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Ballets Russes

A film by Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller

Film Review by Leland Windreich

October 2005

The motion picture has always been an ally to the art of ballet and often serves as its most effective propagandist.  Witness the success of “The Red Shoes” which introduced millions of film-goers to the romantic milieu of a Russian ballet company.  Or “The Turning Point”, a movie idealizing the physicality of ballet, which sent thousands of young people into ballet studios all over the world.

“Ballets Russes” is the latest film bound to captivate a mass audience and it does so through its brilliant presentation of a remarkable era in ballet history.  It comes at a time in which ballet as an occupation and activity is flourishing in nearly every city on the continent, one which has spawned hundreds, perhaps thousands, of dance-involved people who list as their occupations “choreographer” or “artistic director.”  Yet the links that relate these new practitioners to their roots are all but gone, and little to date has been done to reinstate them--or even to acknowledge them.  This film answers that need.

The world became aware of the phenomenon of ballet russe in 1909 when the Russian impresario Serge Diaghilev transported a company of dancers from the Imperial Ballet in St. Petersburg to stages in Western Europe.  His troupe, which was dissolved in 1929 when he died, became the creative apex for the arts for 20 years.  Its magnificent ballets were the products of collaboration of a handful of Russian choreographers with the major composers and painters of the era. . It toured to major cities in Europe and made two visits to the Americas.

Within a few years of the demise of the Diaghilev enterprise a dozen “ballet russe” organizations emerged in the European theatres in the 1930s with the purpose of carrying on what had become a significant art movement.  Of these only two achieved any longevity.  The first, inaugurated in 1932 as Les Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo, was managed by Rene Blum, director of the Monte Carlo Opera House, with a former Colonel of the Tsar’s Cossacks and erstwhile entrepreneur of a small ballet ensemble, who went by the pseudonym of Vassily de Basil.  The company, which was guided by the Colonel until his death and its demise in 1952, underwent 16 minor or major changes of name, emerging during the last 12 years of its operation as Original Ballet Russe.

Intoxicated by triumphs abroad, de Basil abandoned his home base and association with Rene Blum in 1936 and took to the road.  The latter organized a new troupe called Ballets de Monte-Carlo and employed Michel Fokine as its artistic director. It toured for two years with some success in England and South Africa, only to face dissolution in 1937.  Its substantial repertoire of Fokine ballets was acquired by a newly formed organization backed by American businessmen.  Thus in1938 the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo emerged to become the most revered and influential troupe in the Americas.  Its manager was a Russian banker named Serge Denham, who maintained its original name until it stopped performing in 1962.  “Ballets Russes” tells the story of these two companies and how they brought ballet to stages on four continents.

San Francisco-based filmmakers Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine, producers of several successful documentaries on more current issues, became involved with the world of ballet in the year 2000 when a three-day conference called “The Ballets Russes in America” was held in New Orleans.  Originally planned with a more humble objective of providing a reunion for the long-retired dancers in the Denham company, it captured the imagination of a number of individuals and institutions dedicated to the cause of ballet history who expanded its mandate to celebrate the entire ballet russe phenomenon with a full program of lectures, panel discussions, films, displays and teaching sessions.  In attendance were nearly 70 dancers who had performed in the de Basil or Denham troupes (or in some cases, in both).

The team spent hours filming the delegates in a variety of activities: participating on panels, teaching young dancers in the studio, interacting socially at parties, and massing on stage in a New Orleans theatre for a presentation to the public.   The vitality and continued dedication of these elderly artists (most of them octogenarians) vastly impressed the filmmakers, who were able to relate to their subjects with affection and capture their remarkable personalities on film.  Once home and soon on the road, they continued their work with additional interviews with key figures who had not attended the celebration:  Dame Alicia Markova in London, Tatiana Riabouchinska in Hollywood, Maria Tallchief in Chicago.  Then their work as archaeologists began. Over the next few years they sifted hundreds of remarkable still photographs and looked at miles of film footage.  Films came to them from a variety of sources. There were home movies shot on 8 or 16 mm cameras in theatres in many communities where the Ballets Russes performed.  Some footage came from amateur films shot in Melbourne, Australia, by a ballet-hooked ophthalmologist.  A splendid resource was the collection that dance critic Ann Barzel filmed as a budding writer, capturing performances of the ballet in Chicago’s Lyric Theatre in the 1930s and 40s.

Past and present were merged seamlessly as the filmmakers strove to achieve their objective--to recreate an era with original visuals and to evaluate the materials through the mature observations of the living participants.  But “Ballets Russes” is more than a display of artistic results.  As a film it offers an historical narrative of the origin and development of the two companies, accurately told and with a high sense of drama and frequent expressions of humor.  Like any narrative film it has all of the elements that make audiences pay attention--an intriguing and often devious plot, a dozen or so talented stars who in their prime were beautiful girls and handsome men, and a villain or two.

We’re made aware almost immediately of the cruel politics that controlled the ballet world. Alexandra Danilova, a Diaghilev dancer who at age 27 applied for work with de Basil only to be rejected as “too old” by George Balanchine.  (The average age of the three young principals he had hired was 14).  Balanchine, charter member as artistic director of de Basil’s troupe, returns to Monte Carlo after a short vacation to find that his job has been appropriated by Leonide Massine.   The three “baby ballerinas” vie constantly for attention, assisted by their ambitious mammas.  Massine and de Basil quarrel frequently over matters of repertoire, power and money, and when the former splits in 1938 to form his new troupe, the factions are in and out of the law courts for several years.  In America impresario Sol Hurok, who brought de Basil’s troupe over in 1933, shifts allegiance between de Basil and Massine as his moods change, ultimately dropping out of the management of both.

The interviewed dancers make no bones about their opinions of the choreographers who offended them.  Frederic Franklin deplored Balanchine for his determination to dehumanize the ebullient dancer by asking him to avoid emoting and “just dance the steps.”  Supreme classicist George Zoritch, who witnessed the creation of Agnes de Mille’s enormously popular “Rodeo” gagged with disgust over its mundane message and a style of dancing that he deemed intrinsically vulgar.

The demise of the companies was due primarily to exhaustion.  Constant touring depleted their productions and debilitated their dancers.  The economics involved in presenting quality ballet became prohibitive. The ballet russe aesthetic featured narrative ballets, and American audiences began to prefer works which displayed unfettered classical dancing. But as dancers retired they settled in communities in the Americas and Australia where they promoted the development of local ballet establishments.  Many became teachers who influenced the next generation of performers. Those who came to New Orleans in 2000 continue to extol their heritage and have passed on a living legacy.

When this remarkable film is released on DVD it should be acquired widely by dance educators.  It will serve as a definitive tool in university dance history programs.  It should become mandatory viewing for any young person who sets foot in a studio with the intention of becoming a professional dancer.

Since the completion of the film four of the “stars” have died:  Alicia Markova, Mia Slavenska, Tatiana Riabouchinska and Nathalie Krassovska.

“Ballets Russes”, written, directed and edited by Daniel Geller and Dayna Goldfine.  Narrated by Marian Seldes.  Zeitgeist Films, U.S.A., 2005.  118 min.

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