Nureyev: without precedent or equal

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A new documentary captures the extraordinary life and art of the dancer for whom the world truly was a stage


  • Rudolf Nureyev. Photograph by Richard Avedon, © The Richard Avedon Foundation

  • Jacqui Morris and her brother David commissioned contemporary dance sequences for their Nureyev documentary.

  • David Morris and his sister Jacqui spent the better part of three years making the film.

“No one else had quite the epic Russian novel kind of life ..., there’s not a dull moment.”

Documentary filmmaker David Morris

“How can we know the dancer from the dance?” asks W.B. Yeats in his 1926 poem, “Among School Children.” It’s a tough question about art and artists and where one begins and the other ends. In the case of Rudolf Nureyev, the dancer was the dance, we see in “Nureyev,” a complex, moving portrayal created by the accomplished documentary filmmakers Jacqui and David Morris. “Nureyev” makes its debut in New York on April 23rd. It’s a gorgeous, affecting combination of dance, music, memories and imagery that combine to transcend one story, and instead, tell many.

With his movie-star looks, brilliant artistry, indomitable nature and passion, Nureyev was a tempest of cultural, political and personal energy colliding in a kind of spectacular supernova, illuminating a path across the globe. We sometimes think of the artist as apart from society — a visionary, a lone voice rising above the din — but the directors present the complicated reality behind this romantic myth.

In portraying the life of Nureyev, the Morrises have managed to tell the story of an individual, an art form, a tense political era, and a sweeping, volatile arc of history that covers most of the 20th century.

Through never-before-seen footage, specially commissioned contemporary dance sequences, beautiful sets, an original score, interviews with artists from around the world facilitated by the cooperation of the Nureyev Foundation, and copious research, the directors have created a remarkable hybrid documentary/feature film/work of art. Defection, famous partners and lovers, rule-breaking, risk-taking, screaming fans like those of the Beatles — it’s all here, and more. For Nureyev, the subject of artists like Avedon, Warhol and Wyeth, friend of the Queen of England and Mick Jagger, all the world was a stage, and his performance was without precedent or equal.

This is the third documentary by the BAFTA-nominated sister/brother team. Their first, which played at MoMA in 2015, featured Don McCullin, the renowned photojournalist, now the subject of a retrospective in London’s Tate Gallery. The second, “Attacking the Devil,” recounted Sir Harold Evans’ editorial campaign for compensation for victims of thalidomide exposure. They spoke with Straus News about “Nureyev,” the film and the man. The interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Why Nureyev and why now?

David Morris: Our three documentaries are all about very strong characters. They’ve all got something in common, in that they all came from nowhere, really. This time we wanted something a bit lighter, and that was Nureyev. No one else had quite the epic Russian novel kind of life, escaping the Nazis in 1941, and then ending up at [London’s] Royal Ballet. There’s not a dull moment in his life.

How long did it take to make the film?

Jacqui Morris: The best part of three years. With feature documentaries, you don’t start with a script. As you’re working you sort of go off down one avenue, and then you interview someone and that person tells you something really interesting. So, you could scrap the last three months’ work. It’s an incredibly long process. We had to source never seen before footage, and that takes time.

Can you tell us about that?

JM: We approached the Nureyev Foundation, and sent them our other films. They absolutely loved them. We were sent 20 big boxes of old tapes and things that were around in the 1970s and ‘80s, just rotting away. Nureyev had this entourage of slightly older, wealthy ladies that would accompany him on these world trips. He allowed them to film from the wings and the audience. So, we’d find an old tape that would have something on it, and you’d think it was over. There’d be a great big black bit in the middle, and then right at the end, maybe three minutes would appear that one of these ladies filmed from the wings, and it was an absolute gem.

Why does the nature of dance make it especially importance to document?

DM: When Elvis Presley died, you still had recordings. You can still hear him on the radio. Because dance is ephemeral, it just evaporates unless you can track down these bits, these sort of snippets of time travel that allow you to stretch back in time.

You chose to tell many of the moments from Nureyev’s life through a series of contemporary dances. Why?

JM: In all our documentaries, we try to make them as theatrical as possible. When we started making this, we knew there wouldn’t be any archives of his younger days. So, instead of just re-creating those scenes with actors or having someone tell us what it was like, we thought we would use dance. We approached one of the UK’s most celebrated choreographers, Russell Maliphant, and he came on board straightaway. It was to give it a lovely theatrical feel — a kind of hybrid doc and drama.

What did Nureyev have that no one before or since has?

JM: He was a brilliant dancer. He was an incredible force of nature. Everything was there at the right time for him.

DM: Somebody described him and said you could literally not know that he had walked into a room, but you could feel the atmosphere change. Even if you weren’t looking, you could just feel everything bristle.

What do you hope the film brings to the New York audience?

JM: It would be lovely if it put ballet on the map again, but the bigger story is Nureyev went out there, and he did it his way.

DM: Specifically, for the New York audience, it’s showing those American choreographers that he worked with.

JM: Martha Graham, Paul Taylor, and Murray Louis.

DM: Those are all unseen archives ... they’ve never been broadcast. It was quite underground at the time. Specifically, for New York, I think it’s to bring him home in that sense, to show he was doing that. Nureyev wasn’t just interested in conventional ballet. He wanted to push boundaries all over the place. That’s an aspect that most people don’t know. Hopefully they’ll have a better idea now.

“Nureyev” will be shown Apr. 23, 7 p.m., at The Landmark at 57 West, 657 West 57th St. at Twelfth Ave. It will also be shown June 1, 8 p.m. at the Leonard Nimoy Thalia, Symphony Space, at 2537 Broadway (95th St.).

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