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Flash Review 2, 6-13: Nureyev: Now You See Him...
This Is Nureyev! A Weekend of Dance on Film

By Sandra Aberkalns
Copyright 2000 Sandra Aberkalns

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.

Mixed Bill

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 I digress...

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 it in.

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.

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