Release Date(s)1972 (September 22, 2020)
Studio(s)Anglo-EMI/Cinevision Films/Libra Films (StudioCanal/Film Movement)
- Film/Program Grade: C+
- Video Grade: B
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: C+
Ballet dancer Rudolf Nureyev defected from the Soviet Union in 1961 and became a superstar performing in the United States and other Western countries until dying of AIDS in 1993 at the age of 54. I Am a Dancer shows Nureyev in class, backstage, in rehearsal, and in performance.
The film opens with Nureyev at the barre as he and other dancers follow the directions of an off-screen instructor. His form is perfect, his movements precise, his focus intense. Close-ups center on his ruggedly handsome face and his feet, back, and arms. Later we see him alone, dancing in a rehearsal hall. That sequence illustrates the tedium of constant practice but goes on well after the point is made. We get it. Ballet dancing is tough, especially for a professional aspiring to be the best.
We see a corps rehearsal of La Sylphide and a performance of the ballet’s love scene exquisitely performed by Nureyev and Carla Fracci. Next is a rehearsal of Glen Tetley’s Field Figures partnering Nureyev with Deanne Bergsma. This is apparently a later rehearsal as it is interrupted only once by the ballet master. Dressed in practice clothes, the two performers gracefully embody this blend of classical and modern dance. Had director Pierre Jourdan concentrated on earlier rehearsals or edited a progression from earlier rehearsals through to later ones, we would have a much better idea about the difficulty of mounting a ballet and the gradual transformation from idea to fully staged dance.
The highlight of the film pairs Nureyev with his most famous partner, Margot Fonteyn, in a sequence from Marguerite and Armand with full costuming and sets. Fonteyn speaks briefly about how she and Nureyev met and describes him as moody and funny, but provides little insight into their working relationship. A perfect showcase for two stars, Marguerite and Armand is the most cinematic piece in the film, with multiple dissolves illustrating Marguerite’s fever dream, extensive use of close-ups, kaleidoscopic views, and smoky framing.
The final sequence is the last act pas de deux from The Sleeping Beauty, danced by Nureyev and Lynn Seymour in front of a live audience. Against a painted backdrop, the dancers perform together and alone. Here is where we see Nureyev at his finest as he leaps across the stage, pirouettes and spins like a whirling dervish. The audience erupts in cheers, and the dancers take their bows in a precisely choreographed curtain call.
Nureyev believes that dancing is its own reward. “When I’m working, I’m content,” he says, but we never get to know the man beyond dance. We see moments in his dressing room as he readies his costume and applies make-up, but the only shot of him beyond the world of ballet occurs when he leaves the theater and walks into the street to a world we’ll never see. We get a glimpse into Nureyev’s working life but, for the most part, he remains a talented enigma. What does he do after a performance? What is his private life like? These questions are never answered, which makes I Am a Dancer unsatisfying. Dance aficionados will enjoy the rehearsal and performance sequences but will come away with few insights into the man.
The new Blu-ray restoration from StudioCanal and Film Movement is presented in the aspect ratio of 1.37:1. Overall quality is good, with clean images and no imperfections except for a scratch on the left side of the frame during The Sleeping Beauty pas de deux. The color palette varies. In the class and rehearsal scenes, Nureyev and the women in the class wear unglamorous practice clothes. Nureyev wears pale blue tights and a white T-shirt. Color pops in the Marguerite and Armand scene, with Fonteyn’s red chiffon dress and white camellias, and Nureyev’s royal blue jacket with tails, white ruffled shirt, and white tights. Colored lights (pink, green, blue) play on lucent curtains, behind which are gold ornamentation and chandeliers. Multiple-image kaleidoscopic shots suggest Marguerite’s fever dream. Armand runs in dramatically, a wide black cape flowing as he rushes to her death bed.
It’s a shame the soundtrack is mono (English 2.0 mono LPCM), since the orchestral accompaniment would sound much richer in stereo. Occasional off-screen narration by actor Bryan Forbes ties scenes together and identifies the ballets and Nureyev’s partners and is not overly intrusive. Interviews are nearly nonexistent, with only a few unrevealing comments from Nureyev himself and a sentence or two from Margot Fonteyn. In rehearsal scenes, the sound is echoey and we clearly hear Nureyev hitting the floor after a leap. In actual performance these sounds are masked by music. In Marguerite and Armand, the sound of the father’s footsteps are very loud to create an ominous mood. Rehearsal scenes are accompanied by a single piano.
Bonus materials include background commentary on Nureyev and Fonteyn, a discussion of I Am a Dancer, a booklet containing a critical essay, and a set of trailers.
Terese Capucilli on Nureyev and Fonteyn – Capucilli, a former principal dancer and co-artistic director of the Martha Graham Dance Company, speaks about the “amazing relationship dancers have to their art.” Nureyev was fascinated with and in awe of Martha Graham. Graham found Nureyev unique and invited him to perform with her company as guest artist many times. She created Lucifer for him in 1975. He was partnered with Margot Fonteyn. This was her first modern work and she was apprehensive about dancing barefoot. For the company’s 50th anniversary gala, Nureyev and Fonteyn agreed to help out with the financial needs of the company, adding their star power and boosting box office sales. Nureyev performed many times for the Graham company, among his performances the pas de deux from Swan Lake and the balcony scene from Romeo and Juliet. Capucilli discusses being selected by Nureyev to be his partner in a small featured role in a Graham dance. She discusses his precision of movement as clips from the film are shown.
Skylar Brandt on I Am a Dancer – American Ballet Theatre dancer Skylar Brandt discusses having danced a number of the ballets featured in the film. She notes that viewers are transported by the beauty of the dance but rarely know how a ballet comes together. Clips from the film are shown as she comments more on Nureyev than on the film itself. Commitment makes a dancer achieve “the next level.” Even when Nureyev was perfect, it wasn’t good enough for him. Work is never done. Nureyev is still regarded as a great dancer today. In his day, many dancers were not eager to explore different styles, but he never backed away from a challenge. Though somewhat repetitive, this commentary from a trained dancer focuses on the dedication of and demands on a professional dancer.
Theatrical Trailers – Three trailers are included: The Paris Opera, Over the Limit, and Only When I Dance.
Booklet – This 16-page booklet contains an essay about I Am a Dancer by arts critic Kenji Fujishima, several color photos from the film, and cast and crew credits for each of the ballets featured.
– Dennis Seuling