“Ballroom Dancer” begins with black-and-white footage of dancer Slavik Kryklyvyy in 2000, on top of the world and dominating the World Latin Dance Championships. Kryklyvyy is lithe and seductive at the age of 24, slicing through routines with his equally skilled partner and lover Joanna Leunis. With his high cheekbones, piercing eyes, and a matinee-idol handsomeness that puts Johnny Depp to shame, he seems almost built from the ground up for success.
However, “Ballroom Dancer” takes a fascinating look at Krykylvyy in the aftermath. Ten years later, he’s coming off a brief, unexplained retirement, driven to recapture the glories of the dancehall once again. Most notably, he no longer has Leunis by his side, instead directing his intensity towards his new girlfriend and dance partner, Anna (hm) Melnikova. For Krykylvyy and Melnikova, there’s not a single moment of solitude, no brief respite from the preparations for the dance. Even in a quiet moment in a hotel, they are tethered not only to their own heated emotions, but to the specter of the looming competition.
Directors Christian Bonke and Andreas Koefoed gained an exclusive look into Krykylvyy and Melnikova’s dance preparation, with their unprecedented access revealing not only the rigors of training but also the tension between a relationship formed not just by two attractive people with matching interests, but by the need for triumph. The visual appeal of tense, wiry Krykylvyy folding into hippy, voluptuous Melnikova on the dance floor is almost unbearably sexy, particularly given the push and pull of their relationship.
But Melnikova is a former amateur dance champion not used to the 24/7 grind of competition, particularly with such a dedicated partner, and her psyche struggles to provide much of what her lover seeks. Krykylvyy, meanwhile, remains laser-sharp in his demands, both of her physicality and the emotionality of her dancing; he's precise about the place Melnikova needs to go to while lacking the eloquence to express how she can get there. Strip away the dancing and do-or-die professionalism, and the relationship will feel familiar to some in the audience.
It soon becomes clear through Bonke and Koefoed’s camera that Melnikova could never be what Krykylvyy seeks, which is a chance to return to former glories. In addition to the daily reminders that his body isn’t the youthful early twentysomething frame that once ruled international dance floors, Krykylvyyy is chasing a ghost. The one couple that seems to be taking home every major title features none other than Joanna Leunis. Leunis hasn’t stopped winning dance championships in the years following their success, and her presence lingers over every time that Krykylvyy exasperatedly attempts to correct Melnikova’s moves.
“Ballroom Dancer” avoids talking-head interviews and narration in favor of a first-hand account of Krykylvyy’s preparations. It allows for unfiltered observations from all participants, especially Krykylvyy. Moody and introspective, Krykylvyy finds himself often discussing how he feels about Melnikova’s shortcomings, though it eventually becomes clear that he realizes the quixotic nature of what he demands from his partner and from himself. In those moments, “Ballroom Dancer” has an honesty that’s absolutely sublime. [A-]