D Zyuz’kov’s Natalia Yurchenko documentary: a contemplative and poetic TV sports special

D Zyuz’kov, Natalia Yurchenko documentary (1984)

A curious little 20-minute gem on Youtube, this Soviet television documentary about the gymnast Natalia Yurchenko, made about the time when she was World Champion, is notable for its style of cinematography, its respectful and sombre approach to its subject and the sometimes eerie music soundtrack, created by N Mitrofanov, which seems more appropriate to an avant-garde science fiction / fantasy film of the 1970s.

Surprisingly the film begins with the worst experience Yurchenko had at the 1983 World Championships where she won the all-round individual title: a couple of days after that high, she competed in the vault final, injured her knee on landing and had to be carried off. The film then deflects to scenes of Yurchenko training in the gym under the watchful eye of coach Vladislav Rastorotsky, doing warm-up exercises, fussing over other gym pupils training under Rastorotsky and idling in the spare time, playing a tune on a piano or looking at the scenery outside her room. There are actually very few shots of Yurchenko performing her routines and those that appear are bunched up near the end of the documentary and are not shown in full so it is hard for viewers who know her routines to be able to work out when and where she performed the routines and place a date on the documentary. The film’s narrative, unfortunately without English sub-titles, is provided by Yurchenko herself in voice-over and by Rastorotsky in an interview.

Yurchenko’s voice is very girlish and makes her sound younger than she was when the film was made. She appears to talk about her life in training and how it consumes her every moment; the value of the film as a historical document of Soviet gymnastics and sport generally would appear to be minor (my assumption). The film features many close-ups of Yurchenko’s face which have the unintended hilarious effect of highlighting the heavy fringe of hair over her forehead. Her expression is usually very serious and contemplative. Rastorotsky during his interview and training sessions comes across as a gruff bear of a man who expects to be obeyed and is stern and unyielding towards his charges, even his star gymnast.

The style of the film is what makes it stand out: the cinematography is slow-paced for a sports documentary with long shots of its subject looking thoughtful. The film has many shadows and the lighting seems poor in parts, making the film look more sombre than the film crew might have intended. The highlight is a psychedelic dream sequence about halfway through the film, in which bright white lights edged with blue-green colours are superimposed over a scene of Yurchenko performing on the beam. The music ranges from Frederic Chopin’s Prelude, Op. 28, No.4 – a curious choice since the music has an ambience of despair – to a space-ambient lounge music piece played on cheap synthesiser to more conventional orchestral music; the space music has such acid tones that one expects the film to bleach its colours and turn into shades of bleached baby-blue, sickly lime-green and lemon yellow. For a TV sports special, the film has a lot of visual and sound poetry which may have suited the personality of its star.

The film comes across as a snapshot of a gymnast at a particular moment in time, no more, no less, and if viewers are looking for information about her life up to that point of time when the documentary was made, they will be disappointed. As it turns out, the 1983 World Championships were perhaps Yurchenko’s greatest moment in what became a long tenure (for the period) on the Soviet national women’s team: Yurchenko anchored the team almost to the end of 1986 when she retired from the sport. Years later, she emigrated with her husband and daughter to the United States where she coached gymnastics in Pennsylvania for several years. She is the current head women’s gymnastics coach at Lakeshore Academy in Chicago. As far as I know, Rastorotsky taught gymnastics in France and China after the break-up of the Soviet Union and returned to Rostov-on-Don in 1999.

 

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