Writer-director James Napier Robertson is well-versed in dramatisations of real-life stories. He readily admits, “There’s always a pressure and responsibility when telling a story about a real person.’ The fascinating story of Joy Womack, who made history as an American ballerina who was accepted into the Bolshoi Ballet Academy drew his interest, and after meeting Joy, he became utterly inspired to tell her remarkable story with Joika.
Womack wanted Joika to show what it really took to become an elite ballerina in such a fiercely competitive atmosphere, – something that she felt had never truly been shown in film. And, having seen Napier Robertson’s’ multi-award-winning The Dark Horse, Womack felt he was the person she could entrust to do so. With raw, unflinching honesty Womack poured out her story to Napier Robertson and was involved every step of the way through script development and production.
Joy Womack was one of very few Americans to ever be accepted into the Moscow State Academy of
Choreography is commonly known as the Bolshoi Ballet Academy. Founded in 1773, it is one of the oldest and most prestigious ballet schools in the world and provides a potential pathway to being selected into the elite Bolshoi Ballet Company.
Joika is not so much about ballet as it is a dramatic story set in that refined hothouse milieu. The bedrock of the film’s narrative is perhaps best expressed by the person who lived it, the classically trained dancer Joy Womack: “I believe ballet is a bridge between countries and cultures. It’s an international language, a way for people to meet and create and do things without words. It’s about beauty and celebrating something that is bigger than just the basic functions of being human.”
From Napier Robertson’s perspective, authenticity was a must. “The film really has to delve into the minds and physicality and dedication of those who inhabit this world, but not in a movie way. That’s why I asked Joy to be the film’s choreographer. I felt there was nobody better to be making the movie within that capacity than Joy herself. I also needed her encyclopedic knowledge of ballet. Not only did I have her constantly involved as I was writing the script, but she was behind the camera with me figuring out all these huge dance sequences – and doing a phenomenal job – as well as dancing herself in it.”
Joika is based on the true story of Joy Womack, who made history as an American ballerina who was accepted into the Bolshoi Ballet Academy. At fifteen years old she left her family home in Texas to travel to Moscow to follow her dream – to become a Prima Ballerina at the world-renowned Bolshoi Ballet Company.
From Page To Screen
A powerfully engaging, gripping, and immersive journey of Joy Womack’s formative experiences in Moscow, Joika was brought to the screen under the skilled hand of writer-director James Robertson Napier, and his creative team, as the very first New Zealand-Polish co-production.
Napier Robertson met Joy in 2016 and was completely captivated. He says “She’s an incredible person. I’m often around people who work very hard and are passionate about what they do, but Joy was at another level in her dedication to her art. I was blown away and moved by her story. I felt it was much more than just her getting into the Bolshoi. I’ve wanted to use film to bring to life the story of an incredible, complex and inspiring human being who possesses a beautiful and deeply emotional story. A story that I feel should be more widely known.”
As the writer-director of The Dark Horse (2015) based on the story of champion speed chess player Genesis Potini, and, more recently as Co-Director on Whina (2022), based on the story of Dame Whina Cooper, James Napier Robertson is well versed in dramatisations of real-life stories. “My approach is to invite that person – or those people – into the process as much as possible. Joy is young, incredibly intelligent and has a huge amount of self-awareness, everything was on the table – we just kept talking.”
Womack herself refers to the initial meetings with Napier Robertson as an ‘a-ha!’ moment of no return. She explains, “Before that, I was in denial – or disbelief – that it [the film] might ever happen. It’s such a joy for me to work with people who are so passionate about what they do. James and I are aligned in that. He’s put his heart and soul into telling my story. I knew that it would be in good hands. I felt respected and honoured that him, and the team brought me into the process.”
Napier Robertson’s script covers the period of time from when Womack first entered the BBA to her
performance in the International Ballet Competition Varna, a biennial event in Bulgaria. Widely referred to as ‘The Olympics of Dance’, it can be a significant launch-pad for those pursuing careers in classical dance.
“I was 15 years old when I came to Moscow,” says Womack, “Without my parents. I lived there by myself and went straight into Russian school so I could learn the language.”
