Most of us are in careers that we selected when we were in college or that we otherwise took up as adults, but this isn't the case for professional ballerinas. Like paid athletes, they knew what they wanted to do at an early age, showed immense talent, trained rigorously, remained dedicated, and avoided injury to have a shot at a career that's over by early middle age. French filmmaker Bertrand Norman takes us into this rarified world in the unvarnished 80-minute documentary Ballerina (2006).
Saint Petersburg, Russia's elite Vaganova Ballet Academy and world-renowned Mariinsky Ballet, formerly known as the Kirov Ballet, provided Norman with extraordinary access to their dancers, instructors, practice studios, and performance spaces. Before eventually focusing on five professional ballerinas at varying points in their careers, Norman begins with a look at the ballet academy where each year one hundred aspiring nine and ten-year-olds vie for thirty spots. The selection process entails the young girls, stripped to their panties, being manhandled under the exacting gaze of the admissions committee in a manner reminiscent of a dog show or cattle auction. Footage of studio practice and interviews with some of the instructors round out the introduction to the rigorous eight-year training regime undertaken by girls hoping to be selected by a professional ballet company.
The latter two-thirds of Ballerina focus on five ballerinas among the 220 dancers of the Mariinsky Ballet. The five range from an 18-year-old just beginning her career within the corps de ballet to a thirty-something prima ballerina battling to comeback after an ankle injury sidelined her for two years. Norman's camera follows the five over an extended period (perhaps two years) as they enjoy success, suffer setbacks, and regularly clock grueling six-day-a-week practice and performance schedules.
The cinematography that doesn't include dancing often looks amateurish, but fortunately Norman is far more adept at capturing dance than he is home life or street interviews. Given the limits of the full-frame Betacam he uses, the performances look remarkable. The uniqueness of each ballerina's style is as apparent as it is unexpected.
Though much about Ballerina works well, the production is marred by a verbose, pedantic, and flat narration of the kind still favored by television but typically disfavored elsewhere. This overly-determined narration conflicts as often as compliments the visuals and interviews, robbing the narrative of its subtlety and flair.
Video quality is about as good as can be achieved by Betacam. There are some video effects and loss of detail in the full screen image (1.33:1 aspect ratio), but overall quality is more than acceptable.
English subtitles for the Russian dialogue are forced. No subtitles are available for the English narration.
The 2.0 DD audio demonstrates some dynamism and is free from dropouts and distortions.
A meager collection of extras consist of seven trailers for other dance documentaries (but not this one), a director's biography, and a photo gallery of ten stills.
The full-frame video and inelegant narrative make Ballerina seem dated, yet filmmaker Bertrand Norman's documentary portrait of five professional ballerinas still manages to mostly succeed thanks to his ability to beautifully capture the individual inflection each dancer brings to her performance. Though school-age girls interested in ballet may be the only ones able to tolerate the clunky narration more than once, Ballerina is worth renting by anyone interested in dance specifically or documentary portraits of success achieved through dedication generally.