The Children of Theatre Street (1977)

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The Children of Theatre Street
Dir. Robert Dornhelm and Earle Mack
Premiered May 9, 1977

The 1970s were an unusual time in both the United States and Russia. With Eastern Bloc economies stagnating, the Soviet Union was increasingly willing to reach out and make agreements with the west in a time known as Détente. As a result, contemporary Russian culture was accessible to Americans in a major way for the first time since the Second World War; Russian organizations were happy to oblige, not least due to the propaganda value, and so we got projects like The Children of Theatre Street, Robert Dornhelm’s documentary on Leningrad’s prestigious Kirov School of Ballet.

My knowledge of pre-1980s documentaries is pretty sparse, but The Children of Theatre Street is the earliest example I’ve seen of the “kids doing really intense shit” genre– think of a less involved Russian version of Hoop Dreams and you have some idea what this movie is about. Narrated by Grace Kelly, the film begins with the very newest, youngest recruits to the highly competitive academy being constantly judged for their performances, weighed, measured, and overall intimidated by the legendary dancers that have come before them– the Kirov School having been in continuous operation since the reign of Peter the Great. The mood initially seems kind of exploitative; were these American children, I’d be wary of overcompensating stage parents and the like. But it quickly becomes clear that these kids want to be there, that this is truly their passion, and that parents have no involvement whatsoever (many if not most came from places far from Leningrad, and haven’t seen their parents in years).

The documentary then expands to include the promising students of the Kirov’s graduating class, through whom we get a better idea of what is going on in the Soviet Union’s biggest cultural export, and get the sense that the ballet, much like baseball in Cuba or cinema in Iran, is something of a way out.

Were The Children of Theatre Street made now, or even twenty years ago, it would probably be much more focused on a core of students, who would be more fleshed out. I don’t know how much of that difference was due to different trends in documentary filmmaking or if the Soviet Authorities frowned on such individual perspective, but it’s nevertheless the best documentary of the year I’ve seen so far.

Signs This Was Made in 1977
(1) The Soviet Union exists, and (2) western film crews are free to go see it.

Next Time: Iphigenia

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