An interesting glimpse into the life of a person trying to achieve the impossible. Joy Womack: The White Swan pulls you in with a fascinating and determined subject. Filled with the complexities of what it takes to make it as a ballerina in the Bolshoi and in as a ballerina in general, we are given a fascinating documentary at a less seen life.
At the age of just 15, Joy Womack was invited to dance at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Russia. We follow the highs and lows of her education and early career as she battles through being an American in Russia, as well as the tribulations of trying to keep her aim of being a Prima Ballerina and maintaining a personal life.
While the moments of corruption in the Bolshoi Ballet is brought up and the tension between Russians and Americans in this modern age is thread throughout Joy Womack: The White Swan, the filmmaking team are wise not to make it the main point of their piece. Instead, here they focus on the enigmatic Womack as she details the struggles of trying to be a fish out of water and the efforts to make it. At all times, you are entranced by her, be it from her candid comments to the camera or her wondrous and graceful dancing.
Womack gives plenty to digest in the film as she shows how difficult it is for any dancer to make it in the Bolshoi Ballet Academy. Through archive footage, we witness how specific teachers are to mere children and their body shapes. To the point of saying that certain children will not make it as ballerinas due to the arch of their feet. It is very clinical and something that Womack is not used to. Her free-flowing nature to her movements means, as she states, that she is too Broadway for the Bolshoi’s tastes. Yet her talent at being able to restrict that urge to dance as she is accustomed to and adjust to her new teachers’ needs is astounding.
We see the struggles of completing full performances with stress fractures (anyone who has encountered such a thing will know the pain of even carrying out day to day activities)—to us seeing the number of vitamins and medication that she and others have to take to keep doing the job that they love. It is devastating seeing what these people do to their bodies to make themselves look perfect as required. Yet, this committed subject pushes the film forward; at times in Joy Womack: The White Swan, you are waiting to see Womack give up, to let go of this dream. Be it through the almost bankruptcy of her family, almost halting her education or the struggles in her young marriage, and we expect her to release her struggles and stresses.
However, she doesn’t, she can’t, and her dedication to her goal means sacrifices need to be made. She cannot compromise on anything. Womack’s physical and psychological struggle has you as an audience member willing her on, though we fully understand if she doesn’t. Yet Joy Womack is no normal person, and we witness someone that pulls you to wanting to achieve whatever goal you had in mind. A force of nature who cannot be reasoned with will continue doing what she thinks is right and who can stop her?
For some odd reason, directors Dina Burlis and Sergey Gawrilov have decided to give their fairly straightforward documentary a non-linear structure which does not work as well as they would hope. A story such as Joys would work tremendously well in a linear environment as it is a simple story to tell. However, by messing with the timeline of her career, we know how it ends, which devoids us of some of the tension that builds on what happens in Womack’s career.
The moments when we see the preparation of Womack and all of what goes on behind the scenes in a ballet theatre is very interesting. From our protagonist running back and forth from the costume department to the director for alterations, those unaware of what it takes to be a ballerina (with most of us honest basing everything from Black Swan). We get to witness the struggles of perfecting a small part of the dance and how that is amplified for an entire performance. Of course, there are many other moments within, but as Burlis and Gawrilov weave their story, it is better off for you to witness that yourself.
Filled with an abundance of interesting little threads, we get a great picture of the life of a ballerina in Russia, and as we reach the finale of Joy Womack: The White Swan, we wonder if we would be willing to sacrifice just as much to achieve our dream.
Joy Womack: The White Swan is out now on digital via 101 Films
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