Review: 'Ballerina'

Film Critic

Those passionate about ballet will need no encouragement to experience the new documentary "Ballerina," and those who don't care will be tempted to change their minds should they see it. As the lyric from "A Chorus Line" insists, "everyone is beautiful at the ballet," and this film is dedicated to proving that point.

Directed and in large part shot by Bertrand Normand with a digital Betacam, "Ballerina" is not a tell-all documentary that reveals hidden conflicts or unbridgeable chasms. It is instead a beautiful snapshot of ballet life, Russian style, and a tribute to five particular ballerinas.

"Ballerina" starts with the point that ballet is the national art of Russia, a place where, especially in the old capital of St. Petersburg, the tradition is generations old and almost every little girl dreams of adulation and success.

Normand has focused his efforts on both St. Petersburg's Vaganova Ballet Academy, which admits only 30 students a year out of hundreds of applicants, and on the world-famous ballet company it is connected with, the Mariinsky, formerly known as the Kirov.

The first part of the film focuses on giving us a sense of a ballerina's formative years, the time from age 10 to 18 when the girls are in training. The discipline can be severe and self-sufficiency is essential, as are willpower and passion. "It's like joining a convent in terms of self-deprivation," a choreographer says.

Yet the wonder of Russian ballet seems to be that despite the uniformity of the training, the best of the ballerinas invariably have their own style and fire, qualities that can be seen in the film's youngest dancer, Alina Somova, whom the film first shows as a 17-year-old getting ready for the performance that will mark the end of her years at school.

Just a year older but already a rising star at the Mariinsky is Evgenia Obraztsova, who is also shown having a key role in French director Cédric Klapisch's "Russian Dolls" and chatting graciously with fans.

The other three dancers are all prima ballerinas, but their styles and stories are different. Svetlana Zakharova is very much a dancer with an impeccable classical style, while Diana Vishneva, though less traditional, really stands out for her vibrant aura in a guest appearance at the Opéra Garnier in Paris.

Then there is Ulyana Lopatkina, the oldest of the group, who took two years off from ballet to both deal with a serious injury and have a child. Now she is back at the Mariinsky, trying to work her way back to top form.

"Ballerina" is most memorable, not surprisingly, in capturing these women on the move, whether dancing in full costume on the Mariinsky stage or practicing endlessly in the theater's rehearsal rooms. Their elegance and ethereal grace in the face of a punishing system mark them as faces to watch on the screen as much as on the stage.

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