French director Bertrand Normand, a devotee of the ballet, made the documentary for French television, focusing on female dancers of the Mariinsky (formerly Kirov) Ballet of St. Petersburg. Normand's view, like that of Mariinsky Theatre director Makhar Vasiev, is that "the ballet is first and foremost the art of the ballerina." Russia, according to the movie, is "the land of forgotten femininity," and its modern ballerinas are more feminine and disciplined than their French counterparts. And forget about male dancers: The age of Nijinsky, Nureyev and Baryshnikov is long past.
Today, it's all about the ballerina, whose ethereal athleticism has become a cultural ideal in post-perestroika Russia. The men are merely furniture movers, twirling and holding the sylphlike ballerinas aloft. The cultural idealization of the ballerina is illustrated by interviews of women on the snowy streets of St. Petersburg, who describe their dashed childhood hopes of becoming ballerinas. A group of thin nine-year-old girls audition for seats in the Vaganova Academy, where a girl — provided she meets the physical requirements (small head, long neck, long legs, slender figure) — endures 10 years of rigorous training, hoping for a short, demanding career as a prima ballerina, a goal only a few will achieve.
The movie profiles five dancers at different stages in their careers, showing them at exhausting rehearsal and in lovely performance excerpts. Ballerina's TV origins are obvious; in some ways it resembles a 60 Minutes profile (narrator Diane Baker even sounds like Lesley Stahl.) You might expect some mention of the darker elements of ballet life — eating disorders, troubled relationships, punishing injuries — but Bertrand assiduously avoids anything that would spoil his encomium to the ballerina. The dance sequences are exquisite, and that's more than enough to recommend the movie to dance lovers.