Classic Documentary Review: “I Am a Dancer” gives us Peak Nureyev

The Golden Globe-winning 1972 documentary “I Am a Dancer” is a straightforward, old-fashioned “dancer and the dance” film, very much a product of its time. It’s heavy on sweaty rehearsals but dominated by performance sequences from “Sleeping Beauty,” “La Dame aux Camélia” and “La Sylphide.”

But its value beyond being an artifact of its era is that it preserves the dancer who is its focus, the Russian ex-pat Rudolf Nureyev, forever on film at his glorious peak.

He’d been celebrated for over a decade when Pierre Jourdan brought his (much bulkier than today) camera into rehearsal studios and close to the stage for classic performances.

Nureyev’s liberating defection from the Soviet Empire in 1961 had created a sensation beyond his fame within the performing arts. Jourdan’s film, by no means an “intimate” portrait, has the 33 year-old dancer shrugging that “I live in suitcase. My only ground is my work.”

And that’s what Jourdan captures with his camera, the sweat of being at the barre with the entire corps de ballet, intensely focused, putting in the way as a French class-leader hums “Da da du…Arabesque…dum dum dum Pas de deux.”

Dame Margot Fonteyn, the British ballerina, already a legend when Nureyev pursued her as a partner, marvels at how well they meshed on stage, this “boy, half my age” with all his grace and athleticism.

The film’s dated and superficial treatment of its handsome, mop-topped subject may seem at arm’s length by modern standards. But gay dancers didn’t speak of their sexuality in the early ’70s.

Jourdan instead lets the performances take over the film. Still, there’s this glorious sequence where the star, who evolved into a choreographer, director and even conductor before his career and life were cut short by AIDS, shows his corps exactly what he wants.

He’s in street clothes and boots, and he swoops right in with all the ballerinas, boots thundering at every landing, teaching them the precise gesture, pose and position he desires.

MPAA Rating: unrated, smoking

Cast: Rudolf Nureyev, Dame Margot Fonteyn, Glen Tetley, narrated by Bryan Forbes

Credits: Written and directed by Pierre Jourdan. A Film Movement+ release.

Running time: 1:32

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