It began as "Giselle," it's now called "Dancers" (opening Friday at selected theaters), but Herbert Ross' wan little love story set in the world of the ballet should properly be called "Misha," since Mikhail Baryshnikov is its focus and its only reason to be.
And even for a chance to see a legend up close and in still-decent form (although Baryshnikov's magnetism onscreen does not depend at all on his dancing), "Dancers" has less substance to it than Giselle herself--the Giselle of the second act who's about as substantial as dandelion fluff.
Those who love "Giselle" as a ballet may feel outraged, since what's left is more Albrecht than Giselle. Those who come to see Baryshnikov partner Alessandra Ferri will also be out of luck, since one of the most famous dramatic roles for a ballerina has been snipped and shaped until it makes almost no emotional sense.
Those who come to see if Ferri can act will have their worst fears realized. And those who think that since "Dancers" makes use of Baryshnikov's American Ballet Theatre company, it might be in some way insightful about real backstage life will have to go back to faded reruns of "The Red Shoes," where at least the hilarity was quotable. Sarah Kernochan's "Dancers" screenplay is numbing, banal and listless, all at the same time.
That leaves, as the film's possible audience, girl ballet students between the ages of 10 and 13, who will probably forgive it everything.
The plot brings Lisa Strasser (newcomer Julie Kent), a doelike 17-year-old, to a small town in Southern Italy as a last-minute replacement for a corps member while the ballet company headed by Tony Sergeyev (Baryshnikov) films its production of "Giselle."
We never see the meltingly lovely Kent dance, although she is an ABT member and certainly looks like a dancer (though she's no relation to former New York City Ballet principal Allegra Kent). What she does do is convey vulnerability and speak in a teeny-tiny breathless voice.
Filming of his production of "Giselle" has special meaning for Sergeyev, who confides to his staunch friend, Patrick (dancer Thomas Rall), that soon he will no longer perform the role of Albrecht. Since similar rumors attend almost all the Baryshnikov performances these days, we realize we're in for industrial-strength doses of Art imitating Life. It gets even thicker as we learn that Sergeyev's company is littered with lovely young dancers with whom the maestro has dallied.
In the meantime, and as seen through Lisa's wide eyes, improbable rehearsals unfold. Since presumably some of the movie's audience knows nothing about ballet or this ballet in particular, dancers who have played their roles for years must explain them to Sergeyev, or stand about while he tells them what their characters are up to. Costume designers, who must also be pretty practiced by now, have details of characters and costumes delineated for them. Subtlety is not prized here.
Offstage, bedroom doors are popping open and shut like French farce. Almost everyone's offstage character is a direct reflection of his or her onstage one: The malevolent Myrtha, Queen of the Wilis, is played by a dancer (Leslie Browne) with ex-husband trouble, a young baby daughter and a major case of bad attitude. The deceived Giselle (Ferri) is another of Sergeyev's conquests--although a coolly cynical one. Sergeyev's offstage crony, Rall, also turns up as Prince Albrecht's tutor and close adviser. And so it goes.
The lovers-in-experience outweigh the lovers-in-innocence by about 100 to 1, and the big question is whether Lisa will become just another notch on the Sergeyev dance belt or whether her Giselle-like innocence will protect her a little better than Giselle's did her. And will Sergeyev's wiliness with women keep him from the clutches of the Contessa (Mariangela Melato), so warmly on his matrimonial trail.
And so the stage is set for us to see truncated bits of Act I and most of Act II of "Giselle," in a joke of a "filming session," amid plot complications worthy of "As the World Turns."
The burning question, of course, is the dancing: While this is a Baryshnikov closer to the end than the middle of his career, this is nevertheless a mature and respectable performance to leave behind, given his own omissions in the staging and the film's further cuts. The puzzlement is why the Ferri-Baryshnikov magic, certainly palpable onstage, has not survived on the screen.
They are an effortless, beautiful but strangely cool pair, even for the context of the ballet: That beacon of ardor and protectiveness which Giselles of past memory have shown seems dimmed.