Movie Review: 'Ballerina' Raises the Barre

Diana Vishneva's career, like those of the film's other ballerinas, is en pointe.
Diana Vishneva's career, like those of the film's other ballerinas, is en pointe. (First Run Features - First Run Features)
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By Sarah Kaufman
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, March 6, 2009

Fictional films that aim to take us backstage into the "real" world of ballet invariably turn on melodrama and the romantic fluff of soap operas. (Think "The Turning Point" and, more recently, Robert Altman's more nuanced "The Company.") But at the highest levels of the profession, the unvarnished reality of a dancer's life contains plenty of genuine theater, as proved in Bertrand Normand's jewel of a documentary, "Ballerina."

This is an insider's view of a subculture that's unlike any other, one that happens to include beautiful women, extraordinary physical feats and, occasionally, bitter tears. Yet the film neither patronizes nor over-idolizes its subjects.

It grew out of the fascination that this little-known French director has with the women of Russia's Mariinsky Ballet, formerly known as the Kirov. Because this is a Frenchman's view (it must be said), we are treated to lingering close-ups, artfully filmed moments of solitude and glimpses of how the ladies walk in high heels. But Normand picked his subjects well. The five dancers he followed in St. Petersburg have only increased in fame since he began filming: Svetlana Zakharova (who now dances with the rival Bolshoi Ballet), Ulyana Lopatkina, Diana Vishneva, Alina Somova and the especially promising Evgenia Obraztsova. If you've seen the Mariinsky here in the past few years, you've likely seen one or more of them; Vishneva, Somova and Obraztsova each led recent performances at the Kennedy Center.

It's easy to share Normand's reverence: Starting with years of painstaking training at the affiliated Vaganova Ballet Academy, the progression of a lucky few into the professional company, and then the endless rehearsals, uncertainties and struggles with directors, one's own body and the march of time, a ballerina's life is not for the weak.

Particularly not in St. Petersburg. No other ballet establishment can boast the heritage, the reputation and the resources of the Mariinsky, which produced Rudolf Nureyev, Mikhail Baryshnikov and Natalia Makarova. But forget about the stars. How about the moment when a group of 10-year-old girls is auditioning at the Vaganova, in their underpants, in front of a male instructor who tests the flexibility of their hips and spine as if he's a horseman shopping for a foal? Diane Baker's narration may be flat (she sounds eerily like NPR's Cokie Roberts), but the camera tells a deeply moving story, especially at times like this.

Another emotional beat comes as Somova, preparing for her first "Swan Lake," rehearses before Makhar Vaziev, then the Mariinsky's ballet director. "I don't like that" pose, he scolds the 18-year-old, who has her leg crooked up high behind her, almost touching her shoulder blades. "Do it normal, not stretched."

She shows him the pose again and again, each one identical to the first. "I don't like it," he snaps, and you can feel the atmosphere chill. (He's right -- she is contorting the shape.) The film then takes us through the young ballerina's debut performance, her curtain calls, her smiles . . . but once backstage, she faces more criticism from Vaziev, and exhilaration quickly turns to tears.

There are many eye-opening scenes here -- among them the rehearsals with legendary Russian coaches, and French dancer Manuel Legris's outspoken awe at the Russians' work ethic. But I'm still haunted by those little girls at the barre, some of them clutching a piece of clothing to their bare chests as they watch one another's tryouts with inscrutable looks on their faces. They're taking a first step toward a career that even at its outset, they are finding out, is demanding, a bit humiliating -- and far from entirely under their control.

Ballerina (80 minutes, at Landmark's E Street Cinema) is not rated. English narration and Russian and French dialogue with English subtitles.

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