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17 November 2018

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The Bolshoi

Directed by Valery Todorovsky (Tristar Pictures)

In the coming-of-age drama The Bolshoi, students at the Bolshoi Academy quickly learn there will be let-downs, betrayals and disqualifying deficiencies (too short, too busty, too bow-legged). Director Valery Todorovsky aims our attention at the relentless practicing and preparations. We can’t help appreciating the corps of young dancers that the hell-bent instructors are whipping into harnessing their remarkably agile and powerful bodies.

“I very quickly realized,” Todorovsky told The Moscow Times, “that traditional drama actors won’t be able to play these roles. However thin, slim and flexible they were, they wouldn’t be able to have an argument while raising their legs [up to their ears]. It’s just impossible.”

Todorovsky shows us the vigor and discipline that precedes any performance, and yet we see almost nothing that an actual Bolshoi audience would, and in turn it sees almost nothing that we see.

The plot is uninterestingly complicated and full of needless leaps from adulthood to childhood. The 12-year-old Yulya Olshanskaya (Ekaterina Samuilina) is discovered huckstering on the street by a disreputable, provincial strip-club owner and former Bolshoi star Potoskiy (Aleksandr Domogarov). Yulya knows nothing about ballet, but she can move with grace and wit! She so distracts the street- corner audiences that it gives her partner in crime, her little brother, the chance to pick pockets.

After Potoskiy gives her some basic instruction, he argues with her overwhelmed and impoverished parents to let him take her to Moscow, where he then has to plead with the aging, fierce, slightly dotty instructor Beletskaya (Alisa Freyndlikh) – with whom he, back in his glory days, used to partner – to give Yulya an audition.

The best dramatic scenes are between young Yulya and spectacled, bejeweled Beletskaya, who doesn’t mind the girl’s mouthing off, because the kid has the fire, the legs and the jump that she used to have. And, as she herself is starting to lose her bearings, she sees her hopes and her old self in unbridled Yulya. The students, meanwhile, have been competing against and befriending one another, and they pass (or crushingly don’t) through adolescence to the graduation from the academy. Who will dance the graduation performance lead in Swan Lake? The temperamental dynamo Yulya or the rich and composed Karina (Anna Isayeva)?

What the budding Bolshoi ballet stars want are the roles and the resulting status. When Yulya’s teenaged drama is resolved, the movie churns on past where any European or American movie would go and on to the next chap- ter in their lives as professional Bolshoi Theater ballerinas.

Todorovsky’s continual switching between “then” and “now” highlights that the young Yulya steals the movie from the good but necessarily less sympathetic 17- to 21-year-old Yulya played by the ballerina Margarita Simonova.

The Bolshoi feels a little long for us impatient Americans, but it all ties together, and it’s all beautiful to look at. Sergey Mikhalchuk’s cinematography is luscious – as gorgeous as that in the renown Andrey Zvyagintsev’s movies, but Todorovsky is never solemn or shocking. While Zvyagintsev, the director of the Foreign Film Oscar nominees Leviathan and Loveless, is the great devastator, pressurizing life down to a tense standstill, Todorovsky means to enchant and amuse us, and most of the time he succeeds.

— Bob Blaisdell

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Reviewed in Russian Life: May/June 2018