Ralph Fiennes on his “weird infatuation” with Russian life

The actor-turned-director talks to the New Statesman about portraying Russian ballet star Rudolf Nureyev in his latest film The White Crow

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Ralph Fiennes third film as a director, The White Crow, tells the story of ballet legend Rudolf Nureyev’s defection from Russia to the West. In 1961, on a tour of Paris with the Mariinsky Ballet at the age of 23, Nureyev (played in the film by Ukrainian ballet dancer and first-time actor Oleg Ivenko) escaped the clutches of the KGB and sought asylum in France. His dash for freedom across the Le Bourget airport lounge in 1961 established Nureyev as one of ballet’s most rebellious principals.

Nureyev’s celebrity and public appeal led critics to liken him to a rock star. Richard Buckle, dance critic for the Sunday Times, described Nureyev in a 1962 review as a “pop dancer”. “What the telly did for art, what Billy Graham did for religion, Nureyev has done for ballet”, Buckle wrote. Fiennes directs Ivenko’s athletic performance as Nureyev and also assumes the role of his dance teacher and mentor, Alexander Pushkin, in the film.

Fiennes, who took ballet lessons in preparation for his role as Pushkin (“it was scary… It’s not the same as if you’ve lived dance”) confesses that he came to the film with a “weird infatuation” with Russian life (as Pushkin, he delivers every line in fluent Russian).“I wanted to show that the Soviet world [gave Nureyev] life as an artist – it wasn’t actually curtailing him”, Fiennes says. Rather, the USSR “only curtailed him when he wanted to move outside of its required group behaviour”.

The film unpicks the complicated character of a man who was known for his arrogance as much as his talent. “Once you start researching him you come across this difficult… hugely egocentric man with a huge sense of self-importance or entitlement…  stuff that easily makes him unattractive”, Fiennes tells the New Statesman.

Screenwriter David Hare skilfully adapted the script from Julie Kavanagh’s 1998 biography, Rudolf Nureyev: The Life. Hare grew up with a love of nouvelle vague cinema, and was interested in the time Nureyev spent in France. Hare was convinced it was “a Paris film” – yet Fiennes firmly believed he needed to know the place that Nureyev originated from, rather than merely depicting the dancer as an established star.

“I came to the film not because of his Beatle-like status, but because of the early description of his youth and student life leading up to the defection”, Fiennes says.

“I believe that peoples’ characters continue – so that they are who they are throughout their life… I wanted to hear how he was as a student and what he was like… our story is an emerging boy – with [a] strong ego and artistic will”, he adds.  

To unravel these complicated and often difficult aspects of Nureyev’s character, Fiennes and Hare decided to shift between three periods in the dancer’s life: his early childhood in 1940s Russia, tutelage under Pushkin in St. Petersburg during his teens, and his later defection to Paris.

“Once we had three [timeframes] you don't know where you're going to go”, Fiennes says – there's an element of “surprise” in their juxtaposition.  

This narrative device helps Fiennes to unpack what he calls “the necessary selfishness of the artist”. Nureyev is a uniquely qualified subject for depicting this trait. He trained on his own with an almost masochistic determination, something Fiennes chose to emphasise in shots of Oleg Ivenko training solo. The dancer was prone to tempestuous outbreaks; he allegedly kicked a ballerina and threatened a fellow dancer with a knife.

Artists have a “monstrous will”, but their audiences tolerate such deep character flaws because artistry “gives us [a] thing which is enriching… which moves us”, Fiennes remarks.

In many ways Nureyev is typical of the characters that have become a signature in Fiennes’ directorial work: complex, conflicted, and bound by a sense of higher purpose. His depiction of Shakespeare in Coriolanus and Dickens in The Invisible Woman shared these traits. What drew him to Nureyev?

“I suppose I’m just interested always in human beings having many aspects to them and they’re not always fully formed”, he says. “They can change and there’s a constant mutation within us all the time.”

The White Crow is currently showing in cinemas. 

Arun Kakar is a former New Statesman intern and journalist at Compelo.