Directors: Angelin Preljocaj, Valérie Müller
Polina, a movie released in 2016, has the benefit of a director intimately acquainted with his subject. Directed by the renowned French choreographer Angelin Preljocaj and his partner, Valerie Muller, this coming-of-age tale captures both the exhilaration and the growing pains of an artist emerging from her chrysalis.
The child Polina, pushed by an innate love for movement and the possibility for a better future, auditions at the famed Bolshoi Academy. She gets in. The story starts, as it always must, in dance school. Like the landscape it emerges from, there is a severity to dance school, a severity infused with a heroic bleakness. This particular meanness of life produces a certain beauty, beauty that later transforms into a creative thirst for the world beyond its austere circumferences.
It is a good thing that though the film’s central tension revolves around the classical versus the contemporary polemic, namely that one closes in on itself and the other reaches into freedom and life, it never forgets the discipline that holds all dance, any dance, together. In short, it doesn't resort to cheap clichés; the free amateur versus the soulless professional, the classical purist versus the rhapsodizing bohemian. Instead it reminds us that all those things that our protagonist longs for – freedom, experimentation, novelty – is really another kind of lucidity. It is not inspired madness, it does not stand opposite to rigor but it is precisely one thing that opens the vista to another.
No one smiles in the first quarter of the movie, the Russian quarter. But the film takes its time. It doesn’t rush its unsmiling half. It shows us how an epiphany builds so that when Polina makes her leap of faith it feels earned. And in the end there is a hint of continuity. In an early scene with her Bolshoi instructor there is this exchange “People say your choreography was too provocative for the Soviets”. “I was unpatriotic. I used American music” “I was stubborn”. “No that is why people respect you” comes Polina’s reply. Polina too chooses the path of choreography and metaphorical stubbornness.
The film’s narrowness – there are hints of a dark beyond (a father that disappears, poverty) but it rarely lets life intrude on dance – mirrors the particularity of the dancer. Perhaps this explains why the film is less successful in its occasional ventures into the more conventional steppes of drama. There is a lot of visual exposition; declarative images to move the plot forward. But the meat of it is the dancing. Here, there is a little bit of a reversal – the dance is the plot, the plot is the aside.
A movie this reliant on dance needs an actress that can speak through the language of dance. Anastasia Shevtsova, a graduate of the famed Vaganova Academy and a dancer with the Mariinsky, has the classical finish to carry the first scenes and the intensity to see the rest though. She can suggest stoicism without, crucial in the Russian setting, and abandon without neuroses necessary to the second half. In a case of art mirroring reality, Shevtsova has left the Mariinsky to pursue a career in choreography and film.
Director: Darren Aronofsky
Though billed as a psychological thriller this Darren Aronofsky directed movie is not much of a subtle ride. It engages in casual stereotypes amplifying them to the point of caricature – the ballet mother, the anorexic dancer, the director-tyrant all find their way inevitably into the film’s epidermis. Does the movie find its way under our skin too? The ballet company with its anachronistic holdovers and its ritual mysteries is the perfect dystopia for Aronofsky’s unbalanced universe. It takes artistic liberties with that universe that to the dance-loving, initiated viewer can feel a stretch too far. But there are moments of both artistic and technical brilliance that makes the skin crawl, the good way. It is capped by Natalie Portman's Oscar winning performance.
Director: Herbert Ross
At moments, Turning Point can feel like the contemporary update on Red Shoes. It takes as its central thrust the old dialectic – love versus dance and asks what might have happened if love prevailed over dance. It is a tale of two women – Deedee and Emma. Deedee finds love, Emma choses dance. Deedee is a mother, Emma a prima ballerina of the American Ballet Theatre (ABT). Two decades later ABT travels to Oklahoma City and the fates of three generations of women converge (the men are largely peripheral to the plot). Deedee watching Emma wonders if that could have been her. Emma watching Deedee’s child – the precociously talented Emilia played by the precociously talented Leslie Brown – sees time racing by her and wonders if it all might come to screeching halt. It is a film about past phantoms in the form of dance and choice (‘What if?’ ‘Could have been’ haunts the movie). Watch out also for a star cast of dancers. Mikhail Baryshnikov plays Yuri.
Director: Robert Altman
Directed by Robert Altman, The Company is one of those movies that straddles the threshold between truth and fiction, documentary and creation. The films follows the Joffrey Ballet for one year. Sometimes it occupies a tentative in-between; not quite natural enough yet not wholly fictional. At one point, the director-choreographer as played by Malcom McDowell tells his dancers “Thinking the movement is not becoming the movement”. The film is trapped in the same ambivalence. It assembles without quite embodying. It has the parts without quite the sum. Still, of the many dance movies available The Company has a gritty realism without being exploitative.