This wonderful but exasperating documentary film celebrating the art of Rudolf Nureyev almost succeeds both as a work of art in its own right, and as a discussion of the role of dance in mid-twentieth century European history. Although it suffers from too much material and too many ideas for its thematic structure to accommodate, the mode of presentation, which includes the use of dance to embody meaning, is highly original in a documentary format. Magnificent montages of archive film and newly created dance footage overlaid one upon another provide a depth of experience that is sometimes exhausting: watching Russell Maliphant’s choreography, accompanied by Alex Baranowski’s score, while listening to a Russian language interview translated by subtitles is almost overwhelming.

Historian Evan Mawdsley’s voice-over comments on the history and politics of Soviet Russia left me wanting to read his work, and throughout the film I longed to see and hear more: more of the archive footage of Nureyev dancing; more of his television interviews; more of Russell Maliphant’s choreography. Sadly, there are now only a few expert dance commentators who saw Nureyev dance at the peak of his powers, and I would have dearly loved to hear at greater length from Clement Crisp, and also from dancers Alla Osipenko, Ghislaine Thesmar and Antoinette Sibley. (The film meticulously acknowledges those that speak, but Maliphant’s dancers are only credited at the end). Extracts from Nureyev’s ‘memoirs’ read with exquisitely clear diction by Siân Phillips, seem to come word-for-word from the autobiography Nureyev: An Autobiography with Pictures (1962).

The overall theme, that Nureyev, for all his success, was a tragic victim firstly of the Soviet system and secondly of the Cold War struggle between East and West is well presented. But rather than drawing on Nureyev’s work, the film uses the example of Mikhail Baryshnikov’s performance at the White House with Heather Watts and Patricia McBride to clinch its point that ballet was integral to the competition between the USA and the USSR, and used by the West to appropriate Russian cultural capital.

The episodic structure, with sections introduced by quotations from authors ranging from William Shakespeare to Albert Camus suffers a loss of focus towards the end, when the theme of East – West political struggle is replaced by the topic AIDS, along with footage of Diana, Princess of Wales, shaking hands with patients in a hospice.

The film, which has the support of The Nureyev Foundation, seems weighted towards Nureyev’s early career. Perhaps wisely, it does not address the details of exactly what took place when he defected at Le Bourget airport, or indeed of exactly how he happened first to dance with Margot Fonteyn at a Royal Academy of Dancing matinée, both of which are uncertain (see Julie Kavanagh’s excellent biography Rudolf Nureyev: The Life (2007), and particularly Diane Solway’s earlier work Nureyev: His Life (1998) for these discussions). Nor, despite some tantalising glimpses of archive footage of the great Soviet teacher Alexander Pushkin taking class, and of Nureyev and Eric Bruhn working together at the barre, is there much discussion of Nureyev’s training and style, either before or after he came to the West; there is, perhaps, still a film waiting to be made about this most fascinating subject.

Maggie Watson

7th October 2018