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Flash Flashback, 7-14: Nureyev: Now You See Him...
This is Nureyev! A Weekend of Dance on Film
By Sandra Aberkalns
Copyright 2000, 2006 Sandra Aberkalns
(The Dance Insider has been revisiting its Flash Archive. This Flash originally appeared on June 13, 2000. Wallace Potts, who presented This is Nureyev!, passed away June 29. To read more about Mr. Potts, click here.)
While all film festivals
are viewer marathons, they at least go on long enough for you to
know that they happened. However, this weekend in New York City
if you happened to blink you missed a rare opportunity to see the
legendary Rudolf Nureyev on the big screen in four film programs
at Lincoln Center's Walter Reade Theater. The program Mixed Bill
included footage of Nureyev performing the solo from "Le Corsaire"
when he graduated from the Kirov Ballet School (1959), the pas de
deux from "Le Corsaire" (1965) with Margot Fonteyn, the rarely seen
"This is Rudolf Nureyev" (1965), and "Le Jeune Homme et la Mort"
with Renée "Zizi" Jeanmarie (1966), which has never been
shown before in the United States. The other three films were: "Romeo
and Juliet" (1966), "I Am A Dancer" (1972), and "Don Quixote" (1972).
This review comes too late for New Yorkers, but if you live in Los
Angeles this festival is coming your way June 16-17 (go to the
L.A. County Museum of Art page and click on "Film" for more
info), and I'm telling you now, RUN DO NOT WALK to catch this event
(many of the New York screenings were sold out). The rest of the
country may not get to see this festival on the big screen, but
will have a chance to catch it on PBS later this year.
Normally, I would save
this for my wrap up, but just in case some of the Los Angeles readers
don't get through the entire review I'll spill the beans now. Personally,
I thought it was a photo finish between the Mixed Bill and "Don
Quixote." However, if you can make it to only one screening I would
say the Mixed Bill won by a very short nose.
A lot of hard work went
into making this festival happen and the following individuals and
organizations should be proud of what they accomplished. The program
was organized by Joanna Ney and Ian Birnie, and presented by: The
Film Society of Lincoln Center, the Film Department of the Los Angeles
County Museum of Art, and the Rudolf Nureyev Foundation, Liechtenstein.
Wallace Potts, film archivist for the Nureyev Foundation, Liechtenstein,
was also on hand, and before each screening he spoke briefly about
the films the audience was about to see.
In the solo from "Le
Corsaire" Nureyev is still a boy, another wunderkind graduating
from the Kirov Ballet School. He hops in his pirouettes just to
get in three extra turns. He does a double tour en l'air in a double
retire that is so high he could sail over the back of a horse and
then does the most atrocious landing. He is definitely a diamond
in the rough.
Quick black-out and then
we see Nureyev seven years later with Fonteyn in the duet from "Le
Corsaire" -- and the boy has become a man. This time in the solo
there are no hops in the pirouettes, and the landings from the double
tour are smooth as silk and so deep you wonder how he will get back
up into the next attitude releve. The raw exuberance of his youth
has been tempered by maturity and the artist has emerged. Putting
these two clips back to back was really nice planning on someone's
part and I'm sure many in the audience appreciated it.
"This is Rudolf Nureyev"
was filmed at the Spoleto Festival in 1964. It shows Nureyev staging,
and performing "Raymonda" with Fonteyn and The Royal Ballet. In
this particular film it is the narration that dates the film, not
the dancing. One of the best lines by the narrator (and he has several):
"One advantage he [Nureyev] has over other ballet masters is that
instead of describing perfection he shows it." The narrator also
describes dancer Doreen Wells as "a disciple" of Nureyev's, but
In this film Nureyev
is still in his early 20s and yet he is so clear in his head, heart,
and body about what dance means to him. He is passionate and committed
to his art. At one point he is telling an interviewer that even
in his dreams he is dancing. He also says that the body has no memory
and every day you have to start all over again (as a dancer myself
I know that feeling all to well!). Footage of Nureyev in class bears
this out. Even though he had a wonderful body you can see that he
is making the muscles comply, he is bending them to his will. In
gymnastics they have the saying, "stick your landing." Well, in
some of the footage this weekend you could see that Nureyev was
using every fiber in his body to "stick a landing" from a tour en
l'air or a pirouette. You could see he was not going to budge. He
was not going to let his muscles dictate to him -- and they didn't.
