News: Nureyev - As Dancer, As Choreographer - DVD/Blu-ray review

Friday 5 July 2013 by Graham Watts

Nureyev – As Dancer, As Choreographer
As Dancer – ( Don Quixote ); As Choreographer ( La Bayadère + Romeo & Juliet )
Released by Warner Classics*
Buy on Amazon

The release of these three films in high definition by Warner Classics is a timely reminder of the unique flair of Rudolf Nureyev, especially since it marks the 75th Anniversary of his birth on 17th March 1938; famously on a train as it rattled along the shores of Lake Baikal in Southern Siberia. 75 is an age where people are often still enjoying life to the full; yet Nureyev has been dead for over 20 years. He wrote in his autobiography (first published when he was just 24) “Our Tartar blood runs faster somehow, is always ready to boil”: and a life that burned fast and furiously is fleetingly captured in these discs; most notably in Don Quixote, the film of Nureyev’s 1970 production of Petipa’s classic for Australian Ballet.

This movie was originally made for cinematic release in 1972. It has all the hallmarks of the epic sweep of a 1970s feature film, perhaps unsurprisingly given that the cinematography is by Geoffrey Unsworth, who shot over 90 films, two of which won him Oscars, including Cabaret, made in the same year. The broad Technicolor vista of Barcelona’s market square contrasts well with the dramatic intimacy of the scene in Don Quixote’s bedchamber where, surrounded by heavy film noir shadows, he hallucinates about his Dulcinea before setting off with Sancho Panza on his quest to find this girl of his dreams. Unsurprisingly, given Unsworth’s mastery of his craft, there are fascinating camera angles throughout the film but especially in the night-time scenes at the gypsy encampment by the old windmill.

Forever 34 in this film, Nureyev is still in his dancing prime as the young barber, Basilio, with that unmistakeable athleticism emphasised by the confident swagger of embellishments that take up every beat of the music and stamps his indelible mark on the choreography. The production has the added draw of Sir Robert Helpmann (who co-directed the film with Nureyev) starring in the title role and fresh from his success as the Child Catcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, he hunts down Dulcinea with the same obsessive glare as if she were another of Dick Van Dyke’s offspring!

The Australian dancer, Lucette Aldous, gives a fine account as Kitri (the Dulcinea of Don Quixote’s dreams), reminding me physically of the great Bolshoi ballerina, Maya Plisetskaya, with fast terre a terre footwork and a strong jump. Overall, the young Australian ensemble – just ten years’ old at the date of this film – provides a fine performance in one of the most effervescent ballets in the repertoire; although we hear in the documentary accompanying the DVD that they were required to do many takes, often filming until the early hours. The high definition makeover gives a vibrant set of images (especially on the blu-ray disc) of ramshackled sail boats and wooden huts set against the deep blue sky and sea of the background. You can almost smell the fish in the harbour! What we can’t hear is the applause of an audience, which does occasionally seem odd.

The process of restoration is detailed as an extra item and there is another fabulous gem that documents the making of the film. This shows how an aircraft hangar was transformed into the biggest studio stage space ever used at that time in Australia, an issue that posed considerable problems for the lighting team. We also discover that Nureyev arrived on the day before shooting began whereas a director would normally spend 4 weeks preparing for a month’s shoot.

The documentary has wide-ranging contributions from Helpmann, Aldous, Jack Lanchbery (the conductor) and many others but, unfortunately, although he is often seen in the background, there is no contribution from Nureyev himself. The best line comes from one of the design team who complains off-screen that “there was very little Spanish or Moorish decor in Melbourne”! The documentary shows the considerable work that went into creating a sumptuous representation of a classic ballet and the film gives us the opportunity to see Nureyev in his prime.

Both La Bayadère and Romeo & Juliet were filmed in performances by the Paris Opéra Ballet, where Nureyev had been both Artistic Director and Principal Choreographer. Although both productions are performed in his stagings, he had already died by the time that these recordings were made: La Bayadère was filmed at the Palais Garnier in May 1994; and Romeo & Juliet, the following year at the Opéra Bastille.

Nureyev’s La Bayadère was made for the POB in 1992, just a few months before his death the following January. It was his last work and for that reason alone it has a particular significance. Nureyev’s inspiration was to create a “new-old” version, returning as far as possible to the original orchestrations of the composer, Léon Minkus, and the original notes of the choreographer, Marius Petipa. It is unfamiliar from the staging by Natalia Makarova that is in the repertoire at The Royal Ballet and at American Ballet Theatre: essentially the same ingredients are in a different order. The sets and costumes by Ezio Frigerio and Franca Squarciapino also take some getting used to, not least in hugely vibrant colour schemes that, for example, throw up a cobalt blue and purple clash in one pas de deux! Nureyev aimed for authenticity in his interpretation of the original ballet, first performed in 1877, but somehow the feel for a mystical country nestling in the foothills of the Himalayas is lost in these designs. What we do see however is a trio of heartfelt and dynamic lead performances by Laurent Hilaire (as a noble Solor), Isabelle Guérin (a melting Nikiya) and Elizabeth Platel’s haughty Gamzatti.

If you can watch only one Romeo & Juliet then let it be this one. It is a permanent record of one of the finest casts in their finest hour. Hand-picked by Nureyev to perform his choreography, this was to be the last time that this particular ensemble danced the work together, clearly giving their all. Manuel Legris and Monique Loudières weave captivating spells in the title roles from their separate opening solos to one of the most harrowing choreographic interpretations of their tragic end; and there is special poetic elegance in Legris’ line and balance. But the cast is remarkable in every role with Charles Jude’s especially impressive account of Tybalt and Lionel Delanoë’s sympathetic Mercutio being vital ingredients of a tremendous ballet.

For those more familiar with Kenneth MacMillan’s choreography, there are many subtle differences: Romeo and Juliet’s first meeting in the ballroom scene is more tumultuous than furtive; the iconic balcony scene opens with the audience having the twin view of Romeo in the courtyard while Juliet is with her nurse in the bedchamber; the fight scenes are acrobatic and more earthily realistic; and there is an intriguing sequence in the final act in which Juliet dances a pas de trois with the ghosts of Tybalt and Mercutio.

This 3-disc set is an exquisite reminder of Nureyev’s talent both as dancer and choreographer, in this the 75th year of his birth. The digital remastering of Don Quixote and the excellent HD film of the later ballets in performance take the viewer on a journey to the very heart of the action. The infant Nureyev’s first taste of ballet came when his mother smuggled him into the Ufa Opera House one New Year’s Eve. Years later he remembered the tumultuous impact of that night: “From the moment I entered into that magic place I felt I had really left the world, borne far away from everything I knew by a dream staged for me alone”. It’s a special feeling that translates to these excellent films.


Graham Watts writes for londondance.com, Dance Tabs, Dancing Times and other magazines and websites in Europe, Japan and the USA. He is Chairman of the Dance Section of the Critics’ Circle in the UK.


English National Ballet mark the 75th annivesary of Nureyev’s birth – and the 20th anniversary of his death with A Tribute to Rudolf Nureyev at the London Coliseum, 25 – 27 July

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