Friday, January 16, 2009

Tiny Dancers

Directed by Bertrand Normand

At Quad Cinema, 34 West 13th Street
Opens January 16, 2009

Somova in Ballerina (photo: First Run Features)
In Bertrand Normand’s endlessly fascinating documentary Ballerina, five Russian female dancers attend ballet school and become part of the large–and artistically important–state apparatus housed in St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky and Moscow’s Bolshoi Theaters.

Unlike in America—where funding for the arts has shrunk for decades and ballet, classical music and opera are looked down upon (the unspoken word is “elitist”)— aspiring to become a dancer, singer or musician is still welcomed in Russia and throughout Europe. And the intelligent, confident women of Ballerina are shown succeeding to varying degrees in an art form that was perfected at the very theaters in which they perform (i.e., Tchaikovsky’s masterpiece Swan Lake premiered at the Mariinsky).

Ballerina is far more than an exercise in backstage eavesdropping (even though there is some fun to be had in that respect). The director interviews these five talented ladies–Alina Somova, Svetlana Zakharova, Diana Vishneva, Ulyana Lopatkina and Evgenia Obraztsova–and they each come across as fully aware of their own place within the historical and artistic context of Russian ballet. But this knowledge doesn’t weigh them down: on the contrary, it seems to have grounded them, as it has allowed them to cultivate their talent on their own terms. Vishneva, for one, has gone on to a successful career as a principal dancer with the Kirov Ballet at home and American Ballet Theatre in New York.

Obviously a fan of ballet, the director smartly decided that it was Russian ballerinas whom he wanted to show in all their glory, their home country one of the few left that still puts their leading ladies of dance on a pedestal. And throughout his film, Normand tantalizingly provides intimate glimpses of these women hard at work during rehearsals and relaxing at home, footage underscoring Ballerina as an edifying exploration of the lives of a handful of hard-working artists helping to keep alive an essential art form in our vastly changed 21st century world.

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