Set Report: Ralph Fiennes' Rudolf Nureyev Drama 'The White Crow'

By Tutt, Louise | Screen International, November 2, 2017 | Go to article overview

Set Report: Ralph Fiennes' Rudolf Nureyev Drama 'The White Crow'


Tutt, Louise, Screen International


Ralph Fiennes’ latest film as director spotlights Soviet ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev’s defection to the West in 1961.

Ralph Fiennes on the set of ‘The White Crow’

The tiny roof terrace of the Palais Garnier opera house in Paris holds just five people. On a late-August day earlier this year, Oleg Ivenko, the Ukrainian ballet dancer making his acting debut as Rudolf Nureyev, is one of them.

He is joined by Raphael Personnaz, as French dancer Pierre Lacotte, and their director Ralph Fiennes. It is the second day of shooting on The White Crow, a thriller about Nureyev’s dramatic defection to the West in 1961. Paris, in all its glittering glory, is at their feet.

“I want [an audience] to be completely fascinated by this boy’s desire, ambition, about his love of art, his hunger to live, to express himself in his dancing,” says Fiennes of Nureyev. “I want them to want to watch an extraordinary creature, Rudi, in his uncompromising determination to get where he wants to be.”

The White Crow marks Fiennes’ third feature as director, following Coriolanusand The Invisible Woman, all made with UK-based producer Gabrielle Tana.

They are in Paris for six days to capture exteriors depicting the five weeks Nureyev spent in the city dancing with the Kirov Ballet of Leningrad (later St Petersburg) in 1961. It was the 23-year-old Nureyev’s first trip to the West and he yearned to absorb all the art and culture the city had to offer, much to the annoyance of the KGB officials who dogged his every step. Nureyev’s Parisian idyll is interspersed with scenes from his dirt-poor childhood in the early 1940s and, later, his colourful life in Leningrad as a member of the prestigious Kirov company, a life he abruptly leaves behind.

Source material

The White Crow - the title comes from the nickname Nureyev was given as a skinny young boy - is based on the 2007 biography Rudolf Nureyev: The Life by Julie Kavanagh. The author knew Fiennes socially and had given him an early draft of the book.

“It was the force of his personality that came off the page,” says Fiennes. “This boy, with this intense hunger, not only to dance but to teach himself, to absorb all art as a way of fuelling his own dancing. That really moved me, the force of him.

“I didn’t have much interest in ballet at all,” he continues. “He was this dynamic, provocative character from a Greek myth or something. It got under my skin and this particular story never really left me.”

Tana optioned the film rights to the biography through her London-based company Magnolia Mae Productions. It is a story full of resonance for her - beyond her lifelong love of ballet, beyond the years she lived in Paris, beyond even her own handful of encounters with Nureyev himself.

“My father defected as a young soccer player from the former Yugoslavia to Helsinki, and then Belgium,” she explains. (Dan Tana later went on to live first in Canada and then help co-found the National Professional Soccer League in the US before becoming a successful restaurateur in Los Angeles. But that is a whole other story.)

“I had grown up being very moved by that story of leaving an authoritarian regime and being free to go and make your dreams come true in the West. …

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