Magda Matwiejew’s most recent film Pretty Ballerina focuses on ideas of beauty and pain. Centred around a ballerina’s journey in mastering the art of ballet, the protagonist experiences much joy and freedom through the practice of dancing. Over time, this joy is slowly destroyed as the ballerina descends into excruciating pain while trying to perfect her ‘en Pointe’ technique, ultimately becoming trapped by her ballet shoes.
Notions of perfection, pleasure, distortion and suffering are all explored within Matwiejew’s work. The classical dance of ballet, characterised by precision of movement and elaborate formal gestures, is examined as a vehicle to explore the way humans extend and place unreal demands on the body’s limits in order to express higher values. In this way the depiction of the ballerina appears to exist beyond mortal expectation embodying an ethereal grace. In Pretty Ballerina, this desire is highlighted in the expectation to dance en Pointe; often an extremely painful and near impossible experience.
In Matwiejew’s characteristic fashion, the film is set outside of real time, spanning over centuries in an effort to convey the history of the ballet dancing tradition and ongoing obsession for an ideal dancing perfection. Chronological slippages are signaled throughout the film with drifting transient clock faces that indicate the year in order to contextualise certain scenes.
Opulent and ornate 18th century settings are initially portrayed. Like icons of beauty, women hover and disappear dressed in immaculate classical costumes postulating and fanning themselves. The spectacular beauty of the main character, the ballerina, is accentuated via Matwiejew’s use of romantic female imagery. Gliding seamlessly throughout a range of historical settings, a magical fairy-tale feel is captured. The ballet dancer’s allure is heightened by her flawless pure white porcelain skin, stunning appearance and striking red hair. The colour red is utilised as a strong theme throughout the film specifically in the red ballet shoes, dresses, lipstick and velvet curtains that conjure and convey mixed cultural meanings of love, passion and danger.
In one scene the ballerina performs on stage dressed in white and gradually levitates, rising in ecstasy through the clouds into the 21st century. This ascension signifies the ballerina’s decision to choose dancing above all else. The heavenly clouds surrounding the dancer twinkle and sparkle as feelings of extreme happiness, delight and contentment are conveyed.
Pleasurable sentiment is short lived however, and converted into intense agony as the romantic looking glass becomes shattered by the reality of wearing the ballet shoes. The consequences of her dancing commitment become apparent as the dancer’s body begins to succumb physically and degrade through injury and suffering. The pain endured is evident as the film progresses, exploring the ugly side of the ballet dancing experience.
Her feet begin to ache and change, the clouds turn dark and her outfit transforms into a sinister black tutu that dramatically alters the mood. Grasping for her ankles and malformed feet the ballerina invites the viewer to experience how beauty gives way to pain. Falling from grace the ballerina is thrown off balance into a spinning vortex landing her onto a child’s music jewelry box where she is permanently positioned to perpetually spin and perform. Matwiejew’s ballerina subsequently becomes a lifeless pawn and representation of the ballet ideal for younger dancers to aspire to and dream about.
Pretty Ballerina is partly animated with live footage both still and moving such as time-lapse footage of clouds and snippets from a performance of Swan Lake. The combination of a range of interweaving source material successfully creates an integrated whole. Matwiejew brings to the medium a new perspective, which stylistically are very much her own. Matwiejew’s impressive production techniques present an informal and organic filmmaking approach.
Removed from everyday life, this period style genre reveals a modern emotion and is offered as a form of escape through the entrancing fluidity and enticing seduction of the filmic experience. Not intended as a literal discourse about ballet in itself, Pretty Ballerina borders on a number of territories and is rather a meditation on ideas of female beauty, employing ballet shoes as a metaphor for these ideas.
© Rachael Watts May 2010