Hitting UK cinemas this week, the documentary Ballroom Dancer reveals the emotional strain hidden behind the make-up, smiles and sequinned outfits in the world of professional dancing. DG’s Joëlle Pouliot talked pirrouettes and docs with the film’s directors.
Filmmakers Christian Holten Bonke and Andreas Koefoed sat down with Joëlle Pouliot this week to discuss what they discovered in the process of filming l’enfant terrible of the dance world – Slavik Kryklyvyy – while he fought to be the dancing star once more. The strenght of this story? According to the directors many of us will relate to his ongoing struggle for success.
DG: How did you come across dancers Slavik Kryklyvyy and Anna Melnikova, and decide to make them the focus of your film?
CHB: Our producerJakob (Nordenhof Jonck) is married to a former dancer who used to compete in the high level of ballroom dancing. Hetold us about it and we thought that this was an environment that hadn’t really been portrayed yet. What caught our interest was that most of these couples are couples privately and professionally, which must be really hard, to intertwine those two spheres.
We started following the world champions, Joanna Leunis and Michael Malitowski and Anna Melnikova’s former partner who was dancing with another Ukrainian girl. After a while, we kept hearing about Slavik who was a bit of a legend in that environment. When we finally got a hold of him, we met him once, filmed him once and thought: okay, this guy is so dramatic and he’s got so much at stake! He was in the end of his career and it was a do or die for him. So we decided to stick to him and skip the other couples.
DG: Why did you choose not to include any of his former dance partners in the film, in particular Joanna Leunis who seemed to haunt Slavik as she became so successful after they stopped dancing together?
CHB: We liked her to be a distant symbol of a dream he once had. We thought about putting her in there but we really realised during the editing process that we needed to focus on him and see the world through his eyes.
We wanted to be very serious about it. We didn’t come from that environment and didn’t know much about it. Initially, we found it a little bit corny and were laughing when we first filmed the competitions. It’s a little absurd, that whole thing. After a while our laugh faded and we looked at it through Slavik’s point of view. He’s a very serious guy and had a lot at stake.
DG: Why do you think Slavik was so open to having you film his most difficult moments and to having his inner demons revealed on camera?
CHB: I think he is a performer and he likes to be portrayed, to stay in the limelight. But I think often when you point a camera towards someone, something happens; it’s like self-therapy for the person being portrayed. I think at a subconscious level he wanted to see what this could bring him to be doing it.
DG: Where there times were you felt he was staging it or was this genuinely who he was?
CHB: Anna felt that Slavik actually behaved in the film (laughs), so I don’t think he put out any extra drama for the film. He doesn’t stand out as too sympathetic at times but I actually think he toned it down a little bit and didn’t give us any drama just for the sake of the film.
I think most people are a little scared of him. He seems a little brutal and aggressive in his fight for success and doesn’t always treat Anna very well. But the people who seem to sympathise with him when they see the film are people with big dreams themselves. On that note I think it’s a film that a lot of people can recognize themselves in. In modern day society, success is what we are all striving for, we work extremely hard and this is a film about the consequences about being too single minded on your career.
DG: Anna seems to grow an inch taller throughout the film as she builds more confidence. There’s a lot going on in her personal life there. Was she comfortable with you filming all of it?
CHB: She was completely open with the process. She really develops during the film; it really shows her liberation as a woman. She starts off as a little insecure Russian girl and she ends up as a beautiful self-assured woman. It’s quite amazing how much she changes throughout the story.
DG: Towards the end of the film, Slavik can’t seem to tell Anna how he really feels. The song “Always on my mind” by Michael Bubblé starts playing as they dance together. Did you add that music for the doc or is that what Slavik chose to play?
AK: They had actually been practicing the particular dance to this track. But of course the lyrics to the track are so precise to the description of their partnership. It’s almost too much. I don’t think we could have added that track to the scene ourselves because it would have been too obvious. It was very touching because what Slavik couldn’t express in words, he could express through that song and dance.”
DG: Was there anything that you didn’t include in the film that you wish you could have?
AK: We felt that we could have included more of Slavik’s past and maybe his childhood. We actually tried a few times to film him with his father who used to be a body builder in Ukraine. We knew that Slavik wanted to impress his father and live up to him. He told us he was striving for that. That part of his life would have been nice to include but it wasn’t possible because Slavik kept us out of that and we didn’t get the chance to meet his father. It might have been a key to Slavik’s personality, to his ambition and longing for perfection.
I think he had some limits on how much he wanted to include us in his family and private life. He liked us to be in his space between him and Anna but not further than that. When you make documentaries you have to respect people’s limitations and when they say no you can’t force it too much. Slavik and Anna were already very generous for letting us into their lives.
DG: Any plans for future collaborations as directors? What are your solo projects?
AK: We are working on different projects separately now. But it’s been a great collaboration so we are definitely open to doing it again at some point, with the right story.
Ballroom Dancer was released in UK cinemas 18 January. It won Best Documentary at the Raindance Film Festival in London and an award for Best New Documentary Filmmaker at the 2012 Tribeca Film Festival.