Ballerina (First Run Features, NR)

film_ballerina_sm.jpgBertrand Normand focuses on five women at different stages of their careers.








The Russian economy may be in shambles and the Putin administration internationally criticized for human rights violations, but there’s one area in which the Russia are still recognized as world leaders: classical ballet. Bertrand Normand’s documentary Ballerina looks behind the scenes at the Vaganova ballet school and the Kirov Ballet, both in St. Petersburg, to offer a closer look at the system of selection, training and rehearsal which keeps Russian ballet the envy of the world.

Normand focuses on five women at different stages of their careers. Svetlana Zakharova came from Ukraine at age 16 to attend the Vaganova school after passing an international audition, and was accepted into the Kirov after one year, becoming a soloist in her second year with the company. Diana Vishneva is also a prima ballerina with the Kirov: she was a prodigy at the Vaganova Academy, at age 13 receiving the highest marks in the history of the school. Vishneva was hired by the Kirov while still a student and became a soloist the next year; she also performs with the Berlin Ballet and the American Ballet Theatre.

Former prima ballerina Ulyana Lopatkina is making her return to the stage after taking two years off due to a chronic ankle injury, during which time she also gave birth to her daughter. Evgenia Obraztsova is in the Corps de Ballet of the Kirov; her career is on the rise as she is beginning to be assigned more solo and duet roles. Alina Somova is in her second year with the Kirov; at 18 was chosen to be a principal soloist in Swan Lake, making her one of the youngest students in the history of the company to receive this honor.

The most interesting element in Ballerina is the backstage look at classes and rehearsals. Normand does not present a glamorized view of the ballet. Excellence in performance is achieved through constant repetition and refinement, and the dancers are frequently reduced to exhaustion. Serious injury is always a possibility, and at best the dancers can expect to be retired by age 40.

One of the most telling segments looks in on auditions for the Vaganova School. There’s little room for sentiment in this process. A room full of nine-year-old girls, wearing only their underpants (presumably so the examiners can better observe their bodies), perform basic ballet routines and have their bodies bent this way and that by a male examiner to test their flexibility. The probability of admission is similar to an elite college: Hundreds apply annually for about 30 places, and only half of those admitted will complete the full eight years of study.

Ballerina will be of great interest to ballet fans and offers a look behind the scenes at one of the world’s premier companies. Given the inherent appeal of this material, it’s too bad the overall presentation is not better. Limited thought appears to have gone into the selection and editing of the performance segments and the cinematic quality is no more than adequate. The narration is poorly written and spoken; at times, it seems to have been badly translated from another language. | Sarah Boslaugh

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