The Kirov and Les Ballets C de la B Seen Through the Lens

As always, this year’s Dance on Camera presents a cinematic banquet. Co-sponsored by the Dance Films Association and the Film Society of Lincoln Center, it offers documentaries, creative re-considerations of stage presentations, footage from archives, and freewheeling collaborations between the disciplines of cinema and dance in which the performers may not always be human. This year I missed the experimental work, but two of the featured documentaries have given me much to think about.

Documentaries about dancers inevitably have a certain sameness—especially the ones about ballerinas. Girls start young, aim at the stars, and practice to acquire skill, discipline, stamina, and a threshold of pain beyond the range of most of us. Do we ever tire of hearing about their injuries and listening to their aspirations, of watching them cowed by teachers, praised by choreographers, rehearsing in dingy practice clothes, dancing on stage, panting in the wings with sweat stripping off them? Possibly not.

There are, of course, some differences between such films. In Anne Belle’s 1995 Dancing for Mr. B, the six ballerinas interviewed and seen in action gave insights into Balanchine’s choreography. Donya Feuer’s 1994 The Dancer followed with sensitivity and acumen one young student aspiring to join the Royal Swedish Ballet. Bertrand Normand’s Ballerina, one of DOC’s offerings this time around, focuses on five stellar dancers in St. Petersburg’s Kirov Ballet. The women are interviewed primarily in close-up shots—their weary faces, devoid of makeup, a contrast to the glamorous visages they present to the public. They all seem to have been asked the same questions: “How do you feel about your dancing at this moment?” “What are your aspirations?” “Do you ever get discouraged?”

Ulyana Lopatkina of the Kirov in "Swan Lake"
The Film Society of Lincoln Center / First Run Features
Ulyana Lopatkina of the Kirov in "Swan Lake"


Dance on Camera Festival 2009
Walter Reade Theater, Lincoln Center
January 6 through 17

It was a smart move on Normand’s part, though, to choose dancers at different stages of their careers. He follows Alina Somova from her days as a student in the company’s Vaganova Ballet Academy through her entrance at 18 into the corps de ballet, her promotion to coryphée, and her debut as Odette/Odile in Swan Lake. Coryphée Evgenia Obraztsova seems to be heading for stardom. She takes a side trip into film acting when the Kirov season is over and wins praise for her sense of drama. Svetlana Zakharova is already a prima ballerina—always seeking to deepen and improve her formidable technique. Diana Vishneva is restless. She accepts the invitations to dance abroad that weren’t possible before perestroika; at the Paris Opera, premier danseur Manuel Legris, who is partnering her, lauds the passion in her performing (the film was completed in 2007, before Vishneva appeared in the U.S. in a program of unusual contemporary works she commissioned). Prima ballerina Ulyana Lopatkhina, whom the narration lauds as the greatest of her generation, has perhaps the toughest task. Sidelined by a foot injury that requires an operation, she takes two years off, gets married, has a baby, and works her way back to glory (nice shots of her sitting on the floor, an adorable toddler treading on her practice tutu).

The fastidiously produced film, released by First Run Features, opens at the Quad Cinema on January 16, and will play in several U.S. cities this spring. Although it contains few extended passages from performances, the brief excerpts from classic ballets—shown in respectful long shots without cuts—give us glimpses of some remarkable dancing. The camera isn’t restless or tricky, and the images are beautiful, with only occasional puzzling breaks in continuity (one minute Somova is learning one of the solo swan dances in Swan Lake; presto! she’s Odette).

Some passages are stand out because they either exploit familiar ballet lore to the fullest or venture beyond it. The Vaganova Ballet Academy’s auditions are always horrifying. Before a large panel of the faculty, the 10-year-old finalists stand in a line at one side of the room. Skinny little girls with the requisite long necks and small heads, they wear only white underpants, some of them covering their flat chests with their hands or a piece of fabric. They’re brought to the center one by one, to have their legs stretched high and their backs forcibly arched by one of the teachers. Altynay Asylmuratova—once one of the company’s most expressive ballerinas (stunning here in American Ballet Theatre’s production of La Bayadère) and now the artistic director of the Academy—stands before the camera with a face that looks incapable of motion or emotion and speaks tersely about how of course the discipline is harsh but the rewards may be great.

Certain of the teachers, and especially the coaches, are warm with their protégées, but you can wince when Somova—alone on the stage with Makhar Vaziev, the director of the ballet company, another man (not, I think Valery Gergiev, its general and artistic director), and her nervously smiling coach—runs through some of a Swan Lake solo in partial costume. Vaziev stops her with corrections, which she tries to incorporate. Of her attitude, he says only, “I don’t like it.” And when she does it again, he repeats, “I don’t like it,” and turns away, perhaps leaving her coach to take over. After Somova’s first performance of Odette, when she’s leaving the empty stage with an armload of flowers, he first mentions how she didn’t stand close enough to her partner at one point and he had to reach for her. Only then does Vaziev praise her effort. When he tells her to take a day off, she looks about to cry—as if while she did that, her career might fly away.

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