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‘Ballerina’ documentary reveals the evolving promise of young ballerinas

Facing the dearth of serious, professional dance on stage in August? In need of a ballet fix before the fall dance scene kicks into gear? Rent “Ballerina,” the 2006 documentary by Bertrand Norman (recently made available through Netflix).

Go here for a preview.

This quiet documentary goes behind the scenes of Russian ballet and the ballerinas who have made it iconic. In Russia, as narrator Diana Baker’s voiceover states, “Ballet is a national art” and its ballerinas are celebrities with their own groupies (who bring them juice, hugs and copies of “The Great Gatsby”).

The film begins with a look at the arduous training young women receive at the Vaganova Ballet Academy. While the footage is free of images of twisted, tortured feet, bloody toeshoes and investigations of eating disorders — some of the common situations ballet dancers submit to in their striving for perfect techniques and bodies — there is one rather horrifying scene in which twiglike 10-year-old girls audition naked except for their underpants, as an older man lifts and twists their limbs to examine their extension. Sheesh.

Otherwise, the film is all decorum and loveliness as it follows five young ballerinas at various stages of their careers with the Kirov Ballet, housed in the Mariinski Theatre. There’s the youngest, Alina Somova, who wins a place at the Kirov Ballet after her Vaganova graduation performance. She goes on to mature so quickly that she’s dancing the principal role in “Swan Lake” by age 18.

One of her counterparts at the Kirov is the memorably oval-faced Evgenia Obraztsova, who dances with a youthful confidence that’s utterly beguiling. She’s so beloved for inhabiting her characters that she is asked to act in a French film, winning praise from the director. But she returns to the stage at the Mariinski and her ballet career immediately after.

Ulyana Lopatkina, after injuring her foot, married and had a daughter. But she’s longing to return to the stage, and works diligently to regain her former level of excellence. She succeeds, and the footage of her dancing in “Legend of Love” is breathtakingly incisive.

Diana Vishneva, who has received accolades throughout Europe and the United States recently, is seemingly able to take on any personality or role, infusing each one with her singular sense of personality and style.

That ballet is “a very severe discipline” requiring a life of self-deprivation is made somewhat clear in the film, as the dancers talk about rehearsing all day and performing at night, and their teachers drill them to the point of exhaustion. But this film is more a look at the dancers’ constant drives to improve, so they may move from the corps de ballet to the coryphée to duets and short solos, and finally to principal roles.

Perhaps most impressive, however, is how each of the dancers profiled — all of them schooled in Russian ballet — display their own stylistic personalities despite their similar training. Which makes this film insightful training for the ballet watcher’s eye as we prepare for the upcoming dance season.

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Comments (2)

  1. Submitted by Robert Hammel on 08/21/2009 - 12:43 pm.

    An excellent documentary, well shot and constructed, but it set in Russia. On September 25 & 26 You can see a documentary “Solo: 1×2” At the Southern Theater about six Minnesota McKnight Dance Fellows as they create solo’s. There are some interesting parallels — dedication, artistry, etc. but because each dancer is pursuing his/her own vision the process that each one goes through is fascinating.

  2. Submitted by Camille LeFevre on 08/21/2009 - 03:40 pm.

    Thanks, Robert, for the reminder. I will be talking with you and covering this for Minnpost in September.

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