The White Crow – The true story of an unique artist who transformed the world of ballet forever

From Nureyev’s poverty-stricken childhood in the Soviet city of Ufa, to his blossoming as a student dancer in Leningrad, to his arrival at the epicentre of western culture in Paris in the early 1960s and a nail-biting stand-off at the Le Bourget airport, The White Crow is the true story of an incredible journey by a unique artist who transformed the world of ballet forever.

The term ‘White Crow’ is Russian slang for a person who is unusual or unlike others. Double-edged, it is used to refer both to someone of exceptional ability and to an outsider who doesn’t fit in anywhere. Acclaimed Russian ballet superstar Rudolf Nureyev epitomises this concept.

Elegantly scripted by playwright David Hare, the film is adapted from Julie Kavanagh’s biography of the legendary Russian ballet dancer, whom Fiennes first became obsessed with after reading Nureyev: The Life, almost twenty years ago.

Fiennes and Kavanagh were friendly and the writer knew the young actor was fascinated by Russian culture.

“Although I had no great interest in ballet and I didn’t know much about Rudolf Nureyev, I was gripped by the story of his early life,” Fiennes recalls. “His youth in Ufa in central Russia in the 1940s, his student years studying dance in Leningrad, now St Petersburg, and then culminating in his decision to defect to the West in 1961. That story got under my skin.”

A young man of just 22, dressed in a black beret and a dark narrow suit, is on an aeroplane flying from St Petersburg to Paris. It is 1961 and Rudolf Nureyev, not yet the imperious figure of legend, is a member of the world-renowned Kirov Ballet Company, travelling for the first time outside the Soviet Union. Parisian life delights Nureyev and the young dancer is eager to consume all the culture, art and music the dazzling city has to offer. But the KGB officers who watch his every move become increasingly suspicious of his behaviour and his friendship with the young Parisienne Clara Saint. When they finally confront Nureyev with a shocking demand, he is forced to make a heart-breaking decision, one that may change the course of his life forever and put his family and friends in terrible danger.

Although it was to be another 10 years before Fiennes would make his directorial debut with Coriolanus in 2011, he felt the story of Nureyev’s early life to be very cinematic even then.

”The story sat with me as a great possibility for a film. I didn’t really see myself directing it. It was just the idea,” he explains. “It’s so dramatic and is about so many things. It has an interior personal dynamic, the drive to realise himself and the ruthlessness that goes with it. It’s also within the context of the ideological divide between east and west at the height of the Cold War.”

Authenticity is key to Fiennes’ work as a director. Finding his Nureyev was Fiennes’ first big challenge. “I identified this young Ukrainian dancer, Oleg Ivenko, from the Tartar State Ballet company,” Fiennes explains. “I felt he had a latent acting ability and he is a strong ballet dancer who has a physical proximity to Rudolf Nureyev.”

Producer Gabrielle Tana similarly recognised the filmic potential of that particular part of Nureyev’s story. Tana had produced both of Fiennes’ actor-director projects, Coriolanus and The Invisible Woman and suggested a dramatic adaptation of Kavanagh’s biography should be their next project together. Tana had a very personal attachment to the subject matter. She had been a ballet dancer as a child until she was 17 and had seen Rudolf Nureyev dance with Margot Fonteyn at the Royal Ballet as a young girl. The young Tana had even met Nureyev personally on a couple of occasions as Tana’s mother had been friendly with a friend of Nureyev’s.

Director/actor Ralph Fiennes and producer Gabrielle Tana

“His life was so fascinating,” Tana enthuses. “He was compelling as a person as well as such an exceptional artist. He put ballet on another level. He was a superstar.”

Fiennes and Tana were drawn to Nureyev as a performer who wanted to captivate. Before Nureyev, the audience’s gaze was primarily drawn to the female ballerinas, with the male dancers effectively on stage as strong, handsome statues.

“He had a spirit in him, something that was stronger than him or anything else,” Tana explains. “He was obsessed with dance and obsessed with actually making his profile on the stage as significant as possible. He wanted to be as captivating as the ballerinas were and he reinvented male performance. It became much more dramatic. He wasn’t just there to serve the ballerina. He was a dramatic player in her own right. Vaslav Nijinsky did it too, but with Nureyev, it was very conscious. He wanted to make sure everybody was watching him.”

