First Run Features // 2006 // 77 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Brett Cullum // August 12th, 2009
"Everyone is beautiful at the ballet."
- a lyric from A Chorus Line
Ballerina documents the lives of five ballerinas from the world renowned Kirov dance company. The film is a journey from the start to the finish of getting on to the Mariinsky Theatre in a production of Swan Lake. The discipline it takes is severe, and the sights along the way are amazing and sometimes disturbing. We get to see girls stripped down to their briefs at age ten for judges to inspect their lines. Then it's a series of scenes where dancers are berated verbally, and told again and again their integrity and passion is in question. The Red Shoes is just a fairy tale in comparison with the reality of what it takes to be a Russian prima ballerina. But in addition to all the humiliation, we get to see some spectacular dancing. And that is what you came here for right?
All of the subjects of the film have some measure of success already, and that makes Ballerina a bit idealized, showing us only the pretty side of the business. Sure, there are injuries and setbacks, but for the most part we follow the winners. There's nothing traumatic like the career ending tendon snap seen in Robert Altman's The Company. Most of the film is in Russian with English subtitles, and we mainly look at our five dancers in rehearsals and in the wings at shows. It's a woman's world, and there are no male dancers that we spend any significant time with. Forget all you know about great Russian male dancers; Baryshnikov nor his successor are anywhere to be seen. What is interesting in watching these five ballerinas is the fact each girl has gone through the same strict regimen of training, but we see their distinct personalities and signature dance styles. It is proof dancers inject some of their soul in to even the most rigorous technique.
The DVD from First Run Features is what you might expect: pretty much the film with cursory extras thrown in. The bulk of the production was recorded on digital video, so the image is clean, although not cinematic. Colors are good, and there are no problems with artifacts or digital manipulation. We get bits of the film in Russian, English, and French at different times. Sound is never a problem, and the music and dialogue come across clearly. Extras include a photo gallery, a text biography of the director, and previews of other dance films from First Run. That's not a lot of supplemental material, but the film explains itself well enough.
Ballerina captures the magical masochism of the Russian prima ballerina. It's five women who eat, drink, bleed, and sweat ballet. They are Russia's pride and joy -- the best at what they do. Each one has become ethereal and a star in her own right, fighting and clawing her way to glory in the Kirov company. It's amazing to see the true stories, but you wonder about the thousands of hopefuls off to the side who never quite made it. If the film has a flaw it's that we only get to see the triumphs of the wills and not the shattering of dreams. We only witness the truly divine and exquisitely beautiful.
Guilty of being a thing of beauty, this documentary captures what it takes to
be a part of the ballet in Russia.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: First Run Features
* Full Frame
* Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English, Russian, French)
Running Time: 77 Minutes
Release Year: 2006
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
* Photo Gallery
* Filmmaker Bio
* Dance Film Gallery