Point me t'ward tomorrow
We did what we had to do.
Won't forget, can't regret
What I did for love.
—“What I Did For Love,” from A Chorus Line
A dancer’s life is famously short, brutal and riddled with potential pitfalls: ripped Achilles tendons, torn hamstrings, stress fractures, cruel choreographers. There is drama and angst aplenty, compounded by the constant, unblinking eye of the mirror, magnifying flaws and reminding the dancer that she or he is, after all, a mere mortal. Rejection is a constant.
And then there is the reality of time, or rather, the lack of it. As a choreographer puts it in Ballerina, one of two new documentaries detailing the lives of dancers: “You’re finished at 40.”
Despite such realities, dancers choose dance over just about anything else, because, as they see it, there is no choice. In the words of a young hoofer in the new film Every Little Step: “I feel like if you have something to fall back on, you’ll fall back.”
In recessionary times, art is often the first line item to be struck from strained balance sheets. It’s deemed to be expendable, a bit of fluff, extra. And yet, great art bubbles up from hard times. Think of the Great Depression and painter/muralist Jacob Lawrence, whose work sprang from the Federal Arts Project, or how Martha Graham’s modern dance took a serious, pensive turn with her seminal 1936 work, Chronicle, which was inspired by the Wall Street crash, the crippling economy and the Spanish Civil War.
Dance, in all its guises, from ballet to hip-hop, is the antithesis of the blinged-out excesses of 50 Cent and Rick Ross. So it’s interesting that, in the midst of Madoff madness and multi-billion-dollar bailouts, there are two new documentaries that are in essence, paeans to hard work and sweaty sacrifice. Ballerina follows the careers of five dancers in Russia’s famed Kirov Ballet at various stages in their careers, from recent ballet school graduate to prima ballerina. Every Little Step chronicles the revival of the Broadway smash, A Chorus Line.
Ballerina offers a behind-the-scenes look at the Kirov Ballet (also known as the Mariinsky Ballet), the company that spawned Mikhail Baryshnikov and Rudolph Nureyev. The dancers featured in the film, Uliana Lopatkina, Evguenya Obraztsova, Alina Somova, Diana Vishneva and Svetlana Zakharova are all prodigiously gifted winners of the genetic lottery: long of limb and possessing beautifully attenuated lines. Through them, the viewer gets a glimpse of the grinding discipline required for success, the marathon days that begin with a morning technique class at 10 and end only after the last curtain call, sometime around 11 p.m. or later.
We get to see them in ballet class, all covered up in leg warmers and sweats, stretching and straining at the barre, or rehearsing over and over again a solo from Swan Lake, as a stern ballet mistress tells one, “You’re looking clumsy.” As if.
At just 77 minutes, Ballerina, directed by Bertrand Normand, is beautiful to look at and fascinating to watch. But somehow, it never manages to rise above a curious sense of detachment and reserve. We watch the dancers as if they are specimens in a laboratory, much like the ballet-school director dispassionately poking and prodding 10-year-old wannabes at the beginning of the film.
Every Little Step, on the other hand, makes for more compelling viewing: You feel the dancers’ pain, both the physical and the emotional. It follows a year in the life of a Broadway revival, from casting calls to rehearsals to opening night. In this case, the revival in question is A Chorus Line, the 1974 Tony Award-winning classic about the audition process. (The late choreographer/director Michael Bennett created it from hours of taped conversations with Broadway dancers about their lives.) So it’s fitting that the film tracks the audition process of staging the 2006 revival. Over 3,000 dancers showed up to audition for 22 slots—which makes for a whole lot of disappointment.
Disappointment that you see on the face of an older dancer. She’s just finished auditioning. She’s done well. But now she stands, and watches, and waits, as a much younger, untested dancer outperforms her. Worry knots her face. She knows, she knows, she knows. And yes, the younger dancer gets the part.
“It takes your soul,” one of the auditioning dancers says, “but you’re willing to give it.”
Ah, the soul. These days, not much attention is given to the artist’s soul, let alone art. We’re a society of insta-fame, hooked on the allure of easy money and TMZ stardom. In the midst of AIG bonuses and Octomom mania, it’s refreshing to see two films that celebrate the old-school virtues of discipline and dedication.
Teresa Wiltz is The Root’s senior culture writer.