by Del Harvey
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I attend the ballet, but not all that much. Even so, Ballets Russes is one of my favorite films of the year. I was struck by the amazing history of this brilliant twentieth-century dance troupe that began as a group of Russian refugees—most of them under 16!—who never danced in Russia but who became not one but two rival dance troupes whose rivalry consumed London society before World War II. The Ballets Russes was brought about by former dancer and artist Serge Diaghilev in 1909 in collaboration with the Russian dancer and choreographer Mikhail Fokine and a group of Russian dancers that included Vaclav Nijinsky, Anna Pavlova, Mikhail Mordkin, Tamara Karsavina, and Adolph Bolm. With their collaboration, the Ballets Russes made possible the realization of Fokine’s ideal of ballet as an art form unifying dance, drama, music, and painting, and its impact on 20th-century ballet is inestimable. Diaghilev presented an extraordinary range of ballet genres, from the romantic Giselle (1910), to the light and surreal Parade (1917), to the lavish Russian Imperial style of The Sleeping Beauty (1921). Diaghilev was extraordinarily effective in stimulating the creative gifts of the people he worked with, and his drawing together of the major talents of his era was a catalyst for much of the art and music of the period.
The documentary, Ballets Russes, by Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine, traces the company’s beginnings with the Diaghilev-era in turn-of-the-century Paris, through subsequent iterations led by lesser impresarios and often under the guidance of such notables of modern dance as Nijinsky and Balanchine, and occasionally with the cooperation of such artists as Picasso, Dali, Miro, Matisse, and Stravinsky united in an unparalleled collaboration. The film traces the early troupe through its early halcyon days of the 1930s and ’40s, when the Ballets Russes toured America, astonishing audiences schooled in vaudeville with artistry never before seen, to its demise in 1950s and ’60s when rising costs, rocketing egos, outside competition, and internal mismanagement ultimately brought this revered company to its knees.
The documentary came about as an extension of an official reunion of the dancers of the Ballets Russes in 2000, many of whom were not only still alive, but actively working as instructors or choreographers or actors, even long into their 70s, 80s, and 90s. The filmmakers interviewed 40 of the dancers, many of whom live in the continental U.S. Each had a story to tell about their involvement and contribution to this amazing dance troupe, including Dame Alicia Markova—still coaching young dancers at her London Studio Centre, Frederic Franklin—still actively choreographing the Cincinnati Ballet, Maria Tallchief, George Zoritch, Nathalie Krassovska, and many others. Many of these dancers had footage to contribute, and it is amazing and extraordinary to see, not only for purists of ballet, but also for lovers of history, the documentary film, and the artistic expression.
For, above all else, Ballets Russes the film is evocative of the human spirit’s need for artistic expression. It is definitely one of my personal top ten films of the year, and I highly recommend seeing this film as soon as you can. It is a remarkable work.
Del Harvey is a writer and critic living in Chicago.
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