Joy Womack: The White Swan

A film by Dina Burlis and Sergey Gavrilov. Release date (digital format): 19 July 2021 by 101 Films (London).
(Available on various digital platforms soon. Watch this space)

Canberra dance audiences may well remember Joy Womack, who performed briefly in Canberra in 2018 for Bravissimo Productions. That one-off program featured dancers from across the globe—Womack was one of them. She was enticed to Canberra by the directors of the National Capital Ballet School and for Bravissimo Productions she danced Vasily Vainonen’s Moskovsky Waltz, partnered by Italian artist Francesco Daniele Costa. It was a simply stunning performance.

At the time of her Canberra appearance, Womack was a principal dancer with Universal Ballet in Korea, but prior to her Korean career she studied and performed in Russia, initially with the Bolshoi Ballet and then with Kremlin Ballet Theatre. Her Russian career is featured in a new documentary: Joy Womack: The White Swan.

Womack was born in California and brought up in California and Texas and the film begins with family snapshots of the Womack family. But it quickly progresses to Moscow where Womack was accepted as a student at the ballet school attached to the Bolshoi Ballet and then, after graduation, into the Bolshoi Ballet. Womack’s overwhelming desire to dance with the Bolshoi is explored and in many respects the film is a psychological portrait of a determined dancer. Womack talks openly about her thoughts, her dreams, and the mental challenges she constantly faced.

But perhaps the most confronting aspect of the film is the way it explores the many difficulties Womack faced as she negotiated living in Russia. Many of those difficulties are strongly dance-related and concern, for example, the shape of the body that the Russian teachers and directors believed was necessary for progress through the school and company; the apparent hierarchical system within ballet companies; and the management of a dancer’s injuries. There were many moments when I was shocked to tell the truth, perhaps none more than when I watched as Womack stood in a canteen and asked for ‘a salmon sandwich without the bread’ and proceeded to eat from a plate on which was spread just a few slices of smoked salmon.

Other issues were more overtly political and included attitudes to women, and the perception of an American way of life as made manifest in day to day living and in attitudes to performance. Particularly compelling remarks were made by Nikita, the Russian dancer Womack married in Moscow and by his mother, an incredibly glamorous, impeccably dressed and adorned lady. But especially powerful was Womack’s resignation from the Bolshoi Ballet and the reasons for it. (No spoiler given on this matter!).

After leaving the Bolshoi, Womack worked for several years with Kremlin Ballet Theatre and, while the Bolshoi experience was her ‘dream of a lifetime’ experience, her time with Kremlin seems to have been much more rewarding. She was strongly supported by her teacher/coach/mentor, Janna, and admired by the company’s director.

Joy Womack with coach Janna. Kremlin Ballet Theatre. Still from Joy Womack. The White Swan

It was in the Kremlin company that Womack was given what she had longed for at the Bolshoi—principal roles in the classics, Nutcracker, Giselle and Swan Lake. Womack regarded the leading role in Swan Lake as the ultimate experience for a ballet dancer and, when she eventually got to perform it, her rendition of the White Swan in Act II moved the director of the company to congratulate her, saying she was the best White Swan he had seen. Towards the end of the film we see brief footage of Womack dancing in these principal roles, including (too briefly) as the White Swan.

Joy Womack as the White Swan, Swan Lake Act II. Kremlin Ballet Theatre. Still from Joy Womack. The White Swan

Joy Womack: The White Swan is a film that is both confronting and challenging but also deeply moving at times. There are some beautiful shots of Moscow scattered throughout and I loved the backstage scenes especially those featuring those lovely Russian ladies working in the costume department.

Ladies of the wardrobe. Still from Joy Womack. The White Swan

The film ends with the Kremlin period. But after that Womack went on to take up a contract with Universal Ballet in Seoul. She then danced briefly with Boston Ballet. She divorced her first husband and is at the time of writing engaged to an American man. I also read that she is seeking joint Russian/American citizenship and currently works with Astrakhan Opera and Ballet Theatre in southwestern Russia. I will long remember her Canberra performance so it was a real pleasure to watch this documentary!

