Sports

‘Novenkaya’ (‘New Girl’) (1968) A Sporting Drama of the Soviet Era

 

This story of a ‘new girl’ on the talented Soviet women’s gymnastics team, just prior to the 1968 Olympics, hardly needs to be presented as a fictional drama.  The coach, as in all these films, is tall, dark and handsome, with a brooding sense of being in control of all he surveys, but that’s where the fiction ends.  Whoever did the casting for this film had an incredible talent for finding Soviet gymnast lookalikes, and I won’t need to tell you who was who in the plot, as it’s perfectly obvious.  The only one I’m unsure of is Novenkaya, the new girl, herself.  I think it’s Natalia Kuchinskaya, but I’m not completely sure, because the Director of this film has cut the timeframe about a little bit.

The members of the squad depicted here are a young Tamara Lazakovitch (no sign of the whisky yet, but very spirited), Ludmilla Tourischeva, who is sweetly played as a smiling but very serious young woman, Larissa Petrik, Olga Karasova, Polina Astakhova (coach) and Zinaida Voronina.  

They are all so damned glamourous and charismatic; you wouldn’t imagine that they were sweating blood in training every day, such was their ease and elegance.  The male coach swans in and out of the gymnasium like a peacock, making life and death decisions about gymnasts’ careers.  Remember, at this time most of the gymnasts were mature ladies, and some of them were even married to their coaches (Karasova) or to members of the men’s team (Voronina, Petrik).  Only Tourischeva and Lazakovitch were at this time innocent young ladies, as pretty and composed as beautiful and glamourous.

Our Novenkaya is treated to some relatively friendly roughhousing at the hands of Lazakovitch on her first days with the team, but things eventually settle down.  The gymnasts are generally friendly, but heads turn each time a gymnast does her particular keynote ‘performance’ on her best apparatus.  

The head turn, the attention that is paid, is a kind of reverential respect for the sport, as well as the gymnast, and it’s fascinating that they have caught this atmosphere, this inherent drama, in the format of a film, in the screenplay of this film.  The Soviets, and the Russians, have always been expert at creating an ‘atmosphere’ around their gymnastics.  I don’t know if it’s something they deliberately rehearse or plan, and they only do it when they know they are absolutely at the peak, well ahead of the best.  It was a kind of rapt attention between themselves, an instinctive signal to the rest of the world to pay attention when it happened, and I had forgotten about it until most recently, when I watched Nagorny’s floor exercise at the 2020 Olympics, and saw how the coaches and gymnasts all gathered.  It brought a shiver to my spine.  Then I recognised it in this film, too.

That might not mean anything to you if you weren’t engaged with Soviet gymnastics when it was at its peak.  You will just have to take my word for it: this film may be drama, but it’s no more dramatic than the competition and training itself.  It’s something that is uniquely Russian, and I can’t even properly name it, it’s something that you feel rather than see, and once you have felt it you will never forget it.

In the end, Novenkaya is disappointed as she is left off the team for the big competition that they were training for; I think this was the Soviet national championships.  But her disappointment is later swept away as she wins a gold medal at the Olympics. We see footage of the actual gymnasts in action at the Games.  This is where we see Kuchinskaya, and the likeness between Novenkaya and Kuchinskaya becomes clear.  

Early on, the film includes some compelling shots of junior gymnasts training in a local gym, where Novenkaya is the best, and presumably before she began training with the national team.  Some of the gymnasts have a badge of the sports society on their leotards, others have presumably not made the team yet, so train without the badge.  I haven’t been able to identify yet which club they are training with; it’s not Dynamo, Spartak, Trud, Lokomotiv or any of the other common teams you would know about, but perhaps someone can comment with the information if they are in the know about such things?  

The film was created at a time when Soviet society was looking for heroes to encourage the achievement of work and military targets. The moral message to our fellow citizens is, keep going even through disappointment; persevere and you will triumph.  Gymnastically, the film records a sporting form that was all elegance and agile plasticity.  Don’t forget that many of these women began life as dancers (Tourischeva, for example, trained in ballet before being transferred into sports).  Their lyrical movement sets a fine contrast to the astonishing acrobatics, innovation and contortion of Olga Korbut, who was emerging exactly at the time that this film was being produced.  The Soviets didn’t have the best gymnast in the world at the time; that was Vera Caslavaska.  Her era was followed by the era of ‘Queen’ Tourischeva, but then Romania put a spanner in the works as the child genius Comaneci grabbed the initiative.  We are seeing the end of one era of gymnastics before the new era emerged.  What a fascinating time in world sport. 

There are many of these sporting films now available to see on Youtube and even if you can’t understand the dialogue, much can be gleaned from the visual imagery.  

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