The spotlight outlines the silhouette of a man sitting on the dance floor. Violins fill the room with a mournful Russian air. A young woman enters. The rhythm changes. The dance begins and no emotion is too over the top. The show is on.
"It was a challenge to present Slavik in a way that would make the audience identify with him, because he is so tough and radical. Even so, there is something about him that most modern, ambitious men will probably recognise."
When Christian Bonke and Andreas Koefoed were introduced to the strange world of ballroom dancing a couple of years ago, they were filled with fascination and wonder at the abundance of sequins and shaved chests. The stage was set for a drama about winning gold as well as love. When they met the athletic, temperamental dancer Slavik Kryklyvyy, they knew they had a natural protagonist for their film. He simply outshined everyone else.
"Slavik was discovered rather late, at age 19. Within a year and a half, he was the best in the world. No one ever shot to the top so quickly before. He came out of left field and won the world championship," Koefoed says. But Slavik's reign was brief and for the next 10 years, with changing dance partners, he has tried, and failed, to get back on top.
"Ballroom Dancer" follows Slavik in his all-out assault on the world championship. His partner this time, Anna Melnikova, is also his girlfriend. But the trophies elude them and soon events are spinning out of control, both on and off the dance floor.
"He's probably the most talented dancer in the world. He's just not making the most of it, because his personal demons and internal resistance are always tripping him up. And he is so driven to win that he neglects his love for Anna," Bonke says.
Little by little, he pushes Anna away with his constant hectoring and perfectionism in front of the dance studio mirror. Nothing is ever good enough for him.
"Ballroom Dancer" is the two directors' first project together and both say the collaboration was seamless. Bonke graduated in directing from the National Film School of Denmark in 2005. Since then, he has made a string of documentaries on subjects ranging from teenage love to realtors. Koefoed, who graduated in 2009, is already a veteran at IDFA. He has taken no fewer than four films to the festival over the last three years and also served on the jury for the Student Competition.
"Ballroom Dancer" is the first feature-length documentary for either. Though they both like to use direction in their documentaries, this production was very different. They had planned on helping the story along in various ways, for instance by asking Slavik and Anna to discuss certain subjects, but Slavik was so focused on himself and his dancing that that was never possible.
"We started out writing scenes for a kind of script, imagining the coolest possible story, so we would be dressed to get the scenes we wanted. But we never got a single one of the scenes we made up. We never even got close to asking them to do anything for us," Koefoed says. "However, the script gave us clarity about what kind of turning points we needed in order to let the story unfold."
Because they also chose not to do any interviews or other explanatory narrative elements, the two filmmakers had to work hard in the editing room to create understanding in the audience.
"We wanted the film to look like a fiction film. Everything should be told in scenes. We filmed it like a very pure documentary, but we cut it like a fiction film," Koefoed says.
Though they lacked the opportunity to apply direction, the two filmmakers had almost unlimited access to the two dancers' lives.
"Slavik is a very generous protagonist. We had extreme access to his life. We went with him everywhere and he only asked us to turn off the camera once or twice, even when he and Anna were breaking up. We went along for the whole ride as flies on the wall," Bonke says.
Pays A Heavy Price
The dance floor is the stage of the performance, but the real drama is played out in the relationship between front stage and back stage. Life off-stage is a far cry from the polished dance floor.
"Those forced smiles are a wonder to behold. For most of the film, Slavik and Anna are not getting along at all off stage, but they still have to go on stage and act like they are madly in love, faking it the whole way through," Koefoed says.
"The world of ballroom dancing is an amazing scene, where the dancers are professional partners as well as lovers. It has drama and it is a very visual environment. The dance contests add a natural dramatic effect to the film, but we deliberately tried to ramp that down to avoid losing focus on the love story," Bonke says.
"It was essential to find a balance between the film's two main elements, dance and love. Both elements had to be in play. For Slavik, there was never a separation between dance and love," Koefoed confirms.
"It was a challenge to present Slavik in a way that would make the audience identify with him, because he is so tough and radical. Even so, there is something about him that most modern, ambitious men will probably recognise. High achievers who sometimes forget the girl at their side," Bonke says.
As the filming progressed, Slavik grew increasingly lonely. His world championship dreams were fading and Anna left him for a wealthy Lithuanian.
"His life fell apart and we were extremely close to everything. At the end, he called us up and asked us to come to Cologne where he was doing solo training, because he had to tell someone about the heavy price he was paying for letting his love slip away," Koefoed says.