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Joy Womack: The White Swan documentary film review

★★★★

 
Poster for Joy Womack: The White Swan
Poster for Joy Womack: The White Swan

Joy Womack always dreamed of becoming a ballerina. Aged 15, she left her home in the US to join the Moscow State Academy of Choreography – more commonly known as the Bolshoi Ballet Academy. In their documentary Joy Womack: The White Swan, Dina Burlis and Sergey Gavrilov follow Joy in her quest to make a name for herself in Russia and, eventually, appear in the iconic lead role of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake. She becomes the first American to graduate from the Bolshoi Academy, confronts corruption at the iconic Theatre, and pushes herself to rehearse and perform through eating disorders and injuries. While at times feeling too staged, and not nearly openly critical enough of the more egregious discoveries, Burlis and Gavrilov have created a fascinating portrait of a fascinating – and at times frustrating – woman.


The film discusses various problematic elements of a professional ballet career. Womack mentions in passing that at one time she struggled with both bulimia and anorexia, and that she longed to be “better or thinner” than her main rival at the Academy. More than once, she states that one must have a particular ‘aesthetic’ to be a truly successful ballerina. To support this, shocking black and white archival footage shows a group of nearly naked little girls standing before a panel of judges while a narrator tells us exactly what is ‘wrong’ with these children’s bodies. Strict diets, fitness regimens, and a fleeting shot of a case-full of pill bottles present a truly awful view of the reality beneath the veneer. Womack herself never criticises this, or suggests that it is wrong or even harsh. Instead, she states simply that one must have a certain mentality to succeed. We must therefore draw our own conclusions.


Womack also discusses the more political issues she faced in Russia. Even though it was her dream to perform with the Bolshoi Ballet, she decided to leave in 2013. Allegedly, after too many promises of lead roles that never materialised, Womack was told to pay $10,000 for the parts she wanted. Additionally, according to Womack, she faced further suspicion and contempt simply for being an American. On this issue, she seems conflicted. She mentions that it is incredibly difficult to stop believing something you have been taught your whole life, and in that sense completely understands much of the animosity, but she also appears to have her own prejudices, and seems unaware of how these may influence her view. After divorcing her husband, Nikita, whom she married in order to stay in Russia legally, Womack and a friend discuss how Russian men expect women to be compliant, and perhaps are unprepared to deal with American women. Of course, women in the US also live in a patriarchal, misogynistic system, but Womack seems oblivious to this. However, most telling is her repeated reference to the ‘aesthetic’ that successful ballerinas must have. There is thinly-veiled contempt for American dancers, who may be successful no matter their body types and performance styles; but for Russian ballet dancers, the one thing Womack does not specify, though it is clear in the film, is that in addition to thinness, whiteness is paramount.


There are many stories here. There is the story Womack wants to tell – about her hard work, her determination, how anyone can do what she did if they put their mind to it – and there is the story Burlis and Gavrilov are hinting at beneath Womack’s platitudes. There are also the many stories audiences may find, if they ask the right questions and prepare for honest answers.


Available on digital 19 July 2021


 

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