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Movie Review: “Nureyev”

“Nureyev” plays once only, on Tuesday, May 14 at 7 pm at the Landmark Hillcrest Cinema.
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Some people are born to dance. But to see Rudolf Nureyev on the ballet stage, you’d more likely think he was born to fly.

From his dramatic birth in a Trans-Siberian railroad car to childhood ballet lessons in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) to ballet superstardom and his well-known defection to the West in 1961, Nureyev was always in search of attention and freedom: artistic, political and personal.

David and Jaqui Morris’ astonishing documentary “Nureyev” chronicles the dancer’s career from his childhood interest in dance to his meteoric rise and his too-early death at 54 of AIDS.

Nureyev was captivated by dance the first time his mother took him and his two sisters to a ballet performance. His mother encouraged the boy and sent him to study in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg), where he quickly learned and became a principal dancer with the Kirov Ballet.

The Morrises have assembled an astonishing amount of video footage of Nureyev at work, much of it never before seen. Nothing tells the story as well as seeing this “human panther” in motion.

In 1961, the Kirov was allowed to go on tour. The first stop was Paris, and Nureyev gloried in the freedom he found there. When the group met at the Paris airport to move on to the next stop (London), Nureyev was told he could not go with the company but was being called back to Moscow to dance for Premier Gorbachev in the Kremlin.

Nureyev thought a bit, then – with KGB minders breathing down his neck – approached French inspectors and asked for asylum, though he knew that if he succeeded he would likely not be allowed back into Russia to see his family. But this was his chance to break for freedom.

The film documents important adult relationships, such as his professional alliance with Dame Margot Fonteyn. Though two decades his senior, they were a powerhouse team onstage. Here they’re shown in a memorable “Romeo and Juliet” clip.

Nureyev also met Danish dancer Erik Bruhn, with whom he fell in love. They were the best male dancers alive until Bruhn’s death (of lung cancer or possibly AIDS) in 1986.

We get to watch Nureyev sit for a series of distinctive, almost racy photos by famed portraitist Richard Avedon. And wait till you see him on the Dick Cavett show in a white snakeskin jacket and boots.

The Morrises avoid the usual documentary bugaboo of actionless talking heads by using voice-over quotes, so the film doesn’t come to a stop while someone talks. It’s a great innovation.

There will be other great dancers. Baryshnikov comes to mind as Nureyev’s immediate successor. But there will never be anyone like Nureyev.

“Nureyev” plays once only, on Tuesday, May 14 at 7 p.m. at the Landmark Hillcrest Cinema.