Many girls and even some boys dream of becoming a ballet star and Bertrand Normand's entrancing new documentary, Ballerina: A Portrait of Five Exceptional Russian Ballerinas, attempts to show what it takes to become the best of the best by showing a brief moment in the lives of five ballerinas in the most renowned ballet company, the Mariinsky. When it produced Mikhail Baryshnikov, it was known as the Kirov Ballet in Kirov, now again St. Petersburg. The company takes the best students from the St. Petersburg's Vaganova Academy, a school that itself culls from hundred of applicants, taking only 30 students each year.
Normand reminds us of the history behind the Mariinsky Theatre, also spelled Maryinsky. Named for Empress Maria Alexandrovna, wife of Tsar Alexander II, it produced the legendary dancers Anna Pavlova and Vaslav Nijinsky. The city and the ballet company were renamed Kirov after the assassinated Communist party leader, Sergei Kirov (1886-1934). Other careers that began there included those of George Balanchine, Rudolf Nureyev, Natalia Makorova, and Mikhail Baryshnikov.
One review called this "rarified" but "shallow" look at "a severe and beautiful cult." Yet would this same view apply if the documentary had been on football or a male sport?
If you imagine that these girls who become women are just passive waifs in tights, you may not see the point of this documentary. Yes, the girls are chosen to conform with a certain look although one instructor admits pre-puberty bodies can be deceptive and change once the girls mature. For now, these girls fit a type — small head, long neck, slender bodies, and long legs and arms. These are young girls, blessed with special physical attributes who must either have, learn or gain an inner strength, a competitive toughness to match their physical gifts if they wish to become prima ballerinas.
Watch the young girls, half-naked, with their undeveloped breasts in full view of teachers, being stretched and prodded and poked and perhaps you'll see little lambs at a meat market. Or perhaps you'll see girls between the ages of 10 and 18 being toughened up to be judged on stage while wearing the merest slip of cloth. Their body image and their self-esteem must bear up under the type of scrutiny that would make your average American teenager cry. This is a case of being cruel to be kind and nothing I've seen in American ballet courses is as ferocious and strict as the course we see in this documentary. This is part of what it means to be driven, part of what it means to want something so bad that only your body can give you if you are gifted enough and hard enough to do it.
Yet despite this rigorous attention, we see that uniformity isn't the result or desired product. Perfection and the ability to shine above others is still valued and we look at what makes the five women different, worthy of being prima ballerinas. Contrary to the fears often voiced by Americans, that rigid discipline only produces conformity, we see a classical ballerina, a more colorful ballerina and variations in between.
We see Alina Somova, first as a 17-year-old senior, preparing for her final performance as a student at the academy. She has attracted much attention already and she will become a member of the Mariinsky Theatre. A year ahead of her is Evgenia Obraztsova, who has already crossed over into popular culture. She has been given a part in French director Cédric Klapisch's Russian Dolls.
We also see Svetlana Zakharova whose style is very classical, and Diana Vishneva — a less traditional ballerina, but she has an electric stage presence and is shown in an appearance at the Opéra Garnier in Paris.
Because the career of a ballerina is short — most retire before they reach 40 — we see how quickly they must rise and how easy it is for them to fall. Ulyana Lopatkina, the oldest of the five, was injured and took two years off from ballet to recover and to have a child. Now we see her attempting to regain her form at the Mariinsky.
Ballerina: A Portrait of Five Exceptional Russian Ballerinas does a good job of showing the intensity and brief career of a prima ballerina and how the end results can be different interpretations of grace and beauty of movement all stemming from the same tradition and from individual talent and dedication.
Ballerina: A Portrait of Five Exceptional Russian Ballerinas is already available on DVD where the title is Ballerina: An Intimate Portrait of Five Ballerinas from the Kirov In English, French, and Russian with English subtitles.