In Conversation with British Ballet Now & Then: Dance Biopics – The White Crow and Yuli

Rosie and Julia recently attended the premieres and Q&A of both The White Crowa film depicting Rudolf Nureyev’s early life and his decision to defect from the Soviet Union in 1961, and Yuli: The Carlos Acosta Story, a film inspired by the life of Acosta from childhood up to the present day.  We have written about both dancers before in our Male Dancers in British Ballet Now and Then post.

In this In Conversation we share some of our thoughts on common themes that we noticed in the films.

ROSIE: It’s interesting that both film titles are nicknames with specific meanings in Nureyev’s and Acosta’s lives. The Russian expression “white crow” suggests an unusual individual, an outsider. And the name “Yuli”, meaning youthful and powerful, was adopted by his Father, who thought of him as the son of Ogun, an African warrior god.  

JULIA: Yes. It seems to me that The White Crow’s director Ralph Fiennes and screenwriter David Hare intended to show Nureyev’s remarkable career but also his distinctive driven personality: his passion for ballet, determination and rebellious character were extraordinary. Matchless.  And in that sense an outsider.

ROSIE: But Yuli, directed by by Icíar Bollaín and written by Paul Laverty, seems to me to foreground Acosta’s relationship with his father – ballet comes a poor second, if a second at all! The drama in Yuli arises from Acosta’s troubled relationship with his Father, and from his reluctance to dance and to leave his family and country. Nonetheless, it is a very colourful film, perhaps reflecting Acosta’s love for Cuba; whereas in The White Crow colour is reserved for the scenes set in 1961 Paris, which represented freedom to Nureyev. The use of colour brings out some of the contrasts in the films. 

JULIA: I think there’s a difference in political agenda too. The White Crow demonstrates the impact of socio-political norms established by the Soviet Union on the life of dancers at that time despite the relaxation under Nikita Khrushchev. In my opinion, this is one of reasons for its potential success in attracting diverse audiences to the cinema… that’s the vibe that I got from the Everyman premiere.  But perhaps not the same can be said in relation of Yuli, a film that primarily attracts balletomanes… although it might have a wider appeal. 

ROSIE: Overall, The White Crow strikes me as an exploration and musing on the first 23 year of Nureyev’s life. The drama arises from his struggle to catch up on lost time in his training, clashes with the authorities and the slow build-up to the climax of his defection at the airport. Although film critic Peter Bradshaw questions the relevancy of the dance scenes, I think theseare used to demonstrate Nureyev’s environment, ballet as the driving force of his life, his determination and dedication, and his talent.  So they’re absolutely integral to the film, to the depiction of his character and circumstances.

JULIA: I agree. In my opinion Oleg Ivenko showed brilliant dancing and thoughtful, considered acting. In The White Crow’s Q&A, Ralph Fiennes commented that when casting for Nureyev’s role he wanted to find a dancer who was able to act so that this would be a more realistic representation on screen. For example, consider the ways in which a dancer stands and walks – this had to be captured. Yet, I wonder how Ivenko prepared for this role in terms of Nureyev’s personal style?

ROSIE: Yes, dancers move differently and look different in everyday life. Fiennes himself plays Alexander Pushkin, Nureyev’s ballet teacher in Leningrad. He was just as I imagined – taciturn, yet at the same time interested and kind.  His body language too reminded me of snippets of Pushkin’s teaching that I’ve seen. I understand from the Q&A at the British Film Institute that the producers consulted Mikhail Baryshnikov – he was also pupil of Pushkin’s and has talked of his teaching with great admiration – so I’m convinced this helped Fiennes with his portrayal of Pushkin. I also admire Fiennes’ Russian, and the fact that all the scenes set in the Soviet Union were in spoken in Russian.

JULIA: The use of foreign language is particularly effective in both films. The Russian dialogue at the start of the The White Crow, when Pushkin is being interrogated in the aftermath of Nureyev’s jump to freedomsets a powerful tone and atmosphere.  On the other hand, the dance scenes in Yuli don’t convey the same sense of ongoing daily discipline required to fulfil a talent such as Acosta’s. However, similarly to The White Crow, the soundtrack and notably the music in the dance scenes contributed to a more realistic representation of the atmosphere and environment of a ballet class and stage performances. 

ROSIE: For ballet lovers I think that evoking the environment of the studio is really important. In Yuli the dance scenes are used for a range of purposes.  Acosta’s initial reluctance to dance is made really clear in the ballet studio scenes; then his change of attitude towards ballet is shown through his reaction to a performance of Le Corsaire. These scenes are brilliantly acted by Edlison Manuel Olbera Núñez, who to me looked like he could have been Acosta as a child…. One of the most interesting aspects of the film was how family relationships were explored through dance as well as through spoken sequences.  Acosta dancing the role of his father added a layer of poignancy here.  But it also offered an opportunity for Acosta to showcase his company. So the role of dance was integral to both films but used rather differently.

JULIA: The flashback structure in Yuli and The White Crow allowed particular connections to both dancers’ upbringing, training, and success as professional dancers to be represented on the screen. For example, as The White Crow progressed it became really clear how Nureyev’s personality was gradually being shaped through the flashbacks portraying his childhood and relationship with his mother and teacher. 

ROSIE:  Yes, you saw a real logic in the structure.  Wendy Ide, in her review for The Guardian, suggests that The White Crow is an “uneven film” and “lacks the flowing logic” of ballet that Pushkin encourages in his students. In my opinion, however, Nureyev didn’t have a flowing logic in his life; rather, he found that through ballet. Therefore, it didn’t matter to me that I didn’t quite follow the logic of the structuring.

ROSIE: I was glad that The Guardian produced two reviews of The White Crow, but wouldn’t it have been more interesting to compare one review by a film critic and one by a dance critic?

JULIA: Or even better, they could do an In Conversation review like the one we’ve done here!

References

Bradshaw, Peter. “The White Crow review – Ralph Fiennes brings poise to ballet biopic”. The Guardian, 20 Mar. 2019, http://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/mar/20/the-white-crow-review-ralph-fiennes. Accessed 7 Apr. 2019.

Ide, Wendy. “The White Crow review – a jumpy spin on Nureyev”, The Guardian, 24 March 2019, http://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/mar/24/the-white-crow-review-rudolf-nureyev. Accessed 7 Apr. 2019. 

“Yuli”. The Royal Opera House,  www.roh.org.uk/productions/yuli-the-carlos-acosta-story-by-iciar-bollain. Accessed 7 Apr. 2019. 

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