Though this doc by Bertrand Normand spends much of its time on the emerging careers of five rising stars in the Kirov Ballet, it wisely begins by paying reverential attention to the mythos of the Ballerina. An ethereal character with angelic allure, the Ballerina is a creature who inspires dreams in young girls. But in Russia, where the cultural import of Ballet has become a deeply rooted tradition, the Ballerina is also an icon of national identity. With appropriately workmanlike methods, Normand begins at the national ballet academy and focuses on the youngest of five stars, watching her transformation and relating the process of her transformation to those in the careers of others in the field. It’s inspiring, and at times harrowing to see these girls’—barely this side of womanhood—endure such pressure for their chosen careers (truly the definition of “living a dream”), and the nature of this situation gives it a broader appeal. Still, it’ll be hard for this doc to find an audience outside of already indoctrinated dance fans.
After dipping into the inspirational aspects of the Ballerina, Normand (a veteran doc maker) goes through a short exposition about the process young girls undergo to gain acceptance into The Royal Academy. Girls hardly 10 are lined up in their underwear and bent in multiple directions (a test for flexibility) and then put through a serious of rigorous classes. An administrator for the Academy explains they’re looking for terribly specific bodies: small heads, willowy arms, a thin frame. Those who enter get an education in ballet; the three “R’s” don’t really come up. Little is said about the excluded, rejected or injured dancers who stop mid-training but this isn’t a story about the run of the mill dancer, this is a Valentine to the complete embodiment of our wonder: the Prima.
Moments in the film focus on the utter attraction audiences have to this icon; their desire to lurch closer to her and find out that, underneath it all, she’s quite human. But the film does nothing to allow that understanding to surface. Normand only offers us a topical view of these women, their lives and the dedication and discipline they’ve poured into these careers that both deify and destroy them. The contradictions are endless and all so romantic. One scene, featuring an interviewed Prima exiting stage to a legion of gushing older women proves the dream they inspire don’t end at puberty. While in another, more glamorous moment, a dancer rehearses in a private room as young dancers scramble for glimpses through a glass paned door. While that dancer moves into and out of the harsh light from the window her body is rendered intermittently in chiaroscuro and natural light, and she, for more than just that moment, seems like a creature of fire—the stuff poets wrote about. That something so beautiful can exist in this modern world is, itself, a source of wonder. That it’s so under-recognized and under-appreciated by much of the world is its own contradiction, but for a culture so richly beholden to so many contradictions, one supposes, it’s all part of the mythos.
Distributor: First Run Features
Cast: Alina Somova, Svetlana Zakharova, Diana Vishneva, Ulyana Lopatkina and Evgenia Obraztsova
Director: Bertrand Normand
Producer: Yann Broli and Frédéric Podetti
Genre: Documentary, Russian-language; English narration and subtitles
Running time: 77 min.
Release date: January 16 NY, February 6 LA