Issue 34 (2011)

Dmitrii Povolotskii, Mark Drugoi: My Dad, Baryshnikov (Moi papa, Baryshnikov, 2011)

reviewed by Vincent Bohlinger © 2011

my dad baryshnikovMy Dad, Baryshnikov tells the story of Boris Mikhailovich Fishkin (Dmitrii Vyskubenko), a short yet gangly student at the Moscow Choreographic Institute, the world-famous ballet academy and feeder school to the Bolshoi Ballet. It is 1986, and Boris is the littlest boy of his class, at that most awkward stage of life in which he is still recognizably prepubescent while all of his peers have already begun growing into men. He yearns after his classmate Marina (Liliia Iamada), said to be the daughter of a general, but she is a dark-eyed beauty fully aware of her charms and we know that Boris never really has a chance. Instead, he finds himself pursued and harassed by the fire-haired and sassy Katia (Kseniia Surkova). As the two smallest, Boris and Katia are always paired together in class exercises—a situation that pleases neither of them—yet Katia continually forces Boris to carry her bags home from school and harangues him on the niceties of proper gentlemanly behavior.

my dad baryshnikovBoris lives alone with his mother (Anna Mikhalkova), who works as a guide for Intourist, the official state-run travel agency. Her work keeps her close to foreigners, and we are to understand that she offers the fullest range of guest services to male tourists, on whom she pins all of her private hopes of getting out of the Soviet Union. She also teaches English on the side to those just as eager to emigrate. It is through a British associate that she obtains a videocassette for Boris of a Hollywood movie starring Mikhail Baryshnikov: White Nights (Taylor Hackford, 1985). Because of Baryshnikov’s defection to the West in the mid-seventies, he is a forbidden subject of conversation and the tape is officially contraband. Boris, however, is immediately hooked by the extraordinary intensity and craft of Baryshnikov’s dancing and watches the tape over and over and over again. During one of Boris’s devotional viewings, a friend jests that Boris looks like Baryshnikov. Since Boris’s mother and grandparents (Marina Politseimako and Il’ia Rutberg) never speak of his father, he begins to dream up a connection. It certainly helps that his patronymic is Mikhailovich, and his mother even implies that she was well acquainted with Baryshnikov in their teenage years. He studies Baryshnikov’s moves religiously and his improvements at school, particularly his pirouette, are noticed by his instructor (Anatolii Kot). When his classmates demand to know the secret to his newfound skills, he reveals that his father is Baryshnikov. Soon the entire school is aware and accepting of his purported parentage—even if most consider it a joke—and Boris continues to advance, though we see that what he lacks in ability, he makes up for with gusto. At the seeming moment of truth, a foreign guest (Tina Barkalaia) arrives at the academy and Boris must perform in place of the regular male lead, who has broken his arm after borrowing Boris’s video and attempting to imitate Baryshnikov. Boris finally gets to be partnered with Marina, but the performance is roundly seen as less than stellar, with the school’s administration, staff, and students all wincing at the painful mediocrity on display. Nevertheless, when the curtain closes, Boris pulls himself out in front of the curtain and takes a thoroughly undeserved bow, as if heralded for an encore. The dignitary laughs with delight and claps enthusiastically at his moxie. Everyone then agrees that Boris indeed has a future on the Bolshoi stage.

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my dad baryshnikovIn recent years, a number of films about dance have been critical and commercial successes with artsy-minded movie-going audiences around the world. While Black Swan (Darren Aronofsky, 2010) famously pandered the physical turmoil and psychological devastation that could be found in the institution of ballet, most films have asserted the liberating power of dance. Films ranging from The Fully Monty (Peter Cattaneo, 1997) and Billy Elliot (Stephen Daldry, 2000) to Fish Tank (Andrea Arnold, 2009) have all posited the potential of dance to alleviate its practitioners from economic and emotional depression. My Dad, Baryshnikov falls somewhere in the middle on this scale, situated well away from the two opposing poles of the tyranny and glorious salvation offered by dance. The film’s screenwriter-director Dmitrii Povolotskii himself studied at this same academy and worked for seven years at the Metropolitan Opera in New York. His experiences seem reflected in the film’s grounded and balanced view of both the school and ballet in general. The film acknowledges the extreme discipline and rigor maintained at the school, even if it is sometimes suggested to be a vestige of a past era, but we also witness the tremendous pressures faced by school administrators—for example, we see the head of the school (Liudmila Titova) entertain a telephone call from Raisa Gorbacheva.  

