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Film Review

Prima Ballerina: Two Film Portraits
by Laurent Gentot
Distributed by FirstRunFeatures

review by Catherine Pawlick

Published January, 2010

The world’s vast treasure chest of ballet films, still considered miniscule by many staunch balletomanes, now boasts one more gem in its collection. Laurent Gentot’s “Prima Ballerina: Two Film Portraits” provides sketches of two leading ladies from the richest traditions in classical Russian ballet:  Uliana Lopatkina and Svetlana Zakharova, representing Russia’s Mariinsky and Bolshoi theatres, respectively.

While not emphasized in the films, it is telling that both ballerinas received their training from the elite Vaganova School in Saint Petersburg. Both began their careers inside the Mariinsky Theatre, although Zakharova now dances with the Bolshoi in Moscow and has for some time. Despite their shared iconic status, the first portrait on the menu is Zakharova’s, which offers less revelation or insight than her counterpart’s profile. Nonetheless, those thirsting for shots of the ballerina in class, rehearsal and performance will find that her portrait douses the dryness in some measure.

Compared to Lopatkina’s profile, Zakharova’s is far less complex. Introduced as the “best ballerina in the world” (translated in the English subtitles instead as “most exceptional”), Zakharova herself speaks vaguely about remaining on the path of ballet throughout her life, no matter what else has occurred, but it’s not clear what challenges she has faced. She adds that while she dances, the music helps her enter a role, a disclosure neither novel nor revealing. It’s clear in shots of her rehearsal or performance clips that the ballerina is blessed with a natural degree of flexibility that only aids in the perfection of ballet technique, demanding less development, in some cases, than other dancer might require. Indeed, she admits that the role of Odette is too difficult and mysterious; the ballerina finds Odile easier to dance. Russian ballet critic Ekaterina Belyayeva describes Zakharova as a more “Western” type of ballerina, which has incited the dancer’s repeated invitations to guest in Paris and elsewhere in Europe. This minor point is an essential distinction and one that is not shared by Lopatkina’s purer representation of the Russian manner of dance. Nonetheless, blessed with naturally long, slender lines and highly arched feet, it is impossible to regard Zakharova and not be impressed by her beauty. The brief commentary by Yuri Grigorovich and his late wife Natalia Bessmertnova at the end of the film further confirms Zakharova’s privileged status in the world of ballet.

The brilliance of the second portrait on the menu further illuminates the leading position of its ballerina, Uliana Lopatkina, both in this particular film set and in the maturity of her approach to her art. Without the Guillem-like flexibility that has inspired both Zakharova and her younger, coltish protégé Alina Somova, Lopatkina has far less of the circus-trick flair so plaguing to audiences --and encouraged by directors-- today. Instead, she is distinguished by higher values: rightfully termed the true “emblem of the Mariinsky Theatre” and “heiress to Petipa,” Lopatkina’s depth of intellect and supreme artistry are revealed in this short film.

Shots of Lopatkina in Sergei Berezhnoi’s company class, alongside Leonid Sarafanov and Ti En Ru, or her work alone in the studio help explain the films early claims that she is a “symbol of the perfection of classical ballet” and “the most musical dancer in the world.” This last point, a time-proven descriptor of this now-iconic terpsichorean goddess, issues in part from the ballerina’s careful, analytical approach to her art. Through shots of her fluid, fragile arms framing a doll-like face, we witness Lopatkina preparing with Jose Martinez for “Swan Lake” during the 2007 Mariinsky Festival. Glimpses of her dressing room set the stage for some of the ballerina’s reflections on the spiritual components of her art.

Lopatkina’s analysis of the psychological adaptation made by successful ballerinas in their roles is telling. As she discusses the “memory of the soul” brought forth from a character, the deep thought she gives her art is readily apparent. One quickly senses that Lopatkina is not a ballerina born in the right place and time, but one who has worked hard to achieve her current status and who attends to philosophical considerations of art, theatre, and life. Her depth of intellect is visible here and hard to match, no matter what the profession. She acknowledges the inevitability of fulfilling classical dance with the modern rhythms of life today, preparing for each performance as if “for a battle.” And she discusses stage tactics, the necessity of preparing for issues of costume, lighting, scenery, tempo – everything outside the performer’s control in a live production.

The work of the ballet dancer, we’re told, is “damned to imperfection.” Watching this seemingly flawless ballerina, however, one whose art form extends to her philosophy on life, the phrase seems almost laughable. Surely a creature of such beauty and depth is closer to perfection than the rest of us mortals. But it is precisely that element, every dancer’s endless dissatisfaction with what they’ve achieved, the desire to improve, that makes this art form what it is.

Gentot has done a wonderful job in the clarity and presentation of his film portraits. If “Prima Ballerina” has any flaws, it is only that these profiles are too short, and that there are far too few films of their kind.

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