We’re accustomed to thinking of great ballet stars as dazzling soloists. But Anatomy of a Male Ballet Dancer, an intimate study of longtime American Ballet Theatre principal Marcelo Gomes, made over a period of seven years by co-directors David Barba and James Pellerito, spends as much time highlighting its subject’s extraordinary aptitude for partnering. That under-sung virtue is seconded here by a string of ballerinas including Misty Copeland, Polina Semionova and Diana Vishneva, who attest to the rare combination of technique, sensitivity and connection that makes Gomes such a generous and freeing other half in a pas de deux.
Two-man band Barba and Pellerito, who also serve as writers, producers, DPs, editors and sound recordists, clearly have an affinity for bodies in motion. Their first documentary feature, Pop Star on Ice, and spinoff, two-season TV series Be Good Johnny Weir, both focused on the flamboyant U.S. Olympian figure skater. They followed with American Cheerleader, a feature tracking two high school teams competing for the national championship.
Gomes proves an engaging subject, whose dedication is as inspiring as the breathtaking grace and strength of his dancing. If the prohibitive union costs have kept footage from ABT performances in its New York home at Lincoln Center out of reach, the filmmakers have compensated by traveling the globe to catch Gomes on stages in Athens, Saint Petersburg, Tokyo and, on his native turf, in Rio de Janeiro.
Balletomanes will be the prime demographic for this engrossing portrait, which also should be of interest to LGBT audiences; in 2003 Gomes became the first major ballet dancer to come out on the cover of The Advocate, with the attention-grabbing headline “Romeo Is Gay.”
Despite having left home at 13 for the U.S., when local training had taken him as far as he could go, Gomes remains fiercely attached to his family, in particular his mother. Lovely scenes show him returning to his hometown, Manaus, in the heart of the Amazon, and then to Rio, where they moved when he was five. Unlike in Russia, ballet in Brazil, at least back then, was strictly for girls, while boys played soccer. So he grew up as the only male in ballet class, enduring the bullying of other kids at school because he intuited instantly that he was born to dance.
Part of his early encouragement came from his gay uncle Paulo and the latter’s longtime partner, Wolf, who took him often to the ballet. Paulo died of AIDS in 1993, and a present-day visit of Gomes and his brother to Wolf is quite affecting. That family example of a loving same-sex relationship also eased the way for Gomes’ self-acceptance as a gay man. However, he’s perhaps less than forthcoming about his romantic history, volunteering only that he hopes someday to find love and start a family.
The more nagging gap in the personal picture pertains to his father, a subject on which the filmmakers set themselves up for an anticlimactic ending. It’s revealed early that after divorcing Gomes’ mother, Gomes’ father started a new family, and despite repeat invitations, has not been to see his son dance in New York in more than 10 years, an absence that pains Marcelo.
Given the relatively short span of years in which ballet dancers are physically able to perform the great roles, the clock is ticking, and Gomes’ 20th-anniversary celebration with ABT this year seemed the perfect opportunity to coax his father to New York. But despite the promises he makes during a visit from his son to Brazil, he remains a no-show, leaving audiences to infer the reasons in a somewhat frustrating thread that simply drifts off.
More robust is the day-to-day immersion in Gomes’ professional life, from grueling rehearsals that end with him slumped on the floor, his pet dachshund licking the sweat from his face, to triumphant performances. One notable example is the demanding role of Solor in La Bayadere, which Gomes performed in Tokyo with an injured foot.
As spectacular as the ballet interludes are, the arduous preparations and body maintenance are equally riveting. From the daily rigors in the gym to the endless stretching, massage and other treatments required for ankles that often appear almost deformed from swelling, the doc makes it clear that this is a career path possibly even more taxing on the body than most professional sports. Gomes is said by one observer to be still “in the golden period,” though at 37, with surgeries behind him for torn ligaments in one ankle and tendonitis in the other, fear of injury has become a constant companion.
What’s so refreshing about the subject is that his confidence doesn’t exclude a seeming absence of ego (essential in an exemplary ballet partner) and his sense of gratitude. The warmth and spontaneity he shows to kids at the live-in Florida ballet school where he trained from age 13, initially with barely any command of English, suggest that he remains very much in touch with his roots, prior to landing a scholarship at the Paris Opera ballet school and a place at ABT when he was 18. Likewise his respect for ballet history, emerging during a private tour of the legendary Russian ballet academy where Swan Lake was created, and from which Nijinsky, Nureyev and Baryshnikov all graduated.
Gomes also displays a healthy acceptance of the time limit on his performing years, which is steadily approaching its end. He has already started moving into the next phase, testing his skills as choreographer on a tour of top-flight male artists called Kings of the Dance, whom we glimpse in action during the Russian leg.
The film, underlaid with delicate scoring by Giovanni Spinelli, is fluidly edited and shot with an excellent eye for both the exertion and the seeming effortlessness of the dance sequences. The economic impossibility of accessing footage from Gomes’ anniversary performance at ABT — plus the disappointing absence of his father — denies the doc a completely satisfying full-circle conclusion. But the closing footage of Gomes striking elegant ballet poses, shirtless by the lake in Central Park, nonetheless leaves us with images of beauty and serenity. It will also leave every gay man in the audience wondering, “How is this flesh-and-blood sculpture still single?”
Production company: Retribution Media
Directors/screenwriters/producers: David Barba, James Pellerito
Additional writer: Fernanda Rossi
Producers: Gerry Kim, Jennifer M. Kroot, Mayuran Tiruchelvam
Director of photography: David Barba, James Pellerito
Music: Giovanni Spinelli
Editors: David Barba, James Pellerito
Sales: Obscured Pictures
Venue: Provincetown Film Festival