For people younger than 50, it can be hard to fathom just how much of an international star the late, great Russian ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev was in the 1960s through the 1980s, never mind the fact that watching him dance, with his uncanny combination of animal power and cocky flamboyance, is a jaw-dropping, heart-quickening experience.
The recent film The White Crow dramatizes young Nureyev’s artistic rise in the Soviet Union and his sensational 1961 defection to the West at Le Bourget airport in Paris. But now a new documentary, Nureyev, by sibling filmmakers Jacqui Morris and David Morris, aims to show the entirety of Nureyev’s life, including his years of megafame in the Western world, his intense (likely sexual) relationships with dancing partners Erik Bruhn and Margot Fonteyn, and his death in 1993, which was not confirmed as AIDS until after he passed.
The film — rich with archival footage, some of it never before seen by the public — opens in select theaters around the U.S. on June 7. TheBody spoke to the filmmakers, David Morris and Jacqui Morris, by phone.
Tim Murphy: Congrats on the film! How did it come to be?
David Morris: We were doing research, trying to figure out our next film, and we realized that nobody had done a long-format feature documentary about Nureyev.
Jacqui Morris: We’re in our fifties, and Nureyev’s name was so familiar to our generation. Even if you didn’t know much about him, that name was out there. We realized that we have a whole younger generation of people who don’t know anything about him. He was a massive icon, but dance is ephemeral, it’s not like music or art, which is left behind for people to enjoy.
TM: What drew you to him as a subject?
JM: His life was extraordinary! He was born in abject poverty in rural Russia and ends up becoming one of the most famous people in the world. One of the many dancers we interviewed said, “You could have your back to the door in a roomful of people — but when he walked in, you knew he was there.”
DM: If you make a doc about someone like Elvis Presley or Muhammad Ali, everything about them is already out there and known, but with Nureyev, we were able to delve into archives and find lots of stuff people didn’t know about.
TM: Where did you find all the amazing footage?
JM: We worked closely with the Nureyev Foundation, which entrusted us with boxes and boxes of old archival tapes. Nureyev had some rich lady friends who followed him around the world and were allowed to film him from the wings. These tapes have been slowly rotting over the years. We were sent 20 boxes of old VHS tapes — which took us years to go through and archive them all. With old VHS, you’re watching and the screen goes black and you think it’s finished, only to fast-forward and bingo, you find a new gem. The film has over 15 minutes of never-seen-before footage.
TM: Which of Nureyev’s work is most electric to you?
JM: From his traditional ballet work, I would say he and Margot Fonteyn dancing Romeo and Juliet, which Kenneth MacMillan created for them. They had such chemistry, and when they first came to dance it in America, some of the curtain calls were [raucous]. But I also like seeing him embrace contemporary dance, like the Murray Louis piece with all those young guys. It’s very provocative and sexual.
TM: He remained closeted about having AIDS, yes? Even though toward the end of his life he was choreographing from a chaise, he was so weak.
JM: He spent his whole life traveling, and he was afraid that he wouldn’t be allowed into countries such as the U.S. [which imposed a ban on HIV-positive visitors in 1987, not lifted until 2010] if people knew he had the virus.
DM: A lot of people at the time did not admit it. Freddie Mercury didn’t admit he had AIDS until literally the day before he died. There was tremendous stigma attached to it, which is why we show Princess Diana in the documentary shaking hands with AIDS patients, because that was a big moment for public education. But yes, some people blame Nureyev for not coming out with his status. He didn’t talk about his private life at all. He was a very private person, and that wasn’t particularly unusual [at the time for gay or bisexual people].
TM: Were he and Erik Bruhn lovers?
DM: Definitely, but there isn’t very much about it, no explicit letters. People who knew, knew, of course, but they were very private. This was the 1960s. You can’t judge him by today’s standards.
TM: Did you make a choice not to overly focus on his sexual life?
DM: He certainly led a gay old life, but the great loves of his life were Bruhn and Fonteyn, and everything else was not that important, so when you’re making a film, [you have to find] the arc of the story.
TM: He was sexually involved with Fonteyn?
DM: Margot’s official biographer thinks so, but, again, there’s no evidence.
TM: He could also be violent, yes?
JM: He had a bad temper. He told a child to fuck off once. But when you’re trying to get into someone’s whole life, you have to be very economical [which is why the film doesn’t focus on it].
TM: How often do you think he lashed out physically in a work setting?
DM: I don’t think it was common. People like that can get incredibly frustrated and explode if they think people are being lazy or if things are not going right. But he had another side. As soon as the Berlin Wall fell, he went straight back to Russia and picked up his relationships there with his family and friends.