“Her determination, her charisma, she is very, very ambitious,” Russian filmmaker Dina Burlis ticks off the qualities that attracted her to the American ballet dancer Joy Womack, the subject of Joy Womack: The White Swan, a new feature documentary premiering in the Cannes Marché and sold by London-based REASON8 Films.
Womack is the all-American kid from a very sheltered background who, at the age of 15, went to Russia to study ballet at the Bolshoi Academy. After graduation, she became one of the first American women ever to sign a contract with the Bolshoi Ballet.
The young dancer had a link to Russia through her grandfather, who was editor of The Scientific American and who took frequent trips to the Soviet Union in the 1960s and ‘70s.
“It (Russia) was this mysterious place that I had a fascination for. Even as a young child, I remember being in my grandfather’s study and seeing all the books in Russian,” says Womack (who joined the Boston Ballet in 2019). She was speaking from New Mexico where she has been during the Covid lockdown, “very hidden away.”
Before going to Russia, Womack had spent two years at the Kirov Academy of Ballet in Washington, a school for young Americans interested in becoming professional ballet dancers. “That school was all Russian teachers.”
When she arrived in Russia, Womack didn’t speak the language. It was a huge culture shock. Nonetheless, she was fearless and utterly single-minded, ready to do everything she could to succeed in her chosen field.
“I don’t know if you know Russian culture a lot but that [Womack’s raw ambition] is something that Russian society doesn’t accept in women,” Burlis says. The director, though, saw Womack as an inspirational figure.
Burlis first met Womack in 2012. She had been planning to make a ballet film and had met Nikita Ivanov-Goncharov, a young male dancer at the Bolshoi Academy. Nikita told the director in passing that he had just married an American woman who had been at the Academy with him. This was Joy. Dina was immediately intrigued. The moment she met Womack, Burlis realised that she had a great story at her fingertips. She warmed immediately to the American dancer’s fearlessness and absolute passion for her art.
There have been plenty of documentaries and films about great Russian dancers like Nijinsky or Rudolf Nureyev coming to the West. Two years ago, for example, Ralph Fiennes made White Crow, which told the story of how Nureyev defected in the early 1960s. In White Swan, the traffic is going in the other direction. This is a story of an American heading east.
Moscow-based Burlis, who co-directed the film with renowned cinematographer Sergey Gavrilov, has an unusual background for a documentary maker. She had previously been working in banking, specialising in “government relations.”
“This helped me in some ways. I knew how to work things out,” Burlis says of how her banking experience helped her when she started to make White Swan. There were endless letters to be written and deals to be struck. Her negotiating and fixing skills helped her to gain behind the scenes access first to the Bolshoi Ballet and then to the Kremlin Ballet, where Womack was later the prima ballerina.
The film doesn’t present a sanitised version of the Russian ballet scene. This is portrayed as an intensely competitive world in which you need to be stubborn as well as supremely talented to get ahead. Womack is shown dancing through the pain barrier, continuing to perform even when she has a broken bone in her foot.
“In Russian ballet, the competition is so high that Russian ballet dancers are ready to sacrifice everything they can to have this spot on stage,” Burlis says. “There are so many ballet dancers, and the Bolshoi is the main goal for most of them. They just don’t want to lose the chance.”
Womack’s experiences laid bare some of the more unsavoury sides of Russian ballet. She encountered corruption and there were allegations that performers had to pay to be cast in leading roles.
“I knew the system. It was so interesting for me to see her journey and how she would work this out,” Burlis says of observing Womack’s struggles with a system that celebrated excellence but wasn’t always fair or transparent.
Whatever Womack’s struggles at the Bolshoi, she had very positive experiences at the Kremlin Ballet, another legendary company. “It is also a huge theatre with a lot of people and a lot of bureaucracy. It is part of the Russian system.”
Womack had the misfortune to be in Russia at a time when US-Russian relations were under severe strain because of the Crimean crisis. In certain corners of Russian society, there was strong anti-American feeling. However, at the Kremlin Ballet, Womack’s nationality was never a factor. “The art director didn’t care that she was American, Russian or whatever. He just saw her being driven. He gave her the chance because he knew he could trust her.”
The film features very intimate parts of Womack’s life. The documentary shows her after exhausting rehearsals. It also depicts moments in her marriage as it comes under intense strain partly because Womack always puts her work first. “I was so grateful to Joy because she trusted me so much from the very beginning.”
Yes, the title White Swan is bound to provoke comparison with Darren Aronofsky’s seamy ballet melodrama Black Swan (2010), starring Natalie Portman and which shows the ballet world in a very lurid light. Some ballet experts are dismissive of Aronofsky’s movie, but Burlis is a fan.
“I actually like Black Swan,” the director says. “From the dancer’s perspective, it is a good way to show the competitiveness, the craziness of the inner world of the dancers – how crazy it can be to compete in this dance world.”
In advance of the Cannes Marché premiere, the doc is already generating buzz. Comments Anna Krupnova, Co-Managing Director at REASON8 Films: “We are very excited to be part of the team behind Joy Womack: The White Swan and be able to bring the unique original story to international buyers. Cannes Marché online is the first (premiere) screening of the full feature for the Market, and we already have received strong interest from such territories as Japan, Korea and North America.”