Grade: B-/C+
Dance documentary
Not rated (would be G)

Ballet Dancers Guide lists five “most legendary” dancers in history: Marie Taglioni (1804-84), Anna Pavlova (1881-1931), Vaslav Nijinsky (1890-1950), Rudolf Nureyev (1938-1993), and Margot Fonteyn (1919-91). You can see two of them dance in this newly released Blu-ray of the 1972 Pierre Jourdan film.

Nureyev, who also makes the top four list of “most famous ballet dancers in history,” according to DanceUS.org, is the focus of this documentary, but don’t expect to learn a lot about Nureyev’s life. This isn’t a cradle-to-grave biography, and it doesn’t intercut old photos and film clips with talking heads.

I Am a Dancer, is less biography and more of a montage of Nureyev dancing: in training, in rehearsal, and in performance. And unlike documentaries that are heavily scripted and edited, Jourdan, for the most part, just turns on his camera, relying on viewers to appreciate the long takes as a means of understanding the dedication, hard work, and passion that it takes to become or remain one of the world’s most talented dancers. We do get a few moments when Nureyev appears on camera responding to interview questions—“I live in my suitcase, and my only ground is my work”—and we do get periodic voiceover narrations written by John Percival and voiced by Bryan Forbes, but for the most part any narration is minimal.

In other words, if you’re looking for Nureyev’s story—how a young man born on a Trans-Siberian train ended up as a dancer in the Kirov Ballet, became the first artist to defect from the Soviet Union to the West, found a new home as principal dancer with The Royal Ballet in London, then served as director of the Paris Opera Ballet, and tragically died of AIDS at the age of 54—you’ll have to look elsewhere. The White Crow, a controversial 2019 biopic starring Oleg Ivenko as Nureyev, fills that bill.

I Am a Dancer showcases a great dancer dancing, but I can’t say that this is great filmmaking. In fact, a gimmicky “fly’s-eye” lens that shows multiple images is so over-used that it’s annoying and detracts from the dance, while the Vaseline lens for other shots seems Playboyesque and dated. That the film earned a Golden Globe nomination is somewhat surprising, though it’s possible that at the time it was considered “brave” to let the story mostly tell itself.

To be a technically great dancer requires three things, we’re told—balance, control, and power—and real-time shots of Nureyev and other dancers show that it all begins at the barre, where the dancers painstakingly repeat slow-motion exercises. It’s an essential part of training that incorporates strength conditioning, muscle memory, and body control. But all dancers already know this, and my guess is that the audience for a film such as this will consist either of people who dance and love every aspect of dance, or else ballet aficionados who know everything about all the great ballets, all the great ballet dancers, and all the great performance venues. I Am a Dancer is for people who can watch a great dancer train, rehearse, and perform in real time and for lengthy periods—not the partial performances or training/rehearsal snippets that characterize typical dance documentaries. In other words, this film won’t be for everyone.

After watching Nureyev warming up at the barre, rehearsing alone with a choreographer, then teaming with the choreographer to work with a group of company dancers in rehearsal, viewers get to see a complete dance excerpts and performances. Included here are excerpts from La Sylphide performed onstage with Carla Fracci (with full decorative backdrops); excerpts from “Field Figures,” a sensuous modern ballet of two bodies intertwining, performed with Deanne Bergsma; a full staged performance of Marguerite and Armand, which was written especially for Nureyev and Margot Fonteyn to dance; and excerpts from The Sleeping Beauty Ballet, which features Nureyev as the Prince and Lynn Seymour as Princess Aurora in a performance backed by The Royal Opera House Orchestra.

Is it fascinating watching a legend? Certainly, and even people who don’t know ballet can appreciate Nureyev’s performances: his effortless grace and strength, his mastery of precise movement no matter what the speed, the way he can hold his partner with only one arm, and the way he can come to a sudden stop following a series of high-energy leaps and turns and rotations, sticking his landing as precisely as a Russian gymnast.

But the average person may not want to sit through a 92-minute film in order to attain those moments of insight and appreciation. This film, I believe, is for serious dancers who can’t get enough of watching how legendary dancers approached their art and performances, and for people who have as much of an appreciation for ballet as they do for ballet dancers and could sit through two performances in a row.

Entire family: No (serious dancers and dance lovers only)
Run time: 92 min. (Color)
Studio/Distributor: StudioCanal / Film Movement
Aspect ratio: 1.37:1
Featured audio: LPCM Mono
Bonus features: C+ (booklet, two interviews)
Trailer
Amazon link
Not rated (would be G for general audiences)

Language: 0/10—I didn’t notice any bad language

Sex: 2/10—The modern ballet that Nureyev performs with Deanne Bergsma is quite sensuous and even slightly erotic, if you’re old enough to notice such things

Violence: 0/10—In a dance movie?

Adult situations: 2/10—Here too, if you’re old enough to know what a courtesan is, then there’s an “adult situation,” as a dying Marguerite recalls her romance with the dashing Armand

Takeaway: It’s easy to see why Nureyev is regarded as legendary, even if you don’t know a thing about ballet