Saturday 19 January 2013

The last waltz: "Ballroom Dancer"

The Russian dancer Slavik Kryklyvyy has long hair, wild eyes and snake hips: he's something of a whizz at the cha-cha and the tango, but you wouldn't trust him to buy a used car from, or want to leave him alone in a room with your girlfriend for any length of time, either. The Danish documentary Ballroom Dancer joins Kryklyvyy as he sought to make his comeback in 2010 at the age of 34, ten years after his breakthrough triumph at the World Ballroom Dancing Championships. He has a new partner, in his girlfriend Anna Melnikova; he has a new training regime, involving martial-arts, which is designed to get his body back to peak fitness. There is much talk of his "explosive speed".

We could be watching another triumph-over-adversity doc - a grown-up Mad Hot Ballroom, maybe - except for the ominous score, and a general sense that there's something not quite right about its subject: that Kryklyvyy is pumping and pushing himself too hard, and that dancing, the celebrity attached to it, and the shirtless self-assessment it entails, has become his life. Niggly arguments with Anna hardly alleviate our fears; neither does Kryklyvyy's reaction to a midtable showing at the European Championships. Where Anna is surrounded by female well-wishers, congratulating her on what she and her new partner have achieved in such a limited time, Slavik skulks away to be on his own, cultivating a chilling thousand-yard stare. Such a distancing look comes in handy as he watches his erstwhile partner Joanna Leunis going on to win the Euros, where he finds himself stuck with a woman who isn't happy with his technique, and is slowly falling out of step with him. What time the last dance will be called remains unclear - as is whether Anna will emerge from Slavik's arms in one piece.

We might question the film's need to spend quite so much time in the couple's bedroom, but then - as 2010's Armadillo suggested - Danish documentarists are clearly far less squeamish about deploying the constructs of reality television, and are only too happy to show their subjects miked up before the cameras. It's a bit too on-the-nose that the couple's rehearsal-studio attempt at reconciliation should play out to a recording of "Always On My Mind", and that Kryklyvyy should spend the final confrontation between the lovers down on his knees - an unnatural pose for anyone but a dancer.

Yet the tactic generates a level of intimacy with these bodies as they come together and drift apart - often, it seems, just by setting the camera up on a table and letting everybody forget that it's there in the course of the long hours of practice; it also happens to catch several felicities, like the giant row the couple have against the backdrop of a beginners' class wherein a young boy and girl are taking their first tentative steps across the floor. Ballroom Dancer might then be best described as a corrective to Mad Hot Ballroom: a film that suggests pairing up with the opposite sex isn't as simple as it might first appear. Just as last week's Jiro Dreams of Sushi did with raw fish, the new film approaches a very specific discipline and pulls from it a set of universal observations: I don't know whether you're looking for love this New Year, dear reader, but Ballroom Dancer is keen to caution you away from any man with no vowels in his surname who spends longer in the bathroom than you do.

Ballroom Dancer is in selected cinemas nationwide, ahead of its DVD release on February 11. Mad Hot Ballroom screens on Channel 4 this Tuesday night at 3.05am.

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