Michelle Potter, 17 July 2021

Featured image: Joy Womack in Moscow. Still from Joy Womack. The White Swan.

The Bright Stream. Bolshoi Ballet

7 June 2013, Lyric Theatre, Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Brisbane

The back story to The Bright Stream has been told and retold. Originally created in 1935 with choreography by Fyodor Lopukhov and with a score by Dmitri Shostakovich, the ballet lasted just months. Set on a Soviet-style farm at harvest time, but with some eccentric touches to the story of collective agriculture, the ballet was banned by Joseph Stalin.

As the overture begins in Alexei Ratmansky’s restaging of The Bright Stream for the Bolshoi Ballet, which dates to 2003, we understand something of this back story. We are faced with a front cloth covered with various Soviet slogans and some headlines from Russian newspapers, said to be those of Pravda in its review of The Bright Stream, and in its review of another of Shostakovich’s scores, that for Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk, which Stalin also hated. Amongst the extracts and slogans are ‘Ballet falsehood’, ‘Muddle instead of music’, ‘Tractors and kindergartens are the gearbox of the new village’, and others of a similar nature.

Working from the original libretto, but without any choreographic notation from the 1930s, Ratmansky has built his version of The Bright Stream, the title being the name of the collective farm, using his classical heritage mixed with his unique choreographic sensibilities and a clear talent for humour and characterisation. What emerges over two hours is a comic ballet based on the lives of a group of peasants living in the steppes of the northern part of the Causcasus region. They become entangled with a visiting group of entertainers from the city and what ensues is a world of flirtatious encounters and mistaken identities, the latter largely as a result of moments of cross dressing.

Maria Aleksandrova in 'The Bright Stream'. Photo: Damir Yusupov
Maria Aleksandrova as the Ballerina in The Bright Stream. Photo: © Damir Yusupov

What a joy it was to see the beautifully accomplished Bolshoi dancers performing Ratmansky’s choreography. Whether whipping off a few fouettés (with never a hint of moving across the stage), performing a series of jetés, or tossing off a manège of jumps, they danced with such attack, made everything look so easy, and always looked as though performing was pure pleasure for them. The two leading ladies, Maria Aleksandrova as the ballerina from the city and Nina Kapstova as Zina the local entertainment organiser, both gave finely sculpted performances, but the entire cast deserves bouquets.

Ratmansky’s choreography for groups of women was especially captivating. He often arranged steps in canon and the overall image that emerged as arabesque followed arabesque, for example, was a little like the movement of plaiting and unplaiting. I loved too the characters that populated The Bright Stream—the elderly folk in particular—and I especially liked that, while they were all drawn with broad, comic brush strokes, there seemed to be no desire by the dancers to overplay their characterisations. As a result these folk were funny and eccentric but believably so.

But perhaps the most fascinating aspect of The Bright Stream was Ratmansky’s development of those scenes in which, as a joke, two of the main characters, the Ballerina from the city and her partner, dress in each other’s costumes and set up a romantic tryst with two elderly dacha dwellers who have joined the harvest festivities. Ruslan Skvortsov, dressed in a long white Romantic tutu, gave a wonderful performance as the (cross-dressed) Ballerina. Ratmanksy’s choreography for him was an absolute delight. It had moments that recalled Giselle, Pas de Quatre, Les Sylphides and La Sylphide, all arranged in a topsy-turvy mix. The image of Skvortsov with his index finger under his chin à la Pas de Quatre will remain in my mind for some time.

So was there any hint of politics in this work? After all, collective farms did not always operate as happy and productive initiatives in Soviet Russia. Well, the Grim Reaper appears during the final scenes as the harvest festival begins. He joins in the dancing with his scythe swinging wildly round and round. But the people largely ignore him and he disappears as unexpectedly as he appeared. We can make what we like of this appearance but it adds a touch of politics to a fascinating ballet that shows Ratmansky as a choreographer of unusual and diverse strengths and abilities.

Michelle Potter, 9 June 2013