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?”
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.
Normand takes account of Russia’s ardent female ballet fans and onetime wannabe ballerinas who didn’t make the cuts. In one very affecting scene, the charming Obraztsova comes out of the stage door—not on her way home, just to meet her admirers. She danced the lead in Leonid Lavrovsky’s Romeo and Juliet today. One youngish woman has tears in her eyes. A white-haired regular lists the Juliets she has seen, beginning with the great Galina Ulanova; Obraztsova, she says, brought something to the role she’s never seen before. She offers a clumsily wrapped package—something she knew the young dancer wanted: a copy of The Great Gatsby.
Nothing could be further from the Kirov ballerinas and their quest for perfection than the performer in Sophie Fiennes’s 2006 VSPRS Show and Tell. Fiennes and her camera show lengthy clips from Alain Platel’s astonishing and shattering piece, set to terrific music based on Claudio Monteverdi’s 1610 Vespers for the Blessed Virgin. According to an article in the English-language Japanese magazine Metropolis, Platel told composer Fabrizio Casol to “contaminate Monteverdi’s purity, infusing it with a more oriental, more Jewish, more black-sounding quality, in brief: to make it sound more contemporary.”
The band plays on what looks like an iceberg of draped white fabric set against a glacier of white rags that extends across the back of the stage. The pure voice of extraordinary soprano Claron McFadden at times degenerates into wailing and moaning as she picks up the dancers’ tribulations. Platel says in the film that he has worked with people “with all kinds of difficulties” and is drawn to the fine line between the normal and the abnormal. The dancers of his Les Ballets C de la B, based in Ghent, Belgium, do not address the camera about their career aspirations; their answers to questions presumably posed by Platel reveal what they feel while performing the work, what it triggered in them in terms of memories from their own experiences. We also see audience members speaking out—very intelligently—in post-performance discussions.
Fiennes’s film begins with a man, his back to us, shuddering, and perhaps fumbling with his clothes. You wonder if he’s peeing. Maybe vomiting. Masturbating? When the camera shows him from the front, he’s cramming a piece of flatbread—like a huge pita—into his mouth, into one eye. He doesn’t swallow anything, just tears off pieces and throws them on the floor. A woman enters, staggering around on her red high heels and angrily calling out famous names. Where are these saviors? Why don’t they come? When she yells for James Bond, a man who’s been convulsively undressing and dressing suddenly strikes a cocky pose. As others enter the stage, we see more forms of compulsive behavior. One athletic man and a woman with the flexibility of a contortionist lock their splayed limbs around each other in bizarre ways. The camera swings into close-ups, drops performers out of the bottom of the frame, cuts to a musician, and veers back. The atmosphere Fiennes creates is claustrophobic—a vision of howling mouths and clawing hands—except for the few times she shoots the whole stage from the rear.
The performers’ intelligence and sensitivity provide a startling contrast to their unbridled performing (the choreography comes as much from them as from Platel). Archival clips of mental patients and Africans in a trance ceremony show where some of Platel’s images came from (one in particular that shows a child rubbing his face obsessively). What can barely be glimpsed in Fiennes’s film is that sometimes the performers are in unison, that they have bouts of dancing in which their wildness is somewhat controlled. After a passage in which they furiously but surreptitiously masturbate, they fall flat on their faces, as if on a signal, and hump the floor.
In the discussions among performers, they often refer to the “ecstasy.” I’m not sure we feel this. We see these people’s shuddering and jerking and crying out escalate until they’re drenched in sweat and exhausted; we see their eyes and hands lifted searchingly. But we don’t sense fulfillment. There’s just a quick glimpse of them in the background starting to climb the fabric wall, with one upside-down man reaching for those below. (In an online review of the film in Arts Journal, John Rockwell, who saw Platel’s piece onstage, wrote that he felt the redemptive aspect of Platel’s work was underemphasized in Fiennes’s film; you can also read her response.)
Whatever the flaws of either the staged work or the film, they offer a frightening glimpse into the human condition and the mysterious circuitry of our brains and bodies. The brave dancer-creators listed on the company’s website are Quan Bui Ngoc, Mathieu Desseigne Ravel, Lisi Estaràs, Emile Josse, Iona Kewney, Samuel Lefeuvre, Mélanie Lomoff, Ross McCormack, Elie Tass, Rosalba Torres Guerrero, and Hyo Seung Ye.
Five other festival films (including a two-hour documentary on the career of Jerome Robbins) will be shown over the course of Saturday afternoon and evening and on Sunday afternoon.