Russia, political asylum, illicit seductions — “The White Crow” feels surprisingly current, though this new film about Soviet ballet star Rudolf Nureyev and his defection to the West centers on events in 1961.
That was the year Nureyev, portrayed by Ukrainian dancer Oleg Ivenko, eluded the KGB by a whisker at Paris’s Le Bourget Airport. Having scandalized his homeland as its first big-name defector, he proceeded to change male ballet dancing forever. But Ralph Fiennes, who directed “The White Crow” and stars as Nureyev’s chief ballet teacher, says he wasn’t that interested in how the iconic dancer knocked ballet sideways.
“I responded to the drama of the story,” Fiennes said in a recent phone interview from New York. “I had no real interest in ballet, though I do now — I love it, having made the film.”
The film’s title comes from a Russian term for an eternal outsider and misfit, and it was Nureyev’s childhood nickname. He never should have achieved a life of glamour and global stardom — not with his rocky beginnings as a Tatar Muslim, born on a train into a family that frequently fell into poverty. He took up Bashkir folk dancing and eventually ballet in his home city of Ufa, but he had a lot of ground to make up once he began his studies at St. Petersburg’s storied Vaganova Ballet Academy at age 17.
Even there, in that temple of tradition and discipline, Nureyev was a rule breaker. His MO was evident before he defected; flouting ballet convention was his mark as an artist. Before Nureyev, ballerinas had held the spotlight in ballet, and the male dancers weren’t that exciting. Intensely aware of his own charisma and sex appeal, Nureyev shook up the pecking order by refusing to cede a scintilla of glamour to his female dance partners. He was fearless, hungry for fame and willing to work himself to a pulp to achieve it.
That human theme of striving for greatness, no matter the odds, is what spoke to Fiennes. In Nureyev’s obsession with the stage, the celebrated English movie star and stage actor recognized his own youthful desires.
“The initial impulse to do the film is, what it is to be a performing artist,” Fiennes says. “That need to believe that you can get on the stage and tell a story.
“It sounds weird to say this, but I felt a strong sense of vocation when I decided to become an actor, like a calling: This is what I was going to do.” Fiennes was about 18, galvanized by seeing Paul Scofield as Salieri in “Amadeus” at the Royal National Theatre in 1979.
Fiennes has had “White Crow” in mind for 20 years, ever since reading Julie Kavanagh’s biography “Nureyev: The Life.” Her book chronicles the ballet star from his birth on the TransSiberian express to his death in Paris from complications of AIDS in 1993, at age 54. Fiennes had met Kavanagh at a literary festival, and some time later, she sent the actor her book’s first few chapters, in which Nureyev, through sheer force of will, defied the odds twice: by shaping his stocky build into a regal but wildly alluring presence, and then by successfully fleeing the Soviet system.
“The White Crow” focuses solely on Nureyev’s life up to his defection, before his stardom in the West. “That made a huge impact on me,” Fiennes says. “It’s so rich as a story, alone, aside from the rest of his life.”
Fiennes also connected to the deprivation in Nureyev’s childhood and the sustaining influence of an understanding mother. Though Fiennes didn’t experience nearly the same poverty as Nureyev, he was one of six children raised by an unsuccessful farmer turned photographer, and he recalled difficult stretches when all they had to eat was “mashed potatoes and packet soups.” Yet his mother, like Nureyev’s, nurtured his artistic ambitions. In addition to books, she gave Fiennes an old LP of Laurence Olivier reading scenes from “Hamlet” and “Henry V.”
“I found it thrilling, this voice and cadence and the extraordinary scripts, which I followed along in paperback books,” Fiennes says with warmth. “And when I was at school I was confident on the stage. Something about it came naturally to me.”
Yet he didn’t want to act in this film, his third as director. But the money folks convinced him his name would bring in investors, and he became drawn to the role of Alexander Pushkin (not to be confused with the Russian poet of the same name), the wise and deeply influential ballet teacher who also groomed Russian ballet star Mikhail Baryshnikov.
Pushkin harnessed Nureyev’s wildness and launched him on his brief but brilliant career with the Kirov Ballet (now known as the Mariinsky). He also taught Nureyev about art’s greater purpose, with what Fiennes calls “a beautiful clarity.”
In one scene, beautifully rendered by the film’s writer, David Hare, Pushkin prods Nureyev about the purpose of dancing. It’s not about technique, Pushkin says, but “what story do you want to tell? Why do so few people ask themselves, ‘What do I wish to say?’ ”
For Fiennes, that question is also at the core of good acting. “What is the thing inside you, the story that’s inside you that you need to express? Is it truthful, do we believe it?” he says. “When you access, as an actor, the thing in yourself that understands the character that you’re playing, then you immediately have a foundation.”
Yet talking about ballet proved far easier than filming ballet, the director discovered.
While other films about ballet have gone for big-name actors with body doubles for the dancing bits — think of “Red Sparrow” and “Black Swan” — Fiennes was committed to casting a dancer as Nureyev. Yet the dancing scenes, he says, “were a big, big, big challenge, because I don’t have a ballet background, and I needed the help of the ballet masters and choreographer to know if it was good, because not every time a dancer dances it’s as good as it could be. It was scary.”
The film’s choreographer, former Royal Ballet principal Johan Kobborg, found himself in the middle of Fiennes and Ivenko, as he translated the director’s desires into what was possible and aesthetic in ballet. Fiennes had a sharp eye for Nureyev’s dramatic self-presentation, Kobborg said in a phone interview from his home in London, and at the director’s urging, he coached Ivenko to adopt the “slight arrogance” in the way Nureyev held his head, and the use of his neck and shoulders. Sometimes Kobborg also had to delicately intervene in matters of camera angles.
“Classical ballet is created with the front of the body, and all our movements are based around that front,” Kobborg says. “So if you suddenly move the camera, some movements just didn’t work, to a ballet eye.”
Filming the grand finale — the defection at Le Bourget — took months of preparation, and Fiennes mapped it out in his kitchen in great detail. Where up to that moment Nureyev had powered himself over every obstacle in his life with enormous self-confidence, as well as an often-bullying personality, now he was in a kind of invisible straitjacket. He was being closely watched at the airport by Soviet agents who had unexpectedly told him that he was headed back to Moscow — rather than to London with the rest of the Kirov dancers.
Nureyev, who had been outmaneuvering his Soviet handlers throughout that 1961 Paris tour, knew Moscow meant punishment, imprisonment, perhaps even death. With whispered appeals to his Parisian friends and a plan conceived quietly on the spot, he finally grabbed hold of his own destiny again — but not with big leaps. It was not loud and dramatic. Rather, it was all slow-burning tension.
What fascinated Fiennes was Nureyev’s swift, silent “sleight of hand,” carried out with a dancer’s grace amid all the everyday banality — people passing by, chatting — going on around him.
“Those big moments in someone’s life are not with bells and whistles,” says the director. “They’re actually sort of, you blink and you miss it.”