my dad baryshnikovWhat is perhaps most interesting about the film is that it manages to pull off a thematic switcheroo and ends up not really being about dance at all. In many dance films, the protagonist is first exposed to and then masters dance across the course of the narrative, but here we begin with our hero already a practitioner, and at the most prestigious ballet academy to boot. The story arc of this film actually pulls Boris away from dance, and the figure of Baryshnikov functions as merely a cipher, endowed with ambitions of Boris that prove mutable and inconstant. Baryshnikov is dance supremacy, but he is also manliness, independence, freedom, and the West. At the beginning of the film, when the school’s director declares that there will be no perestroika at the academy, Boris’s voiceover announces that what he really wants is freedom. But what kind of freedom does he seek? We see Boris and his pals outside of school secretly hawking various emblems of Soviet kitsch to foreigners. A watch, military badge, belt buckle, or ‘CCCP’ T-shirt: all can be exchanged for foreign cash, denim, or chewing gum. These illegal activities get him into trouble at the academy, and he ultimately gets expelled for his wrongdoings. Yet at the very moment Boris loses everything – his school, his money, his friends, and even Katia—who should suddenly appear but his actual father (Vladimir Kapustin). His father is not the world-renowned dancer, but just a convict released from prison on amnesty after serving time on an illegal currency exchange conviction, the very same crime of which Boris is guilty. While Boris actively tried to become like his imagined father, he was already well on his way to becoming his real father. 

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my dad baryshnikovThe freedom that Boris seeks, we realize, is basically capitalist free enterprise. He, like his father, just wants to be able to make money any way that he desires, and the film shows how such a dream was impossible, even in 1986. While the eighties are reflected in the film through a couple of touchstones of political history—a disabled Afghan war veteran and Gorbachev giving a speech on television—our sense of the era is most often conveyed and reaffirmed through the commodities on display: the music, the clothes, the spectacular hair of Boris’s mother, and various outdated electronic goods, including a handheld ‘Just You Wait!’ (Nu, Pogodi!) game. While we all might have thought that we just really wanted to dance, the film seems to push us to consider that the freedom of creative expression and personal identity is strongly rooted in one’s purchasing power: Boris in a pair of blue jeans. Would Baryshnikov have defected had he simply had those jeans?

my dad baryshnikovAt the close of the film, we see that Boris has indeed fulfilled his promise to his grandmother to get his name on the Bolshoi. His name appears on a promotion for Sleeping Beauty in the Bolshoi’s 236th season, but he is not the star performer. He is the president of the company sponsoring the season, and the company—‘New People’ (Novye liudi)—just so happens to be the name of this very film’s own production company. The Bolshoi, that venerable institution of high culture that managed to survive multiple regimes of inequality and oppression, now carries the liberating banner of corporate sponsorship. Frankly, I do not know whether to be charmed or alarmed.

My Dad, Baryshnikov debuted at Kinotavr this past summer, and the film’s upbeat, bright score won the festival’s Mikael Tariverdiev Prize for Best Film Music. The film opens in Moscow this month, and is scheduled to open in New York in November.

Vincent Bohlinger
Rhode Island College

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My Dad, Baryshnikov, Russian Federation, 2011
Color, 88 min.
Directors: Dmitrii Povolotskii, Mark Drugoi
Scriptwriter: Dmitrii Povolotskii
Voiceover: Aleksandr Garros
Director of Photography: Sergei Mokritskii
Production Design: Valerii Arkhipov
Music: Aleksandr Manotskov
Costume: Irina Chepenko
Makeup: Mariia Kuibeda
Editing: Olga Grinshpun, Evgenii Efremenko
Executive Producer: Natalia Mokritskaia
Producers: Uliana Saveleva, Mila Rozanova
Cast: Dmitrii Vyskubenko, Anna Mikhalkova, Vladimir Kapustin, Marina Politseimako, Il’ia Rutberg, Tina Barkalaia, Liudmila Titova, Anatolii Kot, Sergei Sosnovskii, Kseniia Surkova, Liliia Iamada, Petr Raikov, Mark Ganeev
Production Company: Novye Liudi

NB Mark Drugoi [Another] is a blanket name for several people working on the film’s making alongside the scriptwriter.

Dmitrii Povolotskii, Mark Drugoi: My Dad, Baryshnikov (Moi papa, Baryshnikov, 2011)

reviewed by Vincent Bohlinger © 2011

Updated: 09 Oct 11