Pub date March 24, 2009
SectionFilm FeaturesSectionFilm Review

REVIEW If comparisons between Bertrand Normand’s Ballerina and Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine’s 2005 Ballets Russes are inevitable, it’s perhaps mostly indicative of how infrequently a feature-length ballet documentary gets made and distributed. Then again, one could argue that the stark differences in subject and scope are historically significant. Richly researched and packed with archival footage and modern-day interviews, Ballets Russes depicts the milieu of dancers, choreographers, and impresarios exiled from postrevolutionary Russia in the early years of the 20th century. Ballerina trains its focus on the world they left behind, or what became of it, concentrating on the grueling, somewhat circumscribed lives of five female dancers making their careers in present-day, post-Soviet Russia, in St. Petersburg’s Mariinsky Theatre, where the world-renowned Kirov Ballet has its home. Where Ballets Russes describes the historical arc within which modern ballet as we know it was created, Ballerina describes the smaller, personal arcs of two newer dancers making their painstaking way out of the corps de ballets and three principal dancers, one who is returning to work after a lengthy injury. Interviews and footage of unending classes, rehearsals, and performances clarify the single-minded conviction and commitment with which these young women approach their vocation, accepting physical pain and deprivation as a daily reality, while instructors and artistic directors sketch the larger picture of a profession in which early retirement is a fact of life. Still, the film has a flatness of tone that is literally conveyed in the somewhat run-of-the-mill narration ("A ballerina’s work is never done") and paralleled by the flat affect of most of the subjects. The performance footage is lovely — though also offering ample evidence of the Kirov’s aged repertoire — but perhaps the most visually startling moment occurs during an admissions exam at St. Petersburg’s premier ballet school, in which 10-year-old aspirants are put through their paces virtually naked, their limbs manipulated by ballet masters attempting to divine the future.

BALLERINA opens Fri/27 in Bay Area theaters.