So, I thought the documentary last night on PBS was rather so-so; it was okay I guess as far as PBS documentaries go First 40 minutes dragged, but second half was far better, mainly because it was about his defection. I remember reading an interview with Baryshnikov years ago — I now have no idea where or when it was — but he was asked why he decided to defect and he basically said, “mmm, dunno, seemed like the thing to do?” I was so disappointed. I’m sure he just couldn’t talk about it, but how could you not have some kind of answer for something like that? Even if you just say, “I really don’t want to talk about it.” So I’m very happy that here they focused on Nureyev’s defection, even using his French friend who witnessed it to re-enact the whole thing.
I love how the filmmakers dwelt on the aftermath too — the KGB’s plan to try to break poor Rudik’s legs, their attempts to destroy his first performance in the West by screaming and shouting and throwing dangerous objects at him onstage. Wow. And how he had to go into hiding. And how the government wholly erased his presence in Russia, preventing information about him leaking into the country through the newspapers, destroying the careers of his friends and family. How some friends missed him dearly — one said he was “the bright spot” in her life, such a thing coming only once a lifetime, and even that if one is lucky. How others felt he was hugely dishonorable (for leaving the country that made him, as if it was the country and not he himself), an abandoner of his family and friends. The film doesn’t make it obvious, but he had to live with all of that. Some journalists have argued that the documentary only shows Nureyev in maturity, on his good days, neglecting to show the occasional nastier side of him. If you were constantly made to feel like a horrible person for turning your back on your country, your ill mother, wreaking destruction on your friends and family, all for wanting to live an honest life, you’d probably have some anger inside of you too.
Anyway, the first part is too slow I think mainly because there are too many interviews. It’s confusing who all of the people are, and many are not that animated (unlike most of the funny characters in the very good documentary Les Ballets Russes). Perhaps they could have filmed in more meaningful places, like with the French guy in the airport? Just having them sit there yapping away was a bit boring. I found his school chum entertaining though — the white-haired guy who talked about all the times Rudik would make him practice, would make him do the parts of the ballerina so he could practice lifts For those who somehow can’t tell from his dancing alone, such anecdotes reveal that this was someone who ate, breathed, and slept his art.
By far the best parts of the film are all the footage of the great one in action — both that amateurly taken in his youth by his German friend, the ever intriguing Teja Krempke (could we please hear how he died — I know it was “under mysterious circumstances,” but where was he found, etc.?), and formal footage taken of his later performances with his “soul mate” Margot Fonteyn. For people who missed the film (it’ll be shown again late Saturday night), it’s definitely worth getting through the boring interview segments to get to that footage.
But watching him dance, I can’t help but get upset that there’s no one even remotely like him today. He danced with such fierce, inflamed passion, with such glorious recklessness, with such hunger — forget those insanely fast chaine turns and crazy high barrel turns that don’t look humanly possible — just look at the intensity in his eyes that permeates his entire body, even in those small pieces from Pierrot Lunaire and Giselle. I feel that there’s no one today who comes even close, who has the courage to do something novel like dance on demi-pointe like he did (and now everyone does). I think you have to have starved to have that kind of hunger. And today’s young ballet dancers — I feel like many of them don’t know the meaning of those words. And, forget art, their greatest ambitions are to construct the perfect MySpace page so they can engage in childish chatter with each other.