A documentary by Bertrand Normand
Running Time: 80 minutes
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
After the surprising success of the 2005
documentary Ballet Russes, Ballerina must
be hoping for a similar outcome, and so it should, considering
not only ballet’s devoted fan base, but even laypeople
find themselves intrigued by the rarefied world of the ballerina.
Filmmaker Bertrand Normand’s documentary about how prima
ballerinas are made in Russia is not as revealing as one might
hope—and is marred by Diane Baker’s cacophonous
voice-over narration—but in its simple, by-the-book
delivery, it does give an inkling of the blood and sweat hidden
underneath the ethereal beauty of classical dance.
Unlike Ballets Russes, which was a sentimental homage
to the surviving members of Sergei Diaghilev’s famous
itinerant troupe whose heyday was in the 1920s, Ballerina
focuses on the fresh-faced world of ballet today, specifically
five ballerinas who dance for one of the greatest ballet companies
in the world, the Kirov Ballet of St. Petersburg. Just naming
the Kirov’s principal dancers featured in Ballerina—Diana
Vishneva, Svetlana Zakharova, Ulyana Lopatkina—should
be enough to lure ballet’s core fans. These ladies are
probably among the most technically brilliant dancers the
ballet world has ever known, and they the current darlings
of both the media and audiences here in the U.S.
According to Ballerina, one of the reasons for the
dominance of Russian dancers is the Vaganova Dance Academy,
the famously rigorous ballet school that takes the supple
bodies of young children at the age of ten and painstakingly
molds them to master the demanding poses of classical dance.
Those arabesques aren’t normal human positions, and
no one is born with the kind of turnout these dancers have,
no matter how much they walked like Charlie Chaplin as toddlers.
Classical dance demands years of training, and the Vaganova
is the MIT of ballet schools, with an admission policy no
less stringent. Still, it was surprising to witness the Academy’s
process of elimination when it selects new students. Ballerina
is at its most intriguing in these segments on the Vaganova,
with its revealing interviews and fascinating footage of little
girls in their underwear having their necks measured and legs
lifted by faculty, much like horses at auction. Small head,
long neck, long limbs seem to be the desirable components
of a thoroughbred ballerina.
The Vaganova Academy is the training ground for most of the
Kirov Ballet, whose home is in the nearby Marjinsky Theater.
Four of the five dancers in Ballerina are graduates
of the school, and all of Russia must compete with the school’s
reputation. We see one of Vaganova’s star pupils, 17-year-old
Alina Somova, perform her graduate solo, and then watch as
the Kirov tests her potential to fill the shoes of a prima
ballerina. Unlike the film’s other young filly being
groomed for stardom, the short but vibrant Evgenia Obraztsova,
Miss Somova seems tentative and unconfident, even though her
body is perfectly formed, her technique strong. When the Kirov’s
director scorns her fouettes in rehearsal, she looks so forlorn
on stage that I wanted to put my arms around those skinny
shoulders. Alas, it appears from Ballerina that constant
scrutiny is a ballerina’s cross to bear.
Of the three prima ballerinas interviewed, only Diana Vishneva
talks wistfully of a life outside of dance, confiding of her
fatigue and restlessness. But in rehearsals, all the dancers
show the wear and tear of this physically demanding art form
on their faces, underneath the determined stare of concentration.
In fact, above all else, Ballerina gives us a glimpse
of the almost inhumane amount of dedication that ballet requires
of these dancers day after day, year after year. Every little
girl who dreams of being a ballerina should see this observant
little film. So should every grown-up woman who ever dreamed
of being a ballerina. It will certainly give you more reason
to admire these ethereal beauties when you see them perform,
but it might also dissuade you from any regret you might have
about not being right up there with them.