The Financial Times — 14 December 2015
by Martin Hoyle


Everyone knows the vague outlines of Rudolf Nureyev’s 1961 defection to the west: how he leapt from the KGB bodyguards at Paris’s Le Bourget airport at the height of the cold war just as he was about to be sent back to Moscow in disgrace. It marks the thriller-like climax of BBC2’s Rudolf Nureyev: Dance to Freedom, a superbly chronicled account of the rebellious dancer’s troubles with authority in the months leading up to the Kirov’s first foreign tour, the realisation that he had crossed a dangerous line, and the infatuation with Paris, fame and freedom.

The story is grippingly told. The dramatised historical events are intercut with interviews of those concerned, Russian and French, 50-plus years on but still vividly recalling the impulsive, arrogant young dancer, convinced of his own brilliance and contemptuous of colleagues and petty authority: risky, when culture, politics and propaganda were so entwined. Nureyev is marvellously acted and danced by the Bolshoi’s Artem Ovcharenko, who conveys all the young star’s magnetism, narcissism and infuriating obstinacy.

The ever-watchful state that kept Nureyev tailed by KGB minders wherever he went, the coercing of a hotel roommate (following a mysterious “incident” that may have been sexual) into spying on Nureyev and the tight leash on the Kirov as its dancers were dazzled by the west’s freedoms and luxuries — all evoke the cold war at its height. And the menace looming over the bad boy’s tantrums, cheek and flouncing until things turned nightmarish and his last-minute realisation at the airport that more than a slapped wrist awaited him.

Mysteries remain. How premeditated was Nureyev’s defection? Was the whole thing deliberately facilitated by the Soviets themselves to discredit an unpopular KGB chief? Was Nureyev’s staunch French friend Clara Saint, socialite and fiancée of culture minister André Malraux’s son, really influenced by the CIA?

Outsize characters, villains and possible heroes (Nureyev emerges as a spoilt egotist) make this an enthralling reconstruction of an event that shook both culture and politics, those edgy, mutually suspicious bedfellows.

THE FILM IS ON AIR TONIGHT on BBC 2 at 8.50pm (London time)!

© 2015 Financial Times — Artem Ovcharenko stars in ‘Rudolf Nureyev: Dance to Freedom’