The soul of a dancer

FIRST RUN FEATURESAlina Somova is one of the five dancers in ''Ballerina.'' FIRST RUN FEATURESAlina Somova is one of the five dancers in ''Ballerina.'' (First Run Features)
By Janice Page
Globe Correspondent / May 1, 2009
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As every dancer knows, ballet is a grand contradiction. To master its soft, seemingly effortless, and ethereal moves, one must train impossibly hard, embrace rigid discipline, and perfect contortions that are as inwardly punishing as they are outwardly beautiful.

Plenty of films have exploited the drama of this struggle. But in Bertrand Normand's raw and revealing 2006 documentary, "Ballerina," the contradictions offstage are as pronounced as anything taking place in the spotlight. And that is especially fascinating because the film goes behind the scenes of one of the world's premier dance companies, the Kirov Ballet of St. Petersburg, Russia.

"Ballerina" is simple and straightforward. It highlights five females in varying stages of the journey from student to star to has-been. It's digital Betacam footage, a good portion of it shot by the writer-director himself, and is sometimes home-movie crude; its voice-overs can be flatly pedantic.

But if you want a realistic, stripped-down look at the legendary Kirov (also known more recently as the Mariinsky Ballet), Normand's film delivers some memorable glimpses in its efficient 80 minutes. One particularly unsettling segment exposes the selection process at a prestigious ballet academy, wherein young girls clad only in underwear are posed and picked over like plastic dolls in a factory. Only the perfect ones move on.

And yet what emerges from all this uniform physicality and training is an assortment of women with surprisingly different personalities and dreams. We get to know them only briefly, but the appeal here is that the dancers are seen as individuals - in rehearsals, at home, sitting for candid interviews, and most entertainingly in the context of the art form's daunting national history as each attempts to put her unique stamp on the same classic works.

As dazzling as they can be in performance, the ballerinas are even more breathtaking when a camera catches them alone in the shadows, dancing only for themselves. This isn't the first ballet film to recognize that, but it's a notable addition to the company.

Janice Page can be reached at For more on movies, go to

BALLERINA Directed and written by: Bertrand Normand

Narrated in English by: Diane Baker

Dialogue in Russian and French with English subtitles

At: Kendall Square

Running time: 80 minutes