Given the nature of cinematic storytelling, Napier inevitably had to be selective about how he shaped the entirety of Womack’s richly, sometimes distressingly complicated experiences in Russia for the camera – something she understood and accepts. “The film spans almost ten years of my life in two hours, so things are quite compacted and compressed.”
Napier Robertson recognised how vital it was to get the film’s casting right. Especially crucial was making the right choice of who would embody Womack. “As I was writing the script, I remember thinking that the only way it would work is if there’s a truly exceptional performance in the lead. The character of Joy is in almost every scene. It’s a huge and incredibly demanding role, and with that comes a lot of pressure. Talia Ryder has exceeded what I had hoped for. She’s done a phenomenal job.”
Getting cast in Joika was, says Ryder, “…An answer to all my prayers. This felt like something where I could
really bring a big part of myself to a character I actually understood. I love acting, but dance is my number one thing. I’ve been dancing since I was three years old. But it’s a very different part of my life compared to Joy’s life. She’s another breed. Going up to teachers and asserting yourself or trying to prove yourself and asking for a role – those are all things I understand, but differently. They’re skeletons of situations I’ve been in before.”
Ryder trained privately for a year before stepping into Womack’s shoes in Joika. “I love ballet and had a ballet foundation technique, but it was never my strong suit. I’m more of a contemporary dancer, so I had to get whipped into shape.” She seems to have taken the pressure of playing a real human being, who also happened to be on set throughout the shoot, in her stride. “It’s amazing to have that person be right there, because they’re the best resource you can have. Joy was so open about a lot of moments in the script, answering some really personal questions because she wanted to help me give a completely honest portrayal of her. I was like, ‘’I just wanna make you proud of my portrayal of you.’’ But I also have my own ideas about a character, so it’s really about collaborating, and talking.”
This certainly applied to Ryder’s working relationship with Napier Robertson, too. “He’s really been
encouraging,” Ryder enthuses. “I’m a detail-oriented actor. I like to talk about everything down to the pair of socks I’m wearing. James spoke with me for so long about how the choices you make can completely change the feel of a scene. They could go in a million different ways. It’s about looking at every moment as important, and then taking the time to make sure you’re happy with the results.”
Womack, for her part, also carries considerable admiration for Ryder. “Ballet is something we dancers spend most of our lives trying to perfect. Doing that in a short amount of time is quite difficult. Talia took on a big challenge. It’s very brave of her wanting to dance as much as she could in the film. I’m proud of her for how much she poured herself into it. I helped as much as I could, making sure that the choreography was manageable yet ambitious enough to show the Russian classical style.”
But, as Womack admits, the blur between her life and the movie version of it was occasionally disconcerting. “Joika is one of my first experiences working in film, and I was trying to separate the choreographer role I’d been given from ‘’This is about me.’’ It’s kind of surreal. It was interesting, and weird too, to see in the dance class scenes how well Talia had done her homework and picked up little quirks of mine.”
Still, Womack was the person best placed to know what would ring truest during the filming. “I was touched and honoured to sit at James’ side during the shoot and say, ‘Hey, this doesn’t seem believable,’ or to offer some small detail or other that might make a scene seem more authentic. And he was completely open to me taking ownership of everything dance-related.”
Diane Kruger plays Volkova, a queen bee of classical dance who can make or break the raw, young talent in her charge – including the central character of Joy. “Volkova is an ex-prima ballerina,” Kruger says, “A famous teacher and a director at the Bolshoi Academy who has given her life to the ballet. I’ve tried to find a truth to her that can be as uplifting and warm as it can be ice cold. She has great discipline, but also a good heart; she’s not someone who’s mean for no reason. She truly loves her students and will do anything to try and help them flourish in a world that’s really tough. She can be as hard as nails because she expects the best from them. They are like her children. As we learn in the film, she has a very frayed relationship with her own daughter; there’s a lot of heartache and regrets there. There’s also a sadness to Volkova that really attracts me. She has no friends or family. She never married or found love. And she has no time for the human aspects of why we are not all prima ballerinas.”
