Aged just 15, Joy Womack was invited to train at the Bolshoi Ballet Academy in Moscow. She would become the third American to graduate from there and dance with the company after Anastasia Stevens (graduated 1960) and Michael Shannon (graduated 1989). This new documentary by Dina Burlis and Sergey Gavrilov, Joy Womack: The White Swan, tells of her time in Russia, from school to dancing with the Bolshoi Ballet and as a principal dancer with the Kremlin Ballet, where she gets to perform Odette/Odile before leaving to find new opportunities.
Womack’s name may not be widely recognised outside the US and Russia but her story is a fascinating one. Fly-on-the-wall footage of her in performance, rehearsal and at home is interspersed with commentary from herself, friends, teachers and journalists.
The film certainly gives an interesting peek behind the scenes of ballet in Russia, the training and, to some extent, the politics, although there is little that will come as a surprise. More fascinating is the very personal picture it paints of Womack in the significant time it devotes to her private life and relationship with her now former husband, Russian dancer and choreographer, Nikita Ivanov-Goncharov.
In many ways, it is a courageous film, one that presents a very honest, warts and all view of its subject. It shows darkness as well as light, a black swan as well as a white swan, an Odile as well as an Odette. Perhaps that’s what makes it so compelling.
Womack comes across as single-minded and very driven, yet also someone whose unswerving and tenacious commitment and focus is taking a terrible toll mentally and physically. Indeed, you very much get the sense that her life is ballet, to the point that it controls everything. That feeling is emphasised by Ivanov-Goncharov who comments that she considered ballet a religion, whereas for him, it was art.
It comes as little surprise when they split up. Womack leaves us in no doubt she thinks it was his fault. “He needs to work on himself,” she says. Yet almost immediately, she adds, “For me, work comes first. I find it impossible to combine work and personal life.”
The film presents no sanitised version of the Russian ballet scene either. Expecting attitudes and ways of doing things to be as at home is a recipe for problems in any foreign country. You do have to adapt. Ballet is a competitive profession across the world, but Burlis and Gavrilov’s film suggests it is especially so in Russia, and that you most definitely have to respect and play by the ‘rules’ if you want to get on.
Claims of corruption at the Bolshoi Ballet and that performers needed to pay (“$10,000 just to show that you are serious”) or have an influential sponsor (to “make gifts and presents on your behalf”) to be cast in leading roles are nothing new, yet Womack seemed shocked and surprised by them. Is that why, despite having a contract to be a soloist, she landed few roles.
Some members of the company would subsequently respond indignantly to Womack’s bribery allegations, although, given the fight for roles and desire to stay on the ‘right’ side of directors, some might say that’s hardly surprising. Others have supported her account, however.
We hear she struggled to even get to dance with the corps, although questions are raised about whether she ever really adapted to the Russian style. Tatiana Kuznetsova, ballet critic of Kommersant, a sort of Russian Financial Times, is appreciative. “She has amazing flexibility…a spectacular, beautiful girl.” She says that is great in competition solos but adds, “It’s strange to imagine her dancing in a Russian troupe, like a golden tooth in a smile.”
For all Womack’s travails at the Bolshoi, perhaps her biggest misfortune in Russia was to be a dancer there at a time of strong anti-American feeling in the country and when US-Russian relations were under severe strain. “They don’t see me anymore. They see I’m an American,” she says at one point.
Frustrated at her lack of opportunity, we see her leave the Bolshoi aged just 19, to become a principal dancer with The Kremlin Ballet. “I want to be the star – the main person.” This time, the promised roles came and her experiences are clearly much happier.
Throughout the film, the physical and mental toll that ballet can take is never far away. There are references to what at times feel like compulsive eating disorders and exercising. Indeed, at one point, Womack describes how she was “so anorexic.” That links in to comments about the Russian view of the ballet body, the female body in particular. In Russia, if you do not have the aesthetic, just forget about it, do not even try it,” she says.
The film is littered with shots of bruised and broken (literally at one point) feet too. The most worrisome shot is surely of a large box of empty pill bottles, however.
Shortly after the period covered by the film ends, Womack left Russia to dance with the Universal Ballet in South Korea, but left after a year, frustrated by the lack of performances. In the film, she talks about how Daria Klimentova could dance a principal role with English National Ballet one night and a much lesser one the next. “At the Kremlin, I’m given a lot of principal roles. I think I would die if someone put me back in the corps de ballet.” Yet, having moved back to the US and taken an artist position with Boston Ballet, that is where she is.
The film is engrossing but does leave you with doubts and questions. Perhaps we will learn more in the planned biopic, Joika, directed by James Napier Robertson, which has been delayed by the pandemic; a film in which I understand Womack herself has been very involved in the writing process.
Womack has since admitted that Joy Womack: The White Swan “caught me at a very nitty-gritty, formative, kind of ugly-duckling phase in my life.” It is a film about ballet, or more accurately a ballet dancer. However, perhaps Womack herself put her finger on it more accurately when she later said in interview, “In essence it’s a movie about mental health. I sometimes don’t recognize the girl that’s speaking.”
Joy Womack: The White Swan will be released digitally on July 19, 2021 by 101 Films.
Running time: 90 minutes