How Rudolf Nureyev danced to freedom

The Guardian — 14 December 2015

The film opens backstage at the Kirov, reconstructing scenes that took place before the company were due to leave for their tour of Paris and London. Now known by its pre-Soviet name, the Mariinsky Ballet, it was a bleakly authoritarian institution back in 1961, run according to iron regulations and performing a repertoire of limited, Soviet-approved ballets. These were conditions against which any spirited, gifted dancer might revolt, and Artem Ovcharenko – the young Bolshoi Ballet principal who acts and dances Nureyev – communicates something of the tightly coiled energy, the obsessive artistry and the gambler’s instinct that made the star kick so hard against the limits of his world, and risk so much to find a new one.


The film handles this scene superbly. As Nureyev watches his fellow dancers board the plane without him, we can feel the gut-wrenching terror of the moment – the knowledge that, if he returns to Russia, he faces imprisonment or even worse.


Curson Smith’s film never undercuts the drama of Nureyev’s story, nor does it downplay the power of his personality and talent. The reconstructions give a genuine and touching reality to the myth of the dancer, and they’re folded with real deftness into the archive material and interviews. But what makes this documentary such a rare pleasure is the research behind it, and the intelligence of its engagement with the world outside dance. Nureyev’s defection might have been a turning point in his own career, but it was also a pivotal moment in history.

Rudolf Nureyev: Dance to Freedom is on BBC 2 at 8.50pm on Saturday 19 December.

BBC/IWC Media/Alexey Kostromin - Coiled energy, obsessive artistry and a gambler’s instinct … Artem Ovcharenko in Rudolf Nureyev: Dance to Freedom.