Why do you want to dance?
Why do you want to live?
Well, I don’t know exactly why, but I must.
That’s my answer too.

—Boris Lermontov and Vicky Page, The Red Shoes

Born March 17, 1938, in Irkutsk, Russia, Rudolf Nureyev was a man who existed to dance. He was born in motion, on a Tran-Siberian train his mother was taking to visit his father, and Nureyev did not stop moving until his death on Jan. 6, 1993, from AIDS-related complications. He was 54, and he was arguably the 20th-century’s greatest dancer.

Ballet doesn’t hold much cultural cachet in the 21st century, but 100 years ago, it was the zenith of artistic expression. Particularly in Russia, the motherland for many romantically trained ballerinas and composers, notably Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky, author of what many consider to be the ballet: Swan Lake. The Communists were so proud of it that they used a filmed version of Swan Lake to fill airtime on state TV whenever they needed to cut the feed.

Nureyev was born into this culture, and with this culture, Nureyev rose to great heights. It’s a story beautifully rendered in brother and sister David and Jacqui Morris’ stunning documentary, Nureyev, a movie that’s as stimulating and buoyant as its subject. 

With a tip of the hat to early Soviet cinema, Nureyev uses overlapping images, montage, and collage to tell Nureyev’s story cradle to grave. Drawing on a plethora of archival footage, the Morris’ included readings from Nureyev’s memoir, anecdotes from friends, and analyses from scholars to provide context. They even employ dancers on theatrical sets to illustrate the spaces for which no images exist. As the movie progresses and Nureyev’s star rises, cameras follow him everywhere, and the need for the dancers is less. It’s sad to see them go, but considering Nureyev and his greatest partner, Margot Fonteyn, replace them, their absence is understandable.

When Nureyev started dancing, there was an arms race between the East and the West, and not of just bombs and guns, but also of consumers and culture. The West had the greatest products and the greatest consumers. The East had ballet, and thus, the greatest culture. That all changed on June 16, 1961, when Nureyev defected to the West and was received with the same level of mania that would greet The Beatles two years later. It was an orgy of dance, art, and parties. But, as one of Nureyev’s friends points out, for Nureyev, it was all an orgy of one.

Nureyev presents the dancer’s life in a series of chapters, each one punctuated with an appropriate quotation, some from the past, some from the present. The one that introduces Nureyev’s decline after contracting AIDS opens with a prophecy, a line from the dancer himself: “You live as long as you dance.”

There is a real pleasure in watching a documentary on a subject about which you know nothing. And, if you don’t know a lick about ballet, about dance, about Nureyev, worry not: You are the perfect audience for this film. You’ll love it.  

Rating: 4 out of 5.

Nureyev (2018)
Written and directed by David Morris, Jacqueline Morris
Produced by Trevor Beattie, Jacqueline Morris
CineLife Entertainment, Not rated, Running time 109 minutes, Opened Sept. 21, 2018.

The above review first appeared in the pages of Boulder Weekly Vol. 26, No. 42, “An orgy of one.”