Okay, so I kick it old-school when it comes to Netflix. Because of my refusal to deal with the cable company for anything (I haven’t had cable for almost 9 years now) I get my internet from my wireless service provider which means I have a data usage limit and can’t take advantage of as much streaming video as I’d like to. So I’m still in DVD-land when it comes to Netflix.
I’m also horrible about watching the DVDs sent to me. Sometimes I’ll be good about watching them promptly and sending them back. But then a few weeks will go by and they just sit. This means that the DVDs I’m getting currently are ones I added to my queue approximately two years ago. I’m not kidding.
It would seem that approximately two years ago I added a ton of ballet-related DVDs to the queue. Which makes sense… that was about the time I started getting involved in the dance blog-o-sphere and finding out about some of these gems. So now I’m finally watching them.
The first one I got was Ballerina (2006) which was a documentary profiling five female dancers from the Mariinsky (Kirov) ballet. The five dancers they chose were all at different levels.
The first, Alina Somova, was in her final year at the Vaganova Ballet Academy and preparing for the graduation performance which served as her audition for the Mariinsky. She was accepted into the company and you get to see her transition from student to professional.
The second, Evgenia Obraztsova, was a graduate of Vaganova, but had already completed her first year in the company and so it showed her as a professional who was starting her ascent through the ranks.
Then there were two dancers who were already established prima ballerinas in the company, Svetlana Zakharova and Diana Vishneva. The focus on them was really on how they rehearse their roles and bring their characters to life and their attempts to perform outside of the Mariinsky (it showed Vishneva travelling to Paris to work with the Paris Opera Ballet and Manuel Legris).
The fifth dancer was Ulyana Lopatkina who was coming back from two years away from ballet. She had endured an injury that required her to step back and took advantage of that time to get married and have a baby. She was now working back towards performance shape.
With covering five dancers they really couldn’t get into as much detail as I would have liked on the progression of each of the dancers, but I loved that they showed people at various levels of their profession and the challenges they face at each point.
Since the beginning of the film highlighted Somova it also showed the training at Vaganova and was really interesting to see. They showed the 10-year-old girls auditioning and it was quite eye-opening. There was little in the way of dancing from what they showed of the audition process. Instead they showed a group of girls in their underwear in front of a panel. One of the teachers (I assume) tested their flexibility in their legs and back by putting them into various positions (side extension, arabesque, cambré back). The student didn’t really do much herself. It seemed a bit demeaning in some ways. I mean, aside from the audition in one’s underwear, I saw no part where the child demonstrated her dancing ability. It was really all about their physique. On the other hand it highlighted the whole hand-picked aspect of Vaganova training. There is a lot of controversy about the demands of the Vaganova technique in terms of flat turn-out, etc. But you could see how they really were picking kids that had the physical capacity to meet the demands of training. So… I guess reassuring in some ways and a bummer in others.
What showed the flip side of all of this, at least in my opinion, was an interview conducted with Manuel Legris later in the film. He discussed how every Russian ballerina has a unique quality to her dancing, that no two dance the same. Which I found interesting because of how exacting Vaganova is known to be. I mean, all those pictures of the Vaganova kids in class where they look like they’re all cut from a mold. You’d think they would all dance similarly as professionals. But no.
And you could see that in the rehearsal footage. It was amazing to me to see how hard these ballerinas would work on maybe an 8-count snippet of choreography to get the expression just right. It wasn’t simply a matter of memorizing the choreography and executing it cleanly, it was about which way the head was tilted, how the hand was moved, etc. So fascinating to see the focus on even the most minute detail. And the work that the ballerina would do with a teacher, the back and forth discussion of what the character should be, how to best express that. The amount of real, true work went into the rehearsals was staggering to me. It wasn’t all about physicality, it was a lot of give and take, feedback, tweaking, etc. Truly impressive.
As an adult re-beginner I also particularly enjoyed the section about Lopatkina because I could relate in some way to her struggle. Obviously she dances at a much higher level than we amateurs can ever aspire to, but she was completely out of the dance studio for two years dealing with her injury and becoming a mom. To watch her come back and say the same things that so many of us have… working to get back to where we were previously, building strength that has been lost, etc. Truly inspiring. And what I loved was how gentle she was with herself in the process. She had realistic goals of building herself back up to her previous level. It was coming back all guns blazing. It was working back up to classes and and then some small roles, hoping to get some solos and duos. But what I also loved was the interview with the artistic director who was saying that Lopatkina’s best years were still to come. I mean, she had stepped back from the company when she was at a very high level and then had to make up for lost time. But her higher-ups still felt that this hadn’t been a detriment to her and that she was going to do great things. I think all of us adults can take that into consideration… we may have lost time, but that doesn’t mean that our best years are behind us!
Overall, a nicely-done documentary that managed to put a lot into a brief 80-minute span. I found it wholly engrossing and inspiring! Oh, and I loved seeing the images of the theatre having visited there in 1995! Such a beautiful building.