In Russian, “white crow” is an idiom which means that someone is different, an outcast. The White Crow tells the story of the outstanding Rudolph Nureyev, a ballet and contemporary dancer and choreographer from the Soviet Union. The biopic focuses on the beginning of his international career and his tour to Paris in 1961, before his defection from the USSR to the West.
Born on a train near Irkutsk, a city in Siberia, Nureyev grew up in extreme poverty in a family of Tatar Muslims. Due to the Second World War, he entered the Vaganova ballet academy quite late, at the age of 17, and felt a torturing urge to continue perfecting his technique all his life. In 1961 his non-conformist personality led to growing tensions with his touring ballet’s artistic director, as well as KGB agents keeping an eye on him. As the troupe was preparing to board a plane from Paris to London, Nureyev was approached by KGB agents. They told him he was requested back in Moscow to dance at a gala held for officials, but he immediately suspected he would be imprisoned and refused to go. The agents then changed the tactic and said that he had to go back to the USSR because his mother was seriously ill and dying. He did not believe them and asked for political asylum. Nureyev then became the first Soviet artist to defect during the Cold War, and this instantly created an international sensation.
An enormous effort was put into keeping the film as authentic and historically accurate as possible. Rudolph Nureyev was portrayed by Oleg Ivenko, a 22 year old ballet dancer from Ukraine. This role was his debut as an actor, and in several of his interviews he has mentioned that he could relate to some of Nureyev’s experiences, and that is what helped him to learn to act. The relationship between him and Ralph Fiennes, who is not only the director but an important mentor for Ivenko, resembles that of the relationship between Nureyev and his ballet teacher, Alexander Pushkin, portrayed by Fiennes himself, who performs the role entirely in Russian.
White Crow also features Chulpan Khamatova, a prominent film and theatre actress from Russia, and Sergei Polunin, another Russian ballet dancer. I personally was taken aback by the amount of Russian and French text in the movie. In fact, English only came in when characters of different nationalities had to communicate between themselves. Ivenko had to learn English specially for the role, much like his character Nureyev, who learned English himself before going on the tour.
The movie is structured in a dance-like way, rhythmically stepping away from the main narrative, tour in Paris, into the second one, the career path of Nureyev before the tour to France, which is told through flashbacks.
Image: Dick Thomas Johnson via Wikimedia Commons.