In a studio at the National Ballet of Canada, a young Juliet struggles to time her glissade so that she arrives at the right moment in the arms of her patient but bemused Romeo. In the background, hovering watchfully, are the more seasoned ballerinas she beat out in the competition to dance the role on opening night.
That stressful scene is a moment from Romeos & Juliets, a CBC documentary about the creation of a new Romeo and Juliet for the ballet's 60th anniversary this season. Going behind the scenes with his camera last year, filmmaker Moze Mossanen encountered the career-making competition among five separate couples for opening-night casting. And, when Elena Lobsanova won that honour, he witnessed the tense story of a less-experienced dancer struggling to conquer a major role while a demanding director was creating new choreography up to the last minute.
"Their whole lives are devoted to perfection, to chasing beauty. My whole thing is to look for the underside," Mossanen said, noting that he went into the dance studio with the very opposite agenda from the dancers. "They were trying to make everything perfect, but I didn't want that. I wanted to see how they did it."
No, he didn't shoot a Black Swan at the National, but the first third of his documentary has a reality-TV flavour to it, as the five couples await word on whom Russian choreographer Alexei Ratmansky will pick for the opening night. "Someone's heart is going to get broken," observes artist in residence and former principal dancer Rex Harrington, while Ratmansky himself states frankly that Romeo and Juliet need to be young and good looking.
After Lobsanova and her more seasoned partner, principal dancer Guillaume Côté, get the nod, we don't see tears onscreen but we do see the increasing stress on the dancers – Lobsanova sprouts zits; Côté looks exhausted – and their choreographer. With only eight days to go before the premiere, Ratmansky tells Lobsanova and Côté quietly but bluntly that their death scene is "not very dramatic." In another scene, Ratmansky appears unable to find steps to fill one sequence and asks Mossanen to stop filming.
"There were periods at the end when it was terrifying. It didn't look like he would finish. He never lost his cool," said Mossanen, who shot 65 hours of rehearsals and interviews to create the one-hour doc.
Artistic director Karen Kain had taken a risk when she commissioned Ratmansky, the most sought-after choreographer in ballet today, to create a new Romeo and Juliet for her dancers. Daring to replace the beloved John Cranko version of the 1960s, she also hoped to vault the company back onto international stages.
That gamble paid off with good Toronto reviews when the new ballet opened last November and an invitation to take it to the famed Sadler's Wells Theatre in 2013, bringing the company back to London after an absence of 26 years. But Kain also took a risk when she invited the CBC to mark the ballet's 60th with a film about the whole process, thinking this was a way to share the new Romeo and Juliet across Canada. Of course, she did not have television images of exhausted dancers and a frustrated choreographer in mind.
"I know how demanding the process of creation is. I was not afraid of letting people see that, but comfortable is not the word I would use ... I knew what we were about to undergo," she says of that decision. She adds, now that she has seen the film, "I have to recognize what is good television and what springs a tale ... As an artist, of course I would prefer something that focuses less on the competitiveness, but it does portray the dedication and the struggle."
Lobsanova was more surprised, and finds the final film, in which she sometimes appears painfully withdrawn, embarrassing. She preferred not to sit through a recent invitation-only screening at a theatre.
"I just wish they hadn't shown the embarrassing parts," she said of the tense rehearsal moments depicted onscreen. "I did feel that was happening, but I tried not to be affected; I tried to distance myself and therefore maybe I am more subdued ... [The documentary]captured my most uncomfortable moments."
Côté is much more sanguine, agreeing with Kain that what emerges very powerfully are the highs and lows of creation, a painful but necessary process. (In the film, Ratmansky makes the same point – as he enters an opening-night party, his face flushed with relief.) "There were times that were hard during creation and they captured that," Côté said. " A year later, with some distance, it's a beautiful process with all the ups and downs."
For his part, Mossanen hopes that, in weeks or months to come, the dancers will recognize that if they seek perfection onstage, it is the revelation of their less-than-perfect struggle that will make a national television audience love them. "Some of the dancers were overwhelmed by how much the film shows about the process," he said. "But the very things they see as problems are the things that make the audience put their arms around them and take them into their hearts."
Romeos & Juliets airs on CBC, June 7 at 8 p.m.