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Bertrand Normand’s Ballerina explores another artistic realm that inspires rabid dedication—Russian ballet. The documentary profiles five dancers from the Kirov Ballet of St. Petersburg who, at various stages of their careers, represent the “constant metamorphosis” a professional ballerina must undergo from unsteady tyke to prima ballerina.
Normand’s elegant cuts between the dancers’ exhausting daily practices and their gorgeous, graceful performances make the commitment to such a journey understandable. Ballerina introduces us to Alina, a new hire at the Kirov; Evgenia, a second-year dancer with acting aspirations; Svetlana, a shy star who claims she can better express herself emotionally on stage than in real life; Diana, a prima; and Ulyana, a star trying to make a comeback after a bad ankle forced her into early retirement.
Even those skeptical of ballet will likely be entranced by the 77-minute documentary. The athleticism and repetition required of the dancers make for an occasionally brutal viewing experience; these women are at the top of their field yet still subject to criticism verging on condemnation from their instructors. And they self-flagellate as well: Svetlana says she is seldom satisfied with her stage performances, while Evgenia, after a successful turn in Swan Lake, cries when she’s forced to take a day off.
The performances supply most of Ballerina’s loveliness, but Normand also makes the rehearsals mesmerizing, particularly Ulyana’s solo rehearsal, shot largely in shadow and silent except for the tap of her pointes. You share the elation of each woman’s successes—none of them seem to play the diva—and may even well up with Evgenia when a loyal follower tells her: “Do you realize what you make an audience feel? It’s unbelievable.”