As windy Tuesday evenings go in Norwich, watching Ralph Fiennes’ film on Soviet ballet dancers felt like an enjoyable way to spend one. The venue, Cinema City, justified the conditions on its own. Dating back to the 14th century, the Grade 1 listed building is beautifully flint-walled, tall-windowed and situated beside St. Andrew’s church, offering viewers a cinema experience steeped in culture.
The film itself was a preview of The White Crow, a biopic on the rebellious Soviet ballet dancer Rudolph Nureyev. A moderate showing turned out to watch the screening, a mostly older crowd with a scattering of younger viewers like myself. The film proved to be fantastic, subtly handling its depiction of Nureyev as a talent that stretches beyond the restrictions of Soviet law and rigid dancing technique (read my full review on concrete-online.co.uk).
Following the screening, there was a live Q&A with Fiennes, star Oleg Ivenko, executive producer Gabrielle Stewart and screenwriter David Hare. Fiennes kicked off the session by offering his appreciation for being part of the audience that saw the screening, how he was able to ‘feel the engagement with the stories’. This idea of ‘engagement’ with the story of Nureyev was essential to the filmmakers themselves, stating that throughout the process they wanted to make sure that they were saying something genuine about the life of this ferocious dancer, noting how ‘stimulating it was to feel the story emerge between us.’
In terms of cast, the team wanted a dancer who could act, not vice-versa. Authenticity was of terrific importance to Fiennes, and he wanted to make sure that whoever was playing Nureyev could carry himself like a dancer, with a dancer’s body – fearing that, otherwise, the film would ‘not be real.’ In Oleg Ivenko, he saw not only a dancer, but the ‘potential to suggest his sense of what the young Nureyev was like’.
A lot was therefore asked of this young dancer, who had not only never had an acting role before the film but was also being asked to portray someone who was a huge part of the ballet world. Pre-filming nerves appear to have been to be conquered though – he tells us that he could feel Nureyev inside himself throughout the filming process, that ‘unexplained sensations brought himself and his ideas of Nureyev together on stage.’
One of the most interesting things to learn from the Q&A was that ‘there are people in the film who knew Nureyev appearing in tiny roles.’ This occurs once when Nureyev visits a student apartment and is greeted by a young intellectual couple – the real-life couple that greeted Nureyev 70 years ago sat in the room, while actors play their younger selves. This couple acted as one of Hare’s sources of authenticity on Nureyev’s character; they always said he was shy. ‘When he came into their apartment he listened, he didn’t talk, he wasn’t used to a young, intellectual atmosphere, it was something new to him to go into an atmosphere of confident youth talking and exchanging ideas. And there’s a wonderful angle on Oleg I feel when he’s listening to the conversation and there’s this transition in his face as he absorbs his vulnerability’.
Fiennes then speaks at passionate length about how Nureyev saw himself as ‘behind’. He was born into poverty with no formal education and a drive to understand the world around him. This drove the young dancer to stretch beyond any techniques he learned to express himself as the artist he came to be; ‘occasionally there are rebels that simultaneously master the rules, then go beyond them, and that’s when you have a terribly exciting dancer, it’s that mixture of obedience and rebellion that puts them in a separate category, and that’s a terribly exciting thing in any art form. He was very exciting to watch.’
So there you have it; a story told both factually and authentically, shot beautifully by the ‘poet of a cinematographer’ Mike Eley and acted genuinely by Oleg Ivenko. As we left through the narrow corridors of Cinema City and out into the cobbled lanes of Norwich, I felt like we understood not only what drove this rebellious dancer to resist control in the name of self-expression, but how we might all, as artists, push a little further beyond those boundaries we’re given, just stretching out into something new, something more exciting, more real.