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Monday, January 6, 2014

Strength & Beauty - A Review

About a year and a half ago, on my old blog, I shared a trailer to a documentary on the lives of three ballet dancers that caught my eye.  Strength and Beauty, the now complete documentary from filmmaker Chelsea Wayant, examines the daily lives of three professional dancers with North Carolina Dance Theater, each at very different stages of their dance careers.

The film opens with a voice over from all three women about the origin of pointe shoes and the roles classical ballerinas have traditionally played - they are "untouchable, etherial beings" who seem to "float" on stage on their toes.  The film proceeds to humanize these etherial beings by giving an inside look at a year in their lives.  

Melissa Anduiza is a new member of the company - fresh out of college.  This is her first experience in a professional ballet company, and her viewpoint is one of enthusiasm as she ventures into the world of classical repertoire.  She actually seems to be fairly virtuosic when it comes to contemporary work and she is almost comically frank about her love of food.  She's also a budding choreographer, as seen here with her piece Stained Glass.  Her story is one of new beginnings and possibilities.

Then there is Alessandra Ball, who is just on the cusp of becoming the senior principal dancer in the company - confident, tried and tested, she seems to be at the prime of her dancing career.  Her story focuses on the pressures of being a senior dancer in the company and her quickly changing personal life off stage (she gets engaged over the course of the filming.)

However the heart of the film is the story of Traci Gilchrest, a fourteen year veteran of the company who is wrapping up her career as a ballerina after twenty years of dancing professionally.  I found myself relating with her the most - Knowing the struggle of having to move on from dancing myself. But she also resonated on the screen as something of a rarity in the ballet world - She is clearly an exceptional artist, and an inspiration to the other dancers in the company.  Her long career is truly remarkable, and she shares her perspective very openly in the film.  She is smart, engaging and a delight to watch on screen. I found the story of her journey from principal dancer to choreographer's assistant, to rehearsal director fascinating.

Throughout the film, there are so many moments of frank honesty about being a professional dancer, that are, for lack of a better word, refreshing.  In particular the discussions on weight loss and gain with each dancer are compelling and relatable.  It didn't over dramatize, or try to hide the issue, but just put it out there as an inconvenient truth that ballet dancers have always and will always encounter - And each of the three dancers encountered it in different ways.  Additionally, the film poignantly allows us to venture into the personal lives of each one of the dancers in a captivatingly voyeuristic manner which allowed us to see both the normalcy of their individual home lives, as well as the strangely unique requirements their profession demands, including second part-time jobs, home-sickness, relationships, artistry and sacrifice.  

I'll be completely honest, it's hard for me to watch films like this because they make me think a lot about my own career in the ballet world; and that's not always pleasant memory.  As a former dancer, I know how hard it is to let go of the dream, and of the career that you have been building since age 3.  But that bittersweetness in itself is indicative of just what an accomplishment Strength and Beauty is in the ballet film landscape.  It's a remarkable film about the true life of a ballet dancer in a regional company in America, and one that anyone who has ever seen a ballet should see. Beyond the execution and story-telling (which is fantastic) the film perfectly portrays the feeling and complexities behind the ballerinas we see on stage.  It shows all their strength and beauty, but also their humanity.      

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