In Anatomy of a Ballet Dancer, directors David Barba and James Pellerito follow 37-year-old Brazilian ballet dancer Marcelo Gomes on the eve of his retirement. We get to know Gomes through interviews, archival footage of his early auditions and rehearsals, talking heads praising his unparalleled versatility, and, sadly, only a few recent performances. The camera never surrenders to Gomes’s actual craft for very long, or the raw ugliness of dancing as sacrificial labor, which is unfortunate since the film is only vibrant in the brief instances when we witness Gomes’s sweat flung across the stage and close-ups of his feet, disfigured from decades of strenuous practice.
This is a small film that never quite figures out how to balance its various layers, which basically consist of a few images of Gomes’s virtuosity on stage, all the nice generalities about him from other professionals, the revelation that he received the support of his family early in his career, and, most importantly, the acknowledgement of his thorny relationship with his father. While Anatomy of a Ballet Dancer tries to make the argument that Gomes’s dancing skills are exceptional, the real spectacle lies in the dancer’s interior drama. His father used to cheer him on when he was a child, but after divorcing Gomes’s mother and starting a new family, the man never watched his son dance again. Despite Gomes’s various accomplishments and accolades, his greatest desire is for his father to at least see him dance at the Metropolitan Ballet Theatre one last time and tell him, “You’ve made it.”
Gomes, who came out in the pages of the Advocate in 2003, doesn’t seem to have that much to say, as his real gift is articulated through his body, and the history of discipline that’s tailored it. This isn’t the first time Barba and Pellerito have given the royal treatment to something of a minor queer figure. Their 2009 documentary Pop Star on Ice featured ice-skating provocateur Johnny Weir, and gave way to the reality TV series Be Good Johnny Weir, also directed by the duo, who were much more seduced by Weir’s flashiness than the insecurities that may lie beneath it. In Anatomy of a Ballet Dancer, there’s a little more attention paid to the turmoil driving the hunger for success. The brief conversation between Gomes and his dead uncle’s surviving partner is particularly moving. But the family drama seems to play more of a pragmatic narrative function than an opportunity for honest revelations.
The absence of the father at Gomes’s final performance works as a teasing gimmick: Will the old man show up unannounced or not? And the scene where father and son sit down in a drab room for a polite confrontation when Gomes visits Brazil feels particularly forced and anticlimactic. Lost, or at least merely glossed over, throughout this hagiographic documentary portrait is the miraculous story of an effeminate Brazilian boy who was actually allowed to blossom through dance and who, because of such permission, has managed to survive his queer childhood a little more unscathed.