I discovered The Children of Theatre Street at my local library. It was made in 1977 and nominated for an Oscar. The subject of this documentary is the Vaganova Choreographic Institute in St. Petersburg (Leningrad at the time), the school of the Kirov Ballet. The movie is narrated by the late Princess Grace of Monaco, a.k.a Grace Kelly. from an excellent text by Beth Gutcheon.
The movie opens on the school’s entrance examination. Of course, ballet has a glorious past and a passionate following in Russia, and in communist Russia, becoming a ballet dancer seemed to be an ideal way to do set oneself apart. Thousands of children from all across the USSR turn out for the audition, despite the knowledge that they will not see their families for months– or even years– if they are accepted. The selection process seems largely focused on body structure and ability, rather than talent. The turnout is scrutinized, body proportions and measurements are taken to see if they meet the exact criteria for ideal proportions. They also look at the arch of the insole and the height and lightness of the child’s jump. As the narrator says, “Talent is only worth considering when it occurs in the right body.”
The Children of Theatre Street follows four students– eleven year old Angelina, thirteen year old Alec, and graduating seniors Lena and Michaela. The movie really examines all facets of what life and education entail at the school. It is this aspect that I found most interesting. I knew that ballet training was quite rigorous, and the school certainly rises to that standard– but I saw no signs of cruelty, humiliation (outside of the entrance examination), or sternness that one sometimes hears of about communist-era training schools. The students generally seem quite happy, and the instructors (former Kirov company members themselves) compassionate. You meet the various fixtures of the school– the little old lady that has played the piano there for as long as anyone can remember, the voluminous masseuse that has massaged the muscles of every single dancer that passed through the school. Little details such as a creaky globe in geography class and a room full of portraits of illustrious graduates give life to the portrayal of the school (it is mentioned only in passing that Nureyev and Baryshnikov’s portraits are notably absent, but not why).
The rigor of ballet training is made quite evident, with the students’ learning process is shown in various vignettes of the different class levels. In one scene, a boy is shown practicing his leg extensions with a strained face as Princess grace intones, “A good dancer learns to extend his leg thoughtlessly; a great dancer learns to do it without making faces.”
Lena and Michaela, the seniors, are followed as they prepare for their graduation performance. The pressure is truly on, as the graduation performance is a major event in St. Petersburg– the ballet aficionados want to be there when the next Pavlova or Balanchine makes their debut. You see the fruits of their training, but also the frustrations they feel as their bodies and nerves are pushed to their limits. Says Princess Grace, “Ballet is concerned with expanding natural limitations, with expanding the body to do what it cannot do naturally.”
One interesting thing I learned as the seniors learn a Petipa choreography is that the Russian school uses no notation; rather, choreography is preserved in living memory by the instructors themselves. It is fascinating that the human brain and muscle memory could preserve full-length ballets with no written record or video footage (technology that was certainly not available in Petipa’s time).
The film, initially so focused on the classical technique taught to the students, took an interesting turn when it follows Lena to a performance by a contemporary ballet troupe, founded by a former Kirov student. Maybe it was the anachronistic vibe I got due to the setting in communist Russia, but at first I caught myself thinking how bold and ahead of the times were being, but then I realized that this was 1977– not exactly too long ago in the history of modern dance. The school’s graduation also featured an avant garde piece set to pop music.
All in all, I thoroughly enjoyed The Children of Theatre Street. It gave me a deeper understanding of ballet, and certainly a deeper respect for the dancers. Whether or not you know much about dance, you will find it to be both interesting and entertaining.
This video contains the first nine minutes of the movie, and includes the entrance examination I talked about above:
Where are they now?
I was curious to know what has become of the students featured in the documentary, thirty years later. I was only able to track down information about Angelina Armeiskaya, (the eleven year old), who is actually teaching at the US branch of the Kirov school, right here in DC after a successful performance career. On a totally random tangent, Danny Tidwell of So You Think You Can Dance fame went to Kirov (I wonder if he studied with Angelina), and there are two pictures of him on the alumni page from before all the madness (update: when I say before all the madness, I mean before SYTYCD– Sorry if I started any wild speculation about any other types of madness!), including one of him at Rasta Thomas‘ wedding…