Thursday, January 8, 2009

Movies: Ballerina

I have never been a fan of classical ballet, finding the music soporific, the choreography repetitive, and the dancers rigid. In its traditional form, it is an art that constantly affirms outmoded gender and class relations. But Bertrand Nostrand's intimate documentary, which follows five Russian ballerinas for three years, managed a rare feat: it changed my mind about the entire thing.

This is Nostrand's first feature-length documentary, and certain aspects of it (the title sequence, the generalization-laden voiceover narration) are a bit rough. Nevertheless, Nostrand cuts to the quick of the most important thing: the dancing. Filming at school, in rehearsals, and on stage, Nostrand shows the obscene amount of work that these girls do. Russian ballerinas are not in any way coddled, and a very telling interview with a French (male) ballet dancer, highlights the difference between Russian and European training, technique, and style. The Russian dancers are given more responsibility at an earlier age; they therefore mature more quickly. Perhaps more importantly, they dance with more spirit than their European counterparts. Rather than being clones, they have very distinct personalities, which they bring to their roles, acting as much as dancing. Though this may sound unfair, Nostrand's footage backs it up: there is nothing rigid about these dancers; their faces are open and expressive (rather than spackled with paste-up smiles like Americans), and their arms and torsos bend with exaggerated curves, stylized lines that recall the twisted, anxious bodies drawn by Egon Schiele.

The Kirov Ballet's style, too, is instantly discernible as far more expressionist and manered than the dry, pompous designs of the Balanchine-obsessed New York City Ballet. Balanchine may have been from the same city (and the Kirov certainly stages his work), but Nostrand's footage of ballets choreographed by Petipa (La Bayadère), Grigorovich (The Legend of Love), and especially Fokine (Schéhérazade) demonstrate a shared, distinctly Russian sensibility that leaves Balanchine the odd man out.

Of the five dancers that Nostrand singles out, four are stunning: the snaky Diana Vishneva, an "older" dancer who brings a dark, seasoned grist to her work; the equally dark Ulyana Lopatkina, who after a two-year break to nurse an ankle injury and have a daughter not only reestablishes her previous technique, but also acquires a new soulfulness not typical in ballet; the impish Evgenia Obraztsova, whose limpid eyes and open face are the most innocent you will ever see in a dancer of her intelligence and technique; the elegant Svetlana Zakharova, whose extravagant arms and neck make even Swan Lake worth watching. The fifth dancer, Alina Somova, is young, and her dancing still seems unsteady to me; she lacks the endearing naivete of Evgenia Obraztsova's expression, while her legs, like a filly or fawn, still falter. Nostrand does good work, though, recording her rehearsals, where the Director says simply, dismissively, again and again, "I don't like it," without giving much more helpful feedback. Her will, then, is stronger than her legs, as is the will of each of these other dancers. I wonder if any art requires so much work, physical and emotional. Certainly not film-making.

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