Fiennes and Tana were not interested in making a biopic of Nureyev’s life. “It was that character, that will of Nureyev’s that made him realise who he was an artist that really grabbed me,” says Fiennes. “We wanted to make a film about somebody who was exceptional and who broke with convention,” agrees Tana. “It wasn’t conscious, it was something that was stronger than him. He wanted to be the best at what he was. He wasn’t going to be held back or told what to do by anybody else.”

Tana and Fiennes turned to renowned playwright and screenwriter David Hare to transform their idea into a reality.

Fiennes knows Hare well as he has starred in several of Hare’s great stage adaptations of Chekhov and Ibsen and on TV in Hare’s political thriller.

“David Hare was our ideal writer,” says Fiennes. “David writes what I call ‘high- definition’, provocative characters who have strong contrasting elements that are challenging for an audience. He writes those big spirits and he writes them brilliantly. Also, David is known for writing things that have a strong political and social context. He has an instinctive understanding of the political climate in our story.”

In fact, Hare reveals it was his love of French New Wave cinema of the 1960s, particularly the films of Louis Malle, which initially drew him to the project.

“The French New Wave is what my generation grew up on,” Hare explains. “All those beautiful black and white movies of the 60s are what excited me and made us want to work in film. I read about Nureyev’s time in Paris just before he defected. I wanted to write a movie that was just set in Paris in those months but Ralph was always adamant it would go back to Russia. That it would go back to both Nureyev’s time in St Petersburg as a student of dance, but also to this incredibly deprived childhood that he had.”

“I feel I have a good connection with David,” Fiennes says of how he worked with Hare. “We batted many ideas back and forth, feeling the temperature and the tone and the shifts of what we wanted to do. It was very inspiring to sit with him and wrangle the challenges of structure and drama. We asked ourselves, ‘What was the essential story we were trying to tell?’ We were clear this was the story of young Rudolf’s defection. I first thought it should be linear. What emerged in our discussion was the three-time frame structure: Paris 1961, the Leningrad years from ’55-’61, and the childhood years in the late ‘40s. These time frames interweave giving us a portrait of the evolution of this boy and leading us to a point at La Bourget in June ’61. The timeframes come together at this point.”

David Hare

Writing a three-part structure appealed to Hare.

“I’ve always thought three is a great number for a movie. When I did The Hours, which had a three-part structure, Guillermo Arriaga was writing Amoros Perros and we sent each other emails saying ‘Isn’t a three-part structure just joy?’” he recalls, laughing. “Most films have two-part structures. They have an A -plot and a B -plot or they have a main plot and flashbacks to other events and that’s boring because the audience knows. Once the audiences sense what the structure is, they’re bored. The great thing with three is you never which one you’re going to next. You never know which direction the film is going in and that keeps it fresh.

“The whole art of it, both in the writing and in the cutting room is to make it look inevitable, even though it is by no means inevitable, which way you’re going to tell the story.”

Like Tana, Hare had actually met Nureyev. But by then Nureyev was the most famous dancer in the world and “THE WHITE CROW” was not going to be about that Nureyev.

“The film is about the moments during which he becomes the most famous dancer in the world for two reasons. The first being his dancing and the second being that he was the first significant Soviet citizen to defect,” says Hare.

“The Nureyev I met was already regarded as a monster. Famously difficult, famously imperious. You certainly couldn’t look at anybody else when you were in the room with him. I had to throw that memory away because that’s not what he was when he came to Paris. He was always on an extraordinarily tough course because of the poverty of his background.”

Hare underlines Nureyev was an autodidact who always considered himself running to catch up.

“He felt not only was he working class, a peasant who knew nothing as he put it, but that he started dancing very late. I give him a line when he goes to the choreography school and says, ‘I’ve got to do six years work in three’ and as a result of that he had a voracious curiosity in art. He wasn’t interested in just being what he would call a ‘stupid dancer’. Traditionally and particularly in that period in the 1960s dancers were expected just to obey, not to think. They were expected to move their limbs in ways the chorographers told them to. Part of Nureyev’s genius was he refused to accept that. He wanted the dancer to have a status and not just be a puppet. That’s why he moved choreography on.”

Oleg Ivenko

“He himself felt the male part in classical ballet was boring,” Hare continues. “Traditionally, the man stood there and took up various, heroic poses while around him this beautiful little girl would dance and twinkle and star. It was a merging of sexuality and merging of gender that happened with Nureyev. He, at least to my eyes, is clearly a bisexual dancer. When you see a film of him dancing, there is a bisexual element to it. But there’s an employee of the feminine that is really creatively rich. It’s not unmanly and it’s not unheroic, but it is just much more expressive and much less wooden than traditional Soviet ballet.”