Nureyev also explains that for him a pas de deux is a dialog of
love, and love requires two people. You could hear a few people
in the audience snickering at some of the things he said, but I
believe he practiced what he thought, and said, and that is why
he had the career he did.
"Le Jeune Homme et la
Mort" was another treat (except they changed the ending, which was
a little disappointing). Renée "Zizi" Jeanmarie (France's
equivalent to Fonteyn) was 42 years old when this film was made
and all I can say is Ooh la la. What a beautiful dancer and a sexy
lady. Again, could the chemistry have been so electric, like that
between Fonteyn and Nureyev, because it was a December-May relationship?
I don't know if this was Nureyev's first foray into a more "modern"
genre, but if it was the timing couldn't have been better as his
age and technical abilities were perfect for the role. He seems
to be so comfortable in his body and in the choreography that he
exhibits a feline quality that is very sensual, and quite a departure
from the other images we had of him in this festival.
"Romeo and Juliet" I
was not able to squeeze this film in, but Kenneth MacMillan's version
is one of the best in my opinion and with Nureyev and Fonteyn in
the leading roles you can't go wrong.
"I Am A Dancer"
Directed by Pierre Jourdan,
this documentary began as a film for French television but was released
theatrically in 1972 with further backing from EMI. According to
Mr. Potts, Nureyev not only had artistic differences with Mr. Jourdan,
but there were also fights with Brian Forbes, who was brought in
to do the film footage for Glen Tetley's "Field Figures." Nureyev
swore that after this experience the next dance film he would be
involved in he would be the director -- fortunately for us "Don
Quixote" was that film, but we'll get to that later. Even so, the
New York premiere of this film, at the Ziegfield Theater, was so
successful that the film's run was extended.
The biggest problem with
this documentary seems to be that Nureyev is so aware of the camera
being on him that much of the film feels forced -- it is too scripted
and does not allow him to just be himself, it was "show time" all
the time. For me a good documentary makes me feel like Jimmy Stewart
in "Rear Window." I want to feel that I have gained an insight into
the person's life, or to have the sense that I have seen a glimmer
of what they are like around their close friends, or just to get
the sense that there still is a person behind the myth. This film
occasionally throws the audience a bone but it was not enough. For
example, there was a great shot of Nureyev getting ready for rehearsal.
He opens his dance bag and proceeds to pull out at least a dozen
ballet slippers -- most of which had holes in them (after his death,
at the Christie's East auction of his NY estate I saw similarly
worn shoes going for $$$).
The best footage of the
film consists of rehearsal footage of Nureyev with Fonteyn and the
Royal Ballet in Frederick Ashton's "Marguerite and Armand." The
segment is over too quickly, but the editing was great. You really
feel that you are in the studio among professionals working hard;
but when you see them laughing together over who knows what, you
also know there is no where else they would rather be. The affection
Nureyev and Fonteyn had for each other leaps right off the screen
into the audience's lap. This segment also includes Fonteyn, Ashton,
and Nureyev talking about each other and their work. Fonteyn tells
us that Rudolf can be rather moody, but it is OK as it passes as
quickly as it began. Ashton addresses his critics, who claim that
he created this particular work as a starring vehicle for these
two dancers. "And what is wrong with that?" he asks. Nureyev tells
us that Margot taught him discipline. However, when the film moves
into the performance of this ballet the director doesn't trust the
chemistry between this famous team to carry the story. Instead,
he puts them on a set that seems too small, films it so it was as
flat as a pancake, and adds insult to injury by injecting special
effects such as seeing the dance through a kaleidoscope (I felt
like I was a fly on the wall watching through bug eyes) and fuzzy
edges when it is supposed to be romantic or passionate.
