“Feet, feet, feet!” is the universal battle cry. Anyone who has taken ballet or modern dance class, and has heard it shouted from the front of the studio knows that first, last and always, it’s all about the feet, and their relationship to the floor Donya Feuer’s 21-year-old film, “The Dancer,” follows the training years of Katya Bjorner from age 12-21. It begins with the feet and the shoes that transport them. Gunnar Kallstrom’s camera focuses on the young dancer preparing her toes and tailoring her shoes to their needs. She repeats coup de pied en relevé, countless times to strengthen the ankles and calves. She stretches her feet, flexing and pointing. It all leads to coaxing that well-conditioned foot into a satin-covered shoe that is two sizes too small, with its stiff “box,” on which a performing career will ultimately balance. Feuer then shows and introduces the shoes’ “maker,” actually several of them, usually unseen and anonymous to audiences, and even the dancers who remold their shoes to meet performance specs. The maker is also on his feet the whole day long, working at his bench, as the dancer’s silent off-stage partner. He hurriedly, but painstakingly, crafts the shoes that will carry her through both training and career. Back and forth the camera shifts between the student Katya, Katya, the mature dancer preparing for the role of Juliet, the workshop where the shoes are turned out, and the drab-looking Freed of London shop, where hordes of professional dancers the world over, have had their tootsies probed, pinched, measured, and otherwise interrogated from every conceivable angle.
We are in this with Bjorner from the beginning—a close up ride that eludes a comfort zone. It is assumed that the ideal ballerina will be a well-primed canvas, so that the choreographer or stager may etch an identity onto her—his (usually) and hers. So many such roles are projected onto the young dancer that it’s a miracle that she finds her own path, or even knows which persona she is bringing to the stage on a given evening. So it is no surprise to hear Bjorner advise young dancers in the audience during a post-showing chat chaired by dance educator Claire Sheridan, where they were joined by San Francisco corps de ballet member Max Cauthorn, “Be true to yourself, there’s only one you.”
Bjorner began with what every dancer wishes she had: a face with piquant features expressive eyes, a perfectly proportioned and symmetrical body, where the length of her legs and their hip-to-toe flexibility allows for a developpé that has her ankles touching her ears—an “attribute” then, but considered a “must” for today’s pyrotechnic aesthetic. In the process of receiving coaching, we see her interface in several semi-“Turning Point” moments with Anneli Alhanko, whose career was with the Royal Swedish Ballet, where Alhanko, with her otherworldly port de bras, helps introduce Bjorner to the classical Juliet role, as well as Manon and then Miss Julie, in a more contemporary piece. Valentina Savina and her husband Aleksandr Khmelnitski, a Russian couple, take Bjorner under their collective wing. Khmelnitski, is a humble soul, compared to his wife, a caricature of the omniscient ballet mistress, who, lacking English, delivers corrections in pidgin Spanish. The other coach of note is Mikhail Messerer, of the Russian dance dynasty that gave us Maya Plisetskaya, and who attends to Bjorner’s inner life, as much as he does to her steps.
Throughout, the Swedish actor, Erland Josephson, who has appeared in many Ingmar Bergman films, as if Stanislavski was looking over his shoulder, queries Bjorner about her onstage motivations. This could have been much more interesting had Josephson used his acting skills to make his depositions seem less scripted and myopic. Against the backdrop of Bjorner’s earnestness as she grows up and into a dancer in her chosen company, the Dutch National Ballet, Josephson’s challenges seem avuncular at best, and outlandishly deliberate at worst.
Bjorner’s steadfastness steers the film, as she shows how the work melds her natural talents and disposition to the art form with an acquired self-assurance and layered awareness that had to grow within her to complete the moving picture.