Hare started by talking to the people who knew him best. “Clara Saint is still alive and managed his move to the West. She was my key witness to who he then was,” Hare explains. “French dancer Pierre Lacotte, who was at La Bourget airport and who also helped him, was also extremely helpful. He could not have been more vivid in his descriptions of how Nureyev was then. Almost like a child, in some ways quite childish and in others devastatingly mature.”

Hare’s aim was to put Nureyev’s defection into a context that underlines what an enormous gesture it was for Nureyev to make and the implications it had for the Cold War.

His long-standing working relationship with Fiennes helped immensely.

“Ralph just understands my work incredibly well,” Hare explains. “He can feel a scene. When he looks at a scene on the page, he knows exactly how he’s going to do it and what he’s going to do with it. As he’s an actor he understands how the dialogue relates to what I think the action of the scene is. If I wrote a scene, he knows what the scene is. I never had to explain a scene to Ralph.”

They were able to produce the screenplay they wanted to. “Ralph and I worked alone,” says Hare. “Nobody brought any pressure to bear or interfered with us. They let us write what we want.

Fiennes, who was nominated for multiple awards for his acting work and won the BAFTA for best-supporting actor for Schindler’s List, then worked intensively with Ivenko to help him develop an understanding of screen acting. The young dancer had never acted.

“I pushed him to understand the best screen acting is rooted in being really present and in the moment,” Fiennes explains. “ You’re reacting and listening, so the thing to get him to feel is ‘don’t show me you’re angry or shy or irritated or whatever; just feel it, be it. Have it inside. If you really have it or are close to having it, it will reveal itself.

Oleg Ivenko

“It sounds quite simple, but it’s hard to be really present and the beauty of his work is that he is very present. It’s an uncluttered performance. He was very generous and allowed me to steer him a bit, but he has a real pure screen acting instinct. In the end I felt we were comfortable with each other quite quickly, there was a good working relationship.”

Ivenko himself gives a dancer’s insight into what made Nureyev special: “Rudolf had an incredible energy that he translated onto the stage,” Ivenko explains. “He worked really hard at the top of his ability. He entered the stage and lived his life onstage. Quite often, dancers are like robots, they perform a combination of movements, but he came out and lived it. He gave his energy to the audience who could not help applauding him because the energy he emanated was just incredibly powerful. Everybody felt it, all his partners, the entire corps-de-ballet that danced next to him. They all sensed it was something extraordinary. He could do impossible things. It was mind-blowing. Even now, some young ballet dancers can’t repeat what they could do.

“He was inspired by paintings, art, books and people who inspired him to act, to achieve. It was all connected in him. He listened to his inner voice and what was interesting to him personally. He followed this line and stuck to it. This is what is interesting about him.”

Remembering Rudolf Nureyev

Rudolf Nureyev was one of the greatest ballet dancers of the 20th Century and a key figure in the cultural battles of the Cold War. But when he was researching the project, director Ralph Fiennes realised many younger people had never heard of Nureyev. It put an interesting spin on how he portrayed the period of his life covered by The White Crow.

“It is a portrait of the artist as a young man with all his jagged edges and his loneliness and his imagination and his mischief,” smiles Fiennes. “There’s unpleasantness and ruthlessness to him, but it’s youth looking to realise itself. And I find that very moving.”

It’s meant for people who don’t know,” says David Hare.

“The events took place a very long time ago and people don’t know the story of Nureyev. I wanted to tell that story and spread some respect for the incredible dedication you need to be brilliant in an art form and how hard you have to work to be that good. It’s very rare to see that represented on film and I love the way Ralph has done that.”

Of Nureyev’s behaviour during the time depicted in the film, Hare says it would not be countenanced now. “He would be sent on an anger management course!” he laughs. “In Nureyev’s defence, everyone will say the ruthlessness was as much with himself as it was with other people. I didn’t want to pull back on the selfishness. Unless you represent selfishness you’re not really telling the story of Nureyev. He isn’t yet calcified. He isn’t somebody who is expected to behave badly so that means when he behaves badly, his bad behaviour really upsets people in a profound way.”

Finally, Fiennes does not believe Nureyev had any intention of defecting from the Soviet Union to the West. “They could have hung on to him. He could have been a big Soviet star,” Fiennes muses. “I don’t think he had a plan to defect, he had an interest and a deep curiosity in a world elsewhere. But the Soviets were convinced he would leave and their paranoia made them sit on him and by squeezing him they made him jump out of their hands.”