Directed by Dayna Goldfine
and Dan Geller
Written by Dan Geller,
Dayna Goldfine, Gary Weimberg
and Celeste Schaefer Snyder
Narrated by Marian Seldes
I am not a sports fan, but I have found sports documentaries such as Hoop Dreams compelling. I can relate to the agony and the ecstasy of young men hoping for an NBA career, because I understand the basic concept of an all-consuming passion. In the same way, the new full-length documentary Ballets Russes should find a wider audience beyond dance aficionados. Like all good documentaries, the human element is the glory of Ballets Russes.
The film's focus is the revered dancers of what is considered the greatest ballet company the world has ever known. Now in their twilight years, these passionate performers were once the dream team who helped to create modern ballet.
The genesis of the cinematic Ballets Russes was the first and only official reunion of former company members that was held in New Orleans in 2000. Documentary filmmakers Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller went to see if there was a film to be made out of this once-in-a-lifetime gathering of dance senior citizens. They arrived knowing very little about ballet, but left caught up in the artistry and intrigue of the Ballets Russes legend. Their film traces the fabled history of the company through the memories of its dancers, and what a wonderful array of colourful characters they are.
Technically, there is more than one Ballets Russes. From 1909 to 1962, a succession of companies with variations on the name made the art form glamorous and mainstream all over the world. The first Ballets Russes was the troupe of handpicked Russian dancers, including icons Anna Pavlova and Vaslav Nijinsky, whom producer Serge Diaghilev first brought to Paris in 1909. The impresario took Russian ballet out of his country's backwater and stunned Europe, and then the world, with the force of his collaborative creativity with geniuses such as choreographer Michel Fokine, composer Igor Stravinsky and visual artist Pablo Picasso.
This film begins with the collapse of Diaghilev's innovative company after his death in 1929. From the ashes of Ballets Russes de Diaghilev, the new Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo arose to carry the avant-garde banner under Colonel Wasily de Basil and Réné Blum, giving its first performance in 1932. With rising-star choreographer George Balanchine as its ballet master, the company recruited a trio of future superstars from Paris's post-revolution Russian émigré community. They were called "The Baby Ballerinas," and for good reason. Irina Baronova and Tamara Toumanova were just 12, while Tatiana Riabouchinska was 15. (Octogenarians Baronova and Riabouchinska figure prominently in the documentary.)
All good stories need conflict and a clash of egos, and Ballets Russes is fraught with drama. First, de Basil pushed out Balanchine, then he pushed out Balanchine's brilliant successor, dancer/choreographer Leónide Massine, who started a rival company called Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo. (De Basil's troupe was now billed as the Original Ballets Russes.) This led to the Great London Ballet War of 1938 when both troupes appeared in that city. They also ended up competing in the United States where the two companies went to wait out the war, breaking ground once again by recruiting the first native-American and African-American ballerinas.
In the film, their dancers give delightful warts-and-all accounts of the various directors and their peccadilloes. The autocratic Massine, for example, never travelled with his company, but had a private car whose chauffeur was also his chef. Talking heads form a large part of the film's structure, and dancers from all the Ballets Russes eras reminisce about their experiences. It's particularly fascinating to hear why certain ones remained loyal to de Basil, while others joined Massine.
What becomes very clear, however, is that these dancers did not work for money, but for the love of their art. When Riabouchinska is asked why she is still teaching at 89, she tartly retorts: "What should I be doing? Selling fruit?"
African-American ballerina Raven Wilkinson's harrowing experiences with the Ku Klux Klan when touring the South in the 1950s is just one of the rich mother lode of personal stories that are at the heart of Ballets Russes. Her terrifying tale of hooded Klansmen marching into the theatre during a performance and shouting "Where's the nigger?" is chilling beyond belief.
On a humorous note is American principal dancer Marc Platt (born in 1915) detailing about being forced to "Russianize" his name to Platoff. My particular favourite talking head is the witty, even bitchy, English principal dancer Frederic Franklin (born 1914). When gossiping with relish about the seismic split between de Basil and Massine, he tosses off: "The Russians were never very nice to each other. You know how they are."
Wonderful encounters between the dancers happen at the New Orleans reunion which was the flashpoint for the film. Not having seen each other for 50 years, George Zoritch's and Nathalie Krassovska's spontaneous attempt to recreate the flirtation scene from Giselle is as hilarious as it is poignant. The two had a legendary partnership on stage, and apparently off.
Historic film footage and still photography, beautifully underscored by ballet music, and cleverly edited with the dancers' voices, give brief images of the renowned Ballets Russes artists in their glory years. The research is phenomenal, including never-before-seen home movies.
As much as I delighted in the candid interviews and the behind-the-scenes revelations from these towering giants of ballet history, I was somewhat disappointed from a Ballets Russes artistic point of view. While the film does try to show why the choreography was so rich, the scenic art so dazzling, it falls short. Tantalizing glimpses of famous ballets, dancers shimmering for a moment on screen, brief cinematic flashes of designs by the likes of Henri Matisse, Salvador Dali and Joan Miro -- no image lasts long enough on screen to really show the creative and technical brilliance of the Ballets Russes years.
Clearly, the directors opted for the dancers and their memories to stand for the greatness that was Ballets Russes, and when one revels in first-hand accounts from celebrated prima ballerinas such as Dame Alicia Markova (born 1910), Mia Slavenska (born 1914) and Maria Tallchief (born 1925), perhaps the filmmakers did the right thing. It is, after all, these justly famous dancers who are the living incarnation of the Ballets Russes mystique.