Swimming in Swan Lake
“Ballerina” serviceably documents the challenges of life as a member of the ballet company of St. Petersburg’s Mariinski Theatre, perhaps the world’s foremost such institution. Director Bertrand Normand includes a sufficient volume of rehearsal scenes, talking heads testifying to the difficulties of life at the top of the field and clips from performances of many of the greatest works of Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev and others. In other words, he does everything he should to fulfill his film’s central mission: giving outsiders a rare glimpse into an exclusive, elite world.
Sadly, his film never successfully evokes the graceful majesty displayed by these brilliant practitioners of one of the world’s most poignant professions. It’s too levelheaded, too aesthetically old-fashioned and academic, playing more like a TV documentary than a film interested in using the tools of the medium to provoke a visceral response. It badly needs a dose of what Werner Herzog, in his “Minnesota Declaration” called “ecstatic truth.” For a tangible example of that, check out what he does to a similarly unfamiliar world of wonders, Antarctica, in “Encounters at the End of the World.”
While one grows to admire the beauty and grace the dancers pour into their craft, they don’t make very interesting human subjects. The picture could have used the Herzogian eye for the otherworldly, strange souls lurking beneath the most banal of skins. Mr. Normand gives us little beyond some conventional on camera testimony from the dancers about their personal and professional plans. Alina Somova, Uliana Lopatkina, Evguenya Obraztsova, Svetlana Zakharova and Diana Vishneva – the five subjects – have unique stories to tell, but they need the sort of guidance and prodding anathematic to Mr. Normand’s observational approach to tell them in an engaging fashion. Needless to say, they rarely ever get it. They wind up, instead, as the mildly intriguing faces of a film ideal for ballet aficionados only.
Opens on Jan. 16 in Manhattan.
Directed by Bertrand Normand; directors of photography, Mr. Normand, Franck Laniel, Isabelle Saunois, Edward Oleschak, Igor Yurov, Alexandre Filipov, Frédéric Podetti, Dominique Collin and Thierry Maisonnave; edited by Antonela Bevenja; produced by Mr. Podetti and Yann Brolli; released by First Run Features. Narrated by Diane Baker in English, dialogue in Russian, with English subtitles. Running time: 1 hour 20 minutes. This film is not rated.