Speaking of chemistry,
it was fascinating to see Nureyev partnering so many different leading
ladies. Carla Fracci in ACT II of "La Sylphide" was so beautiful,
so delicate; yet here was a perfect example of Nureyev performing
for the camera rather than performing with his ballerina. In Glen
Tetley's "Field Figures" it was difficult sensing what the chemistry
was between Deana Bergsma and Nureyev. However, physically, they
were quite striking as they twined around each other. I think that
Lynn Seymour and Nureyev were just plunkered out when they were
filmed, during a live performance, in the pas de deux from "Sleeping
Beauty." Technically they were both superb. Ms. Seymour looked like
a princess. Nureyev's partnering was as gracious as always, and
yet there wasn't any sparkle to it. It felt like they were phoning
One of the most endearing
images came after the above mentioned performance with Lynn Seymour.
A huge crowd (many of them young girls), with programs in hand to
be autographed, hovers around the stage door. As Nureyev comes through
the door, a fan hands him a long-stemmed rose with which he immediately
starts blessing his royal subjects.
"Don Quixote" (or "Don
Q" as it is called by Dance Insiders!)
If you are looking for
a fun evening that is jam-packed with incredible dancing, you cannot
miss this film. Even though "Don Q" received rave reviews when it
was originally released in 1972, it quickly disappeared from movie
theaters and was nearly lost when the master tape became unstable.
The Australian Broadcasting Corporation cannot be thanked enough
for saving this film. Not only did the restoration process require
them to painstakingly retouch the hues of the sets and costumes
frame by frame, but they also had to re-create all the sound effects
including the sound of dance steps.
Wallace Potts told the
audience that this "Don Q" was shot over 25 hectic days in an airport
hangar outside of Melbourne, Australia. The set was so large that
the cameras would be able to move with the dancers as in a Hollywood
musical. It was choreographed by Nureyev, and co-directed by Nureyev
and Robert Helpmann. The editing was done in Nureyev's London bedroom
so that when he would come home from performances at Covent Garden
he could see what had been done that day and would offer "suggestions."
It seems that the discussions were quite animated as to when there
should be close-ups versus full body views.
>Even by today's standards
the technical virtuosity of Lucette Aldous (as Kitri), and the entire
Australian Ballet nearly 30 years ago is amazing to see. Add to
that the legendary Robert Helpmann (as "the Don"), Nureyev (as Basil
the Barber) and you have an evening of dance on film that will not
be soon forgotten.
Aldous is such a little
fire ball. When the camera follows her across the stage she is moving
so fast and so far that you get dizzy watching her. When she is
with Nureyev you can see that they are challenging each other to
go faster, higher, more turns, just more, more, more! It is like
watching a pair of Tasmanian Devils. Physically, technically, and
artistically they are very well matched. If Nureyev was feeling
any pressure as co-director you did not see it in his dancing. He
is in peak form and SUCH a rogue. Helpmann is so perfect for the
role that he looks as if he had stepped right out of Cervantes's
masterpiece -- and those eyes! Unfortunately I was not quick enough
with my pen to get the names of the dancers who played Gamache (the
foppish nobleman) and Sancho Panza but they also played their parts
extremely well and contributed greatly to the fun.
The camera, as mentioned
earlier, was capable of following the dancers around the stage.
At one point when Kitri's father is chasing her and Basil you are
moving right with them through the crowds -- it's pretty cool. Near
the end of the chase Kitri throws over a basket of chickens and
a few seem to fly into the audience. It made me wonder if Nureyev
had had more money, or more time, or both, if he would have considered
doing this ballet in 3-D a la "Kiss Me Kate."
Another great touch was
that the ballet is told as one continuous story. No one bows between
variations; fade-outs smoothly carry the story into the next scene.
Even at the end of the ballet when the entire cast is together for
the wedding scene they keep dancing as the camera pulls away and
the village square eventually fades to black. The audience at the
Walter Reade tried to hold back as long as it could, but the dam
broke as early as Act I when people started applauding as though
it were a live performance!
One final thought. New
Yorkers have a reputation of racing for the exit as soon as the
curtain drops. The reason for this is quite simple -- they want
to catch a cab before anyone else. In all of the screenings I attended
not one single person moved until the credits were over and the
house lights came up. For this festival that was definitely icing
on the cake.