He moved with a feral grace, with a heat that blazes through the grain of the film that remains, with a virtuosity that never disguises—but rather illuminates—the sheer risk of dance, the insolence of a human daring to flout the laws of gravity, time, and space to attain a momentary immortality. He lived with furious energy, inspiring multitudes, consorting with celebrities, infuriating authorities. “He was Mick Jagger before Mick Jagger. . . . He was the most beautiful man you could ever imagine,” said Elizabeth Kaye, one of his many biographers, on the Esquire Classic podcast. “He was a figure who was so enormous, he transcended everything—fashion, dance, celebrity, politics. We wanted to recreate why he was such a cultural icon,” says David Morris, who, with his sister Jacqui Morris, spent three years in pursuit of the essence of a dancer history has never replaced. The result is Nureyev, a documentary film that tells the story of the man some called the “Lord of the Dance.”
Rudolf Nureyev was born on the Trans-Siberian Railway in 1938, “shaken from the womb,” as he says in a vintage clip reproduced in the Morrises’ film, into a lifetime of motion. The son of a Red Army commissar and raised by his mother in a Tatar Muslim household, he was determined from an early age to become a dancer and ran away—first from his home in the central Russian city of Ufa, then from the Soviet Union—in order to do so. The first dancer to defect from the USSR during the Cold War, Nureyev “was born in Stalin’s Russia and ended up one of the most famous people in the world,” says Jacqui Morris. “His life story reads like a sprawling epic novel.” Combining never-before-seen footage of rehearsals and performances with interviews and scenes (choreographed by Russell Maliphant) that tell Nureyev’s story through dance, Nureyev portrays the dancer’s life in the context of a tumultuous history that includes persecution by KGB officers, torrid relationships on and off the stage (including a legendary partnership with prima ballerina Margot Fonteyn at the Royal Ballet and a loving rivalry with Danish danseur noble Erik Bruhn), the personal heartbreak of exile, and the global disaster of AIDS.
“People loved him,” says Jacqui Morris. “Mobs queued up around the block. Ballet was more for the masses than it is now.” Nureyev brings that heady period to life. Evoked as much in the unexpectedly racy rendition of Swan Lake he performed with Fonteyn as in footage of their fabulous arrest in a drug bust at a party in San Francisco (her adjusting a fur coat, him winking at the camera) before Nureyev’s illness and death from complications of AIDS, the nostalgia in this film is strong and bitter. His eyes burn with hectic life in every frame, too quickly here and gone. v