Film Review: Anatomy of a Male Ballet Dancer

Dancer Marcelo Gomes’ professional and personal stories make for a terrifically involving terpsichorean doc.
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Marking his 20 years with the prestigious American Ballet Theatre, David Barba and James Pellerito’s likeable, absorbing Anatomy of a Male Ballet Dancer celebrates the striking danceur noble Marcelo Gomes. At 17, this Brazilian boy joined the company and went on to rule the world of dance with his immaculate technique, dazzling charisma and unsurpassed skill at partnering the greatest prima ballerinas of our time. That last, often underrated gift is one he is hyperaware of, for partnering a new ballerina is, as he says, his main love. This love is returned in kind by the effusive verbal bouquets tossed at him in the film by divas on the order of Misty Copeland, Polina Semionova and Diana Vishneva.

The filmmakers, who also brought us the entertaining Be Good Johnny Weir, do not stint from showing the hardship beneath the glamour, with all the rigorous rehearsal, constant awareness of time ticking away for an ever-aging body and the excruciating physical toll the profession takes, with the dancer at one point lying in an exhausted, sweaty heap as his beloved dachshund licks his wet face. Facing the same financial constraints of every documentarian, they were able to avoid the prohibitive cost of filming in U.S. venues like ABT by shooting their star on tour in cities like Athens, Saint Petersburg, Tokyo and Rio de Janeiro. One only wishes even more breathtaking, air-hanging footage of Gomes in action had been included.

Despite all the adulation and privilege, Gomes is refreshingly down-to-earth and an engaging camera presence, reflective of a remember-your-roots ethos in him, instilled from age 13 when he had to leave his hometowns of Manaus and Rio, where being a young ballerino made him a bullying target in a culture more accustomed to little boys playing soccer. But this gay kid knew what he wanted early on, and got the overseas training he needed, while receiving important support from his uncle Paulo, who died of AIDS in 1993. Gomes’ visit to Paulo’s surviving partner, Wolf, constitutes one of the film’s more touching moments, as do scenes involving his complex relationship with his father, who divorced his mother, started a new family and habitually refuses to see his son perform.

It’s the kind of thing that could leave an unfillable emotional chasm in anyone, and for all of Gomes’ bonhomie and success, the film is tinged with a certain poignancy. He confesses to having no partner, despite wanting one with whom to start a family of his own. One can but hope that the rewards of art offer enough succor for the artist until that happens, especially in view of the immense price that must continually be paid. (In late December, it must also be noted, Gomes resigned from ABT after an eight-year-old accusation of sexual misconduct surfaced.)

One of the repertoire Mt. Everests in the life of any primo ballerino is the demanding role of Solor in La Bayadere, which both terrifies and irresistibly challenges Gomes. The thrill vouchsafed by the sight of him dancing the role one last time with an injured foot in Tokyo, and the excruciating aftermath, make this one of the most viscerally authentic dance films—showing both guts and glory—ever made.

Click here for cast and crew information.