Friday, August 4, 2017
The Dancer Who Came In From The Cold
This is my entry in the En Pointe: The Ballet Blogathon hosted by Love Letters to OLd Hollywood and Christina Wehner
Ballet is not my forte. I do enjoy classical music, and some of my favorite pieces are from ballets (mostly some pieces from Tchaikovsky's Romeo and Juliet and Swan Lake, and of course The Nutcracker). So why did I choose to join a blogathon devoted to ballet? Because I'm addicted to blogathons, that's why. And also because one of the best movies to address the issue of defection by Soviet citizens in the 80's was White Nights, which actually featured ballet dancer and Soviet defector Mikail Baryshnikov.
It also gave me an opportunity to educate myself in an art that I've neglected.
An interesting note to this movie. Usually at the time it was made, if scenes were supposed to take place in Soviet Russia, Helsinki, Finland would substitute as the location. In this instance, however, the director, Taylor Hackford had hired a Finnish film crew and, under the pretense of filming a travelogue, had gotten real scenes of the real Kirov Theatre, the real statue to Lenin, and real interior scenes from a real state limousine driving down real streets in Leningrad. This caused a bit of consternation later when Hackford was criticized for the "usual" dreary Helsinki locations, but could not admit the truth because it would have compromised the Finnish crews position to be able to film more in Russia.
Hackford also met the love of his life in the process of making this movie. They began a relationship shortly after this movie which culminated in marriage in 1996, and a seeming rarity in Hollywood circles, is still going strong 30 years later.
White Nights (1985)
In the 1980's, Soviet Russia frowned on deserters from the "idyllic" nation they had created. And yet, many people who lived the "good life" under Communist rule sought to leave this "paradise". One of these was Nikolai Rodchenko (Mikhail Baryshnikov, who was himself a defector), a fantastic ballet dancer who had defected from Russia some eight years previous to the events in this movie.
The movie opens with a performance by Rodchenko and an unnamed ballerina played by Florence Faure. The piece is from a ballet called "Le Jeune Homme et La Mort".
Following his performance Rodchenko boards a plane bound for Tokyo. But complications cause the plane to have to land prematurely. And in all places, it has to land in Soviet Russia.
Rodchenko, typically, is not excited about this. He panics and tries to destroy his passport and all evidence of who is, despite the efforts of his manager, Anne Wyatt (Geraldine Page), to calm him down. The plane, with heroic efforts by the crew to prevent disaster, does land., although badly damaged. In the course of the movie we learn that there were several injuries, and that four had died, but considering the situation, it could have been worse.
Rodchenko does survive, although severely injured, but he is in trouble, because it seems that the KGB, represented by Colonel Chaiko (Jerzy Skolimowski), has discovered his real identity. As a defector, Rodchenko is a criminal in his former country. He was tried and convicted, in absentia, and sentenced to 15 years in prison. But the government has special plans for Rodchenko. They want him to perform at the opening ballet at the Kirov, for propaganda purposes.
As a result, instead of going to prison, he is essentially locked into a different prison. Raymond Greenwood (Gregory Hines), a former US citizen who had previously defected to Russia, is given the task of being Rodchenko's watch dog, and to get him trained and in shape to be at the premiere.
Greenwood had defected to Russia after a life that had included the racism still prevalent in the US at the time of his defection, and a drafting to fight in Vietnam. Greenwood had in the meantime married a Soviet citizen, Darya (Isabella Rosselini, in her American film debut), and was performing in Siberia as a tap dancer. (The opening introduction of Greenwood shows him performing the Gershwin version of Porgy and Bess. )
Relationships between Rodchenko and Greenwood are rough at first, mainly because Greenwood just wants to toe the line so he can improve his position with the Soviet government. Additionally, a former lover of Rodchenko's, Galina Ivanova (Helen Mirren), comes aboard to try to convince Rodchenko to play ball.
As the movie progresses, however, both the Greenwoods and Ivanova become allies in trying to get Rodchenko back to the American side. (One thing that convinces Raymond to help is finding out that Darya is pregnant, and deciding that he'd rather raise his kid in a less repressive country.)
There are plenty of dance sequences in this movie, both of ballet type and tap dance. The choreography was done by Twyla Tharp. (And if you are a fan of movies that have dancing sequences, that name should be familiar... even if you are not, it may be familiar. I'm not a dance movie fan, and even I know the name...)
Spoiler Alert! The story ends, as you would expect, with Rodchenko finally making it to safety. The denouement seems a little contrived to me, however, as if it was added at the last minute, although I really doubt it was. In the end, Rodchenko and Darya are safely on the American side wile Raymond, who had stayed behind to ensure their successful escape was captured by the KGB. But in an effort to give the film a really happy ending, Raymond, at the end, is traded for a Soviet prisoner from the American side and the movie ends with Greenwood and Rodchenko greeting each other as the Lionel Ritchie song "Say You, Say Me" plays.
Well folks it's time to dance off into the sunset. Enjoy the ride home.