Gallic helmer Bertrand Normand’s intensive study “Ballerina” follows the fortunes of five dancers of the Kirov Ballet, each at a different stage of her career. A perfect complement to the recent “Ballets Russes,” docu bypasses the flamboyant personalities and tumultuous history of the form for a present-day examination of the subtle rewards of exacting discipline in the service of a platonic ideal. First Run Features has skedded “Ballerina” for scattershot Stateside release (it opens Jan. 16 at Gotham’s Quad Cinema), where the pic’s aesthetic pirouettes, though accompanied by breathtaking footage, may appeal mainly to those already of terpsichorean persuasion.
Through dancers of varied experience — including teenage students, debutants, coryphees, premiere danseuses and a former star attempting a comeback — Normand captures the ongoing metamorphosis of the ballerina from first flowering to maturity to fulfillment, to paraphrase the somewhat grandiloquent narration (greatly helped in the English version by Diane Baker’s dry tones).
Normand enjoys unprecedented access to all venues: the Vaganova Academy, where pliant little 9-year-olds are molded into ballerinas over a grueling course of training; the rehearsal rooms where each body part is carefully aligned and each interpretive movement minutely broken down; and the Mariinsky Theater stage, decked out in full costumed performance mode. Routines are filmed head-on, fragmented through squares of window pane or artfully silhouetted against dying light.
Remarkably, given the rigid requirements of classical formation, the dancers differ greatly, and not only in their relative mastery of the art. While young Alina Somova’s technical prowess earns her the lead in “Swan Lake,” her dancing appears academic, lacking any particular fluidity or panache. The marvelous expressiveness of coryphee Evgenia Obraztsova, on the other hand, is immediately apparent, whethershe’s playing a fluttering Juliet to the strains of Prokofiev or a radiant bride in Cedric Klapisch’s feature film “Russian Dolls.”
The company’s two premiere ballerinas, the traditionally graceful Svetlana Zakharova and the quicksilver, adventurous Diana Vishneva, offer a perfect contrast between fully developed styles. Returning to the stage after a two-year absence due to injury, Ulyana Lopatkina shows an uncannily controlled stillness as a dying swan that harks back to the Russian paradigms of Pavlova and Ulanova.
Even as it celebrates the diversity of the Kirov’s ballerinas, docu reveals the stultifying sameness of the Kirov repertoire, apparently unchanged for decades, chauvinistically favoring Russian composers (admittedly, it’s hard to beat Tchaikovsky and Prokofiev in the field) and overly dependent on 19th-century and early 20th-century choreography. If the Kirov’s traditionalist audience relishes nuanced variations on a theme, with the same few ballets danced by different ballerinas at different ages, the dancers themselves crave an occasional change of pace. Tech credits are creditable.