The dance floor of broken dreams

The ballroom dancer, Slavik Kryklyvyy reminds me of Nureyev. The same high cheekbones, fevered expression, tautness and temper, but most of all the same obsession.

Slavik (I’m abandoning the surname to make this easier for me to write and you to read) is the subject of a documentary, Ballroom Dancer, that screened at the recent Sydney Film Festival and is gradually being released around the world.

I hope it will be available soon on DVD, for it’s a remarkable account of passion, hope and dashed hope, the bittersweet nature of dance competition and the lengths to which dancers go to keep on dancing against the odds.

It’s also one of the few films that is so visceral that any dancer or former dancer is likely to find their muscles twitching in sympathy and empathy.

The film, directed by the Danes, Christian Holten Bonke and Andreas Koefoed, takes the audience into the cloistered world of professional ballroom dancing, in which the competitors tour relentlessly, often to such provincial towns as Blackpool and Bournemouth, and see little there except their bland hotel rooms and the dance floor where the competition is ferocious.

Ballroom Dancer focuses on the attempted comeback of Slavik, a Ukrainian, who was at his peak in 2000, when at 24 years old, he dominated World Latin Dance Championships with his partner and lover, Joanna Leunis.

The film opens with scenes from those years but moves quickly to Slavik’s preparation with a new partner, Anna Melnikova, with whom he lives and travels from city to city like a gypsy.

At times, the couple seem completely oblivious to the cameras as they rehearse, train in gyms or studios, squabble, express their fears and frustrations and lie in bed – she eager to begin the day, he seeming to drag himself into the world.

Slavik’s exercise routines with a personal trainer are extreme and torturous but his thoughts are even more distressing as he torments himself with the possibility of failure and the continued success of his former partner.

We see glimpses of the patient mentors who coach the couple. At one stage, the coaches tell Slavik his dance style is over embellished, that he must be “less fidgety”.

The contrast between the smiling, rhythmic and razor sharp public Slavik and the agonised, temperamental private Slavik, always finding fault with Anna, is painful to watch.

As Anna has said, Slavik is “an amazing person, but it’s just he’s very difficult. But like all artists, he’s a little bit mad”.

The film ends with Slavik passing on some of his knowledge to new students. He tells them about the importance of core strength and the centre of gravity.

His fight for the top ranking appears to be over, so his comment to the students – “we can lift our centre of gravity” – appears to be as much about the mind as the body itself.

The directors said their aim was “to create a seductive and dramatic film that tells a documentary story using the tools from fiction film”.

They’ve succeeded.

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Anna Melnikova in Ballroom Dancer

Slavik Kryklyvyy and Anna Melnikova in Ballroom Dancer