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Dancing fools

Ballets Russes recalls the glory days of a troupe that transformed the world of dance

Ballets Russes is an ecstatic rhapsody of tulle in shades of pastel butter mints, featuring vintage dance footage of diva ballerinas, ballet rivalries and most of all, a love of dance so intense it supersedes money, fatigue, homesickness and even love.

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By the end of Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine's documentary, it feels that we too have breathed the rarefied air of dance love.

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Ballet fans will surely swoon over the film. But even non-dance fans may be surprised at their ability to be carried along by the intoxicating ether of artistry in the film and find themselves tearing up like former corps member Wakefield Poole at the memory of simply standing on stage during a production of Swan Lake.

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More than the "greatest company of the 20th century," Ballets Russes was a brand, with its own distinctive style and superstar dancers, whose publicity shots rivaled the glamour of any Hollywood star.

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Founded in 1909, the Ballets Russes introduced modern ballet to the world, including the concept of the "symphonic ballet" in which dance was set to the classical works of Mozart and Stravinsky. But that was far from its only innovation. The Ballets Russes was nonchalantly avant-garde with edgy, Expressionist set and costume design by the likes of Matisse, Picasso and Joan Miro. It wasn't until the troupe began to tour the American heartland in the 1930s that dancers became aware that a set decorated with a giant bleeding swan from Salvador Dali's "Bacchanale" was perhaps more than their homespun audience could handle.

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Though the Ballets Russes began as a Russian company of "baby ballerinas" so young they traveled with their mamas in tow, it picked up dancers of varied nationalities along the way, including Latin American and Native American dancers such as Yvonne Chouteau and Maria Tallchief, and African-American Raven Wilkinson, whose career with the company was cut tragically short when Southern audiences — some in Klan robes — reacted with increasing hostility to the presence of a black ballerina on stage.

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Until mismanagement and money troubles sunk the Ballets Russes in 1962, the dance troupe carried an aura of exoticism and glamour into the small towns it toured, inspiring ballet groupies and the kind of slavish adoration more often reserved for modern-day rock 'n' roll tours than anything as elevated as Russian ballet.

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But the Ballets Russes was also riddled with fierce rivalries between the managers and egocentric, demanding choreographers such as George Balanchine and Léonide Massine, who fought for control of this dance gravy train. The "great ballet wars" commanded hyperbolic newspaper copy and eventually divided the company into two separate ballet companies, headed by rival impresarios, dancer and choreographer Massine and Col. Wassily de Basil, whose separate paths split the film into two parallel trajectories.

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While the divided historical paths of de Basil's Original Ballet Russe and Massine's Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo are worth following, the film often becomes bogged down in the business-y rivalries that are less enthralling than the ballerinas themselves.

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Near the close of the film, when ballerina Nini Theilade describes the incomparable warmth that the Ballets Russes dancers brought to their performances and which modern dancers so often lack, you yearn for a dance expert or more interviews with the dancers themselves, which might better explain the unique personality and style of the Ballets Russes.

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Though in their 80s and 90s, the elderly ballerinas interviewed for the film possess a bone-deep poise, making regal gestures and hypnotizing with the commanding force of their personalities. Though creatures of quiet and delicate beauty on stage, off stage the ballerinas are cantankerous, opinionated, full of throaty opinion and utterly feminine and flirtatious, attesting to the European ability to retain one's sex appeal even into old age.

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For many, Ballets Russes is also a swan song. A number of the ballerinas interviewed on camera have since died.

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Much of Ballets Russes' appeal comes from the poignant, charming contrast between the dancers in their prime, and the stars in old age, remembering their glory days.

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Utterly beguiling, these aging dancers illustrate an exquisite variety of feminine charm, from smoldering to girlish. Nathalie Krassovska is the vixen of the group, sporting a saucy off-the-shoulder leotard and a Russian peasant hairdo who takes George Zoritch to task for not showing the proper chops as they dance a duet at a 2000 reunion of the Ballets Russes. Dame Alicia Markova, considered one of the greatest British ballerinas of the 20th century, is a regal vision with her frappe of gray hair and dulcet voice. And even in a wheelchair, Yugoslavian child prodigy Mia Slavenska (who made her stage debut at age 7) is commanding and imperial in her perfect coiffeur and elegant clothes.

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Cinema is full of forlorn, demented and faded coquettes in films such as Whatever Happened to Baby Jane? and A Streetcar Named Desire. Rarely have elderly women on screen shown such attitude and chutzpah as these ballerinas. Rather than clinging to some long-gone passion, these women — and men — continue to teach, to dance and contribute to their art form, many of them until the day they died.