After reading the book What The Eye Hears: A History of Tap Dancing, I became extremely interested in seeing tap dancer Gregory Hines in a movie or two. The first of his films that came my way was White Nights, starring Hines and Mikhail Baryshnikov, a musical cold war thriller. It has massive plotting issues, but the music and the dancing is sensational.
Nikolai Rodchenko (Mikhail Baryshnikov) defected from Russian eight years before the movie opens and when he is on a plane that must make an emergency landing in Russia he suffers a slight injury, which the Russian authorities play up as a serious injury. Meanwhile, they won’t let Rodchenko leave or contact anyone else and want him to dance at the season opening of the Kirov. Colonel Chaiko (Jerzy Skolimowski) is our main villain in this and he asks (orders) Raymond Greenwood (Gregory Hines) to watch Rodchenko, make sure he doesn’t get in to trouble or leave or anything like that.
Greenwood defected to Russia around the same time that Rodchenko left Russia. Disillusioned by the Vietnam War and racism in America, he thought Russia might be better. Things didn’t quite work out the way he imagined, but one thing that did was that he fell in love with and married Darya (Isabella Rossellini). Now he and Darya are in Moscow, living in the Kirov with Rodchenko, who is doing everything he can to escape.
Meanwhile, Colonel Chaiko has enlisted the aid of Galina Ivanova (Helen Mirren), who used to be Rodchenko’s lover before he defected. She’s still angry with him for leaving her, but has managed to make a life for herself as head of the Kirov, though she still is not able to put on the shows she would like, such as an evening dancing to Balanchine (who was Russian and defected in 1924). In fact, one of the big reasons that Rodchenko gives for having left the Soviet Union is that he was being stifled artistically, that he could not breath while being so closely watching and “playing their games.”
But the core of the story is in the relationship between Rodchenko and Greenwood. Raymond Greendwood is initially just trying to make a life for himself and his wife. Stuck in Siberia (we’re not told why), he jumps at the chance to return to Moscow, where Darya grew up. He and Rodchenko frequently clash. Rodchenko resents him because Greenwood is supposed to be watching him and Greenwood resents him because he believes he’s spoiled and left for a bigger paycheck, not freedom at all. But as the two men get to know each other, they come to discover common cause. And when Greenwood discovers that his wife is pregnant, he decides that he wants their child to grow up in America and agrees to help Rodchenko escape, if he’ll bring Greenwood and his wife with him.
As I said, the plot has a lot of holes. Greenwood’s reason for leaving America doesn’t quite seem convincing (and he’s never said to be a communist, which would have made it more plausible for him to choose Russia to live in). And it seems slightly mysterious why Colonel Chaiko would choose Greenwood to watch Rodchenko. But admittedly, plotting is rarely the strength of a musical.
Gregory Hines and Mikhail Baryshnikov are two very different dancers and we get the scope to see both of them in their element, as well as a dance that finds a middle ground for the both of them to dance together. They are both dynamic and skilled performers and when they are dancing the film is at it’s best.
People have often wondered if White Nights sort of represents Mikhail Baryshnikov’s apologia for why he left the Soviet Union. I have read that he very much wanted to dance for the new choreographers and was frustrated with the tradition-bound Soviet approach, which is also the primary motivation for Rodchenko in the film. As a result, the majority of dancing that Baryshnikov does is modern, though he does demonstrate a few traditional leaps and spins (eleven pirouettes, in a bet with Greenwood).
Gregory Hines offers an entirely different dancing approach. He would improvise his own dancing, which he called improvography. He does one dance in “Porgy and Bess” as Sportin’ Life and even does some singing. He also uses tap dancing to tell his story to Rodchenko and express his frustration with America, as well as a dance he does near the end of the film.
They are dancers, but I never sat there and thought, “Oh, you can tell those guys are not real actors.” They were more than convincing. I also thought Isabella Rossellini brought warmth and feeling to her role as Hines’ wife. She bears a strong resemblance to her mother, Ingrid Bergman, and even the way she talked sometimes reminded me of Bergman. It is also fun to see Helen Mirren in an early role. Her father was Russian (her grandfather got stuck in England when the Russian Revolution occurred) and she has the accent down well. This is also the film where she met her future husband, Taylor Hackford, who directed the movie.
Because the Cold War was still on, director Taylor Hackford was unable to shoot in Russia, though Isabella Rossellini and Gregory Hines were able to visit (Baryshnikov would not have risked going back). What they did instead was send a team in to film a “travel movie.” They used the footage – such as of the outside of the Kirov – and combined it with what they’d filmed around Europe, as well as the bits filmed in the studio. The result is actually quite seamless.
White Nights produced two hit songs: “Say You, Say Me,” by Lionel Ritchie, and “Separate Lives,” by Phil Collins. Both songs were nominated for Best Original Song, with “Say You, Say Me” winning the award.
In this dance sequence, choreographed by Twyla Tharp, a compromise is reached between the two dancing styles of Gregory Hines and Mikhail Baryshnikov. Notice the karate kicks incorporated, since Hines once taught karate. Twyla Tharp actually choreographed a number of dances for Baryshnikov and represents a blend of ballet, jazz and pop. The random guy boxing in the clip is Colonel Chaiko, with his surveillance camera.
“Say You, Say Me,” by Lionel Ritchie.
“Separate Lives,” by Phil Collins and Marilyn Martin