.”

The White Crow is in cinemas tomorrow, Friday.

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