Joy Wang X.Y.
The German philosopher Karl Marx once wrote that commodities are “a very strange thing, abounding in metaphysical subtleties and theological niceties.” By which he meant that commodities appear magical, as things possessing a transcendental quality because the relations of labor inhered in it is hidden, concealed, inaccessible to the naked eye. Professional dance is built precisely on concealment, on the willing suspension of disbelief. It is unabashedly in the work of creating illusions. Film on the other hand is often about the demystifying of illusions and dance films in particular, about the labor that dance conceals.
Primeiro Bailarino, a film about Thiago Soares is no different. Soares has been a principal dancer with the Royal Ballet for more than a decade. He is a dancer of substantial dramatic intelligence and in the film he comes across as similarly thoughtful and earnest. Pain is my little friend, he says, and if that is the film’s central argument it gives us much evidence for it.
It’s not strange that Felipe Braga, the director, whose credits includes a film on the footballer Neymar would return to the idea of pain. It is something athlete’s share, after all. It is physical, tangible, difficult (read more exotic) to watch. But without dismissing the Olympian effort athletes make, effort is part of the telos of sport while dance founded on the erasure of effort demands a different kind of heroism. To dance on the precipice in a craft tyrannical in its commitment to balance and proportion, and to be seen doing it takes tremendous courage; a different kind of courage.
In one sequence we see Soares in his dressing room after a performance. He runs his hands through his hair, pleads for ice and collapses in a corridor somewhere. When he gets up, he limps. It is brutally effective and you wish that elsewhere the film would hold that silence, cradle it and cherish it, instead of rushing to fill it with words. Because if there is one criticism of Primeiro Bailarino, it would be its reluctance to trust the image, something so crucial in dance. Soares is an eloquent speaker but the tendency to overlay shots with exposition means that the film is not always allowed to finds its wings.
Primeiro Bailarino captures Soares at a particular moment of his life: “A period of madness,” he called it in the post film conversation with Graham Watts. That madness does invade the screen, primarily in the figure of choreographer Deborah Colker, whose larger than life personality provides moments of delicious humor. And so we know that this is one year of Soares life and not his life. But the film which calls itself declaratively ‘Principal Dancer’ seems to have a rather different idea. Organised around six tracks that feel like six themes of a principal dancer’s life, it holds back from venerating its subject. Only his arduous labor; and in the mundane yet extraordinary detail in which it evokes his world you can imagine its patterns spinning out into cyclical reiterations. Perhaps Soares stands for the everyday dancer?
Whichever it is, the life it shows us is relentless, even punishingly exacting. At one point, Soares who calls himself a “piece of an institution” states that in dance one has to choose between a “private life and health” (by health you imagine he means career). Yet in this film he doesn’t exist outside of dance. Dance here is all pervasive, all consuming. There is an essential loneliness something driven home by the film’s preference for tight close ups. What allows this film to rise above others of the same ilk, is that it challenges us to see that loneliness as sweet solitude, to understand its punishing demands as a form of necessary rigor. Primerio Ballerina is too adult of a movie and Soares too adult a subject to leave us in any doubt that this is what he has chosen.
Primeiro Bailarino can next be seen at the Linbury Theatre at The Royal Opera House on January 21, 2019. Visit www.roh.org.uk/insights for details.