Volkova is loosely based on a couple of people in Womack’s life, but principally a woman who was her coach at the Kremlin Ballet (a company she joined after leaving the Bolshoi). “She became like a mother to me,” Womack recalls, “And yet she demanded excellence and perfection.” Some elements of Volkova’s character are also taken from another female teacher in Perm who, says Womack, had a reputation for being highly physical in class. “She was notorious for abusing her students. Yet my partner Mikhail Martinuk (Womack’s dance partner for many years, including at Varna) had nothing but good to say about her.”
Bringing Joika To Life
It was James Napier Robertson who was charged with the task of immersing viewers in the intensely dedicated creative environment top-rank ballet demands. Belindalee Hope, one of the film’s producers, readily sings his praises. “James is an incredible actor’s director with the skills of a writer, and it works so harmoniously. He has the whole story completely mapped out in his head. He knows every beat of the film, how he wants to shoot it, and how he wants the audience to feel. He’s determined and dedicated, and it’s his obsession that makes this film great.”
As a writer and a filmmaker Napier Robertson knew what had to be done in order to do justice both to Joy Womack’s story and ballet itself. “The character of Joy puts herself through some incredible circumstances. It was crucial that an audience who knows nothing about ballet will inherently understand why someone would be so devoted to it. Part of it is the wonder and awe of this world. It’s very stylised and visually striking, and then there’s the music, and movement which has such a dynamic athleticism. The film had to capture all of that. It had to look strong and beautiful and be an incredibly powerful, visceral experience for an audience, but at the same time it’s tough, hard and gritty and not trying to be a fluffy version of that world.”
For Napier Robertson that meant “colour and light, the anamorphic lens, frame rates, camera movement –
everything to embrace the theatrical nature of ballet, but never to the point that we start to feel disconnected from the characters. There has to be an emotional journey with Joy that the audience goes on as well. We have to understand it at a much deeper level.”
Much of that depth arose from the circle of Polish specialists hired to work on Joika and their respective teams.
Many conversations were had between Napier Robertson, Production Designer Joanna Kaczynska and
Cinematographer Taumusz Naumiuk. “Talking, talking, talking was the starting point for me on the film,” says the cinematographer. Tomasz, or Thomas, Naumiuk. “Then I asked myself, ‘What can my input be to
Joy’s story?’ There’s no one word that can explain and represent it. It has so many turning points it would be disrespectful to use just one word. But maybe ‘trance’ will do.”
Naumiuk’s idea was to shoot Joika as if it were “Kind of like Degas on acid.” He continues, “We knew already a few ballet stories on film, but we wanted to make something not so common. Ballet, for our main character, is like a religion, or like being a drug addict.”
“There hasn’t been a ballet film like this before,” agrees Talia Ryder. “I think people are going to be really
shocked at how intense some parts of the ballet world are. I hope people will become immersed in that world and appreciate all the hard work dancers go through to look effortless. I also hope that after watching it they’ll want to go and support ballet, see local shows, and make ballet a part of their lives.”
“What makes my story worth telling?” Womack wonders, “And unique enough to be turned into a film? That’s a question I’ve been asking myself. I may not have the most successful career in the entire world, but I’m young and involved and still going. What I do have is dedication and a work ethic. No matter what hits me, in my career, I try to persevere. No matter what hardships might happen, I still have a love for ballet.”
James Napier Robertson is a New Zealand writer and director
His 2015 film The Dark Horse was nominated for over 50 awards at festivals around the world and won over 30, Variety stating it “exceptional…the most deserving cinematic export to emerge from New Zealand in years”, The Australian calling it “outstanding…a work of the highest artistic excellence” and the RNZ Film Review declaring it “one of the greatest New Zealand films ever made.” Napier Robertson won New Filmmaker of the Year at the 2014 Spada Awards, and The Dark Horse won Best Picture, Best Director, Best Screenplay, Best Actor, Best Supporting Actor and Best Score at the 2014 New Zealand Film Awards.
In 2018, Napier Robertson wrote and directed two episodes of Australian mini-series Romper Stomper, which won Most Outstanding Miniseries at the 2018 Logie Awards. In 2019 he worked on BBC mini-series The Luminaries, and in 2020 he directed 100 year-spanning Dame Whina Cooper biopic epic, Whina. Whina recently completed it’s theatrical run in New Zealand, taking it’s domestic box office by storm and grossing well over $1M. The film will be released in other territories around the world in the coming months.