Ballet is an elite performing art, enjoyed by kings and czars, but the USSR’s propaganda masters tried to exploit it for their benefit, holding the graceful dance up as an example of Soviet superiority and appealing to its traditional significance for the Russian people. You knew when there was trouble, because state TV would suddenly broadcast Swan Lake. However, their ballet strategy backfired when high-profile dancers defected to the West. It wasn’t just Nureyev. There was also Baryshnikov, Godunov, Makarova, Panov, and the Koslovs. A rising prima ballerina is deeply concerned her brother intends to join their ranks and even more fearful of what steps their handler might take to stop him in Allison Mattox’s short film, Échappé, which screens during this year’s Dance on Camera.
It is 1970. Cold War tensions are mounting, so the stakes are high for the ballet company’s “good will” tour. Nikolai Andreyev is probably their biggest star, but his sister Vera Andreyev’s reputation will probably soon eclipse his. She is also considered much more politically reliable than the long-suspect Nikolai.
Rather awkwardly for Ms. Andreyev, her brother is about to become a victim of her success. Believing her prestige is now sufficient to carry the company, Lionidze, their KGB escort intends to send Nikolai home to prevent any further international incidents (you know, to give one of those private command performances for the Kremlin). This creates a crisis of conscience for motherland-loving ballerina.
Even though Échappé is set during the beginning of the polyester 1970s, it looks terrific thanks to the exquisite lensing of cinematographer Beth Napoli. Frankly, this is one of the best looking films this year, of any length. Beyond questions of cinematic aesthetics, it also helps showcase Martin Harvey’s choreography in a favorable light (so to speak), which patrons of Dance on Camera will surely appreciate.
Leads Olesya Senchenko and Pavel Shatu certainly both look like glamorous dancers, but they also respond well to each other. On the other side of the spectrum, Nikolai Tsankov is deeply sinister, in a slavishly apparatchik kind of way, as Lionidze. Indeed, Échappé is a well-crafted film in all respects, including Mattox’s screenplay. Instead of merely echoing White Crow, Échappé very definitely has its own identity, which really comes into sharp relief when the intelligent ironies of its conclusion are revealed. Very highly recommended for fans of dance and Cold War films, Échappé screens with the documentary Three Dances this Sunday afternoon (7/14), as part of Dance on Camera 2019.