Ballets Russes – 2005 – dir. Daniel Geller, Dayna Goldfine
You need not be an aficionado of classical dance or even know much about ballet to appreciate the joyous celebration that is Ballets Russes. Documentaries of this sort have a way of making the past “quaint”, almost falsely charming. Not so this one! A welcome breath of fresh air, it fairly floats along on a cloud of exuberance and real nostalgia for a kind of glamour now gone from our stages and from our world.
Ballets Russes explodes for us in a fireworks display of color and music, sparkle and light and invites us into a world as if we are being invited into a party. We are its exclusive guests. Recognized by many as THE greatest dance company of the twentieth century, Ballets Russes was comprised of mostly Russian refugees who, ironically, never performed in their native land; rather, they made of themselves traveling ambassadors of Russian culture and art and turned the world of dance upside down forever. Many of the company members are still around today to be interviewed. Luminaria such as Mia Slavenska, George Zoritch, Irina Baronova, the great Danilova, the great Markova, the great Maria Tallchief — all thrill us here with their charm, their wit, their “blood”. No ancient, petrified talking heads. It is really lovely to see these dancers as they are today and then to see them in their youth. All these many years later, their spirits still shine with a passion for the dance. We hear fascinating stories about the many maestros who made Ballets Russes a cultural revolution and a legend in its own time: Sergei Diaghilev, Leonid Massine, also Picasso, Balanchine, Nijinsky, Stravinsky, Ravel. The list of contributors goes on and on… These geniuses, defying the conventions of their day, set their dances to established symphonies — a heresy! Critics and dance snobs shook their heads in dismay but the attending public LOVED it making Ballets Russes for nearly 50 years the hottest ticket in town. We see the company take old London, Paris, Rome and the Americas by storm!
In fact, the stock film footage is the real star of this movie and it is guaranteed to capture you: the clips from many of the company’s hits, the costumes (scintillating pinks and greens, tutus and tulles), mystery, drama, sorrow, all styles of performance, girls twirling with unbelievable speed. Indeed, the lovely light of the footage matches frame for frame the magic of any of Degas’ paintings of ballerinas and fills us with joy. These figures are not frozen in history but alive in Time, as vital and energetic today as they were on stage half a century ago.
The documentary is not, thankfully, above gossip; who was whose lover; who betrayed whom; who left this one’s bed to jump into the bed of another!
The movie has humor. We see the infamous instructor, Nijinska, who comes to class every day wearing white gloves not because she is elegant but because “she didn’t want to touch the sweaty bodies of young girls”. And when Leonid Massine is stages a coup to become director, we hear, “The Russians weren’t very nice to each other…you know how THEY all are!!”
Most of all, this movie has heart, such heart! In a fun profile of the magnificent George Zoritch (now running a gym/spa in Tucson, Arizona), watch as he and Irina Baronova try to replicate a scene from “Giselle”. We see they can no longer dance but their BELIEF that they can, their looks, their gestures, tell us that the fire to dance still burns as brightly in them as it did when they were young. And there is something beautifully sad when an 89 year old still-performing Marc Platt holds up for us a photo of himself as a young immortal.
Ballets Russes is no ordinary documentary. It is an ode to love; love of craft, love of dance, love of Life.