Ballerina

Manuel Legris, a French dancer interviewed in Ballerina, Bertrand Norman's involving study of the Russian ballet, insists that a Russian ballerina is easy to spot in a crush of tutus and fluttering hands. Beyond the severity of their posture and discipline, there is a maturity even in the youngest dancers that takes others years to develop. The women profiled here — ranging from a star student at St. Petersburg's Vaganova Ballet Academy to several members of the Mariinsky Theatre (formerly the Kirov) at various stages of their careers — support that claim and its mysterious implications. In one of the strangest sequences, Norman gains access to the auditions that will either set a young girl on the course to a life in leg warmers or send her back to the drawing board: A roomful of topless 10-year-old girls leap and pointe for their lives, then each one is flexed and patted down, like a thoroughbred colt, before an affectless panel. It's almost impossible to tell their identical thin, cold limbs and tiny heads apart. Yet watching these women perform is a striking lesson in ballet's rigorous aesthetic alchemy—and the extreme, exquisite individualism that prevails.

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