After the 1917 Revolution, many Russians fled the incoming Bolsheviks and took up residence in Europe. Some were very little girls who wanted to dance. When the original Ballets Russes, set up in 1909 by the legendary Sergei Diaghilev folded in 1930 after his death, Col. Vassili de Basil and Rene Blum launched The Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo. Spanning some 50 years, the film documents the birth of Ballets Russes, its growth and its ultimate demise. The story is told by and through the surviving members of the original corps, all in their 70s, 80s and even 90s. Woven into their stories are the roles played by the famous choreographers who worked with them, like George Balanchine and Leonid Massine.
Review by Louise Keller:
An informative, insightful glimpse into the ballet company that made an impact on the development of the dance form, Ballets Russes is a history lesson and an unforgettable close up encounter with some of its artists. You don't have to be ballet crazy to be fascinated by this lively documentary as it sweeps us into a unique world behind the ballerina smiles and tutus. With some of the artists now well into their eighties and nineties, it is easy to be inspired. Ballerinas like the immaculately groomed and flamboyantly showy 82 year old Nathalie Krassovska show they have lost none of the elegance and spirit from the days when they innovated, danced and performed in front of audiences everywhere.
I knew little about the origins of this legendary company that began in 1909, when Russian impresario Serge Diaghilev contracted a group of Russian refugees to perform in Paris. The artistry prompted an instant following as it evolved, split into two competing companies, travelled around the world embracing dance pioneers of all nationalities. The reunion of nearly 100 surviving dancers in New Orleans in 2000, was the opportunity the filmmakers were looking for, many of the dancers had not seen each other for more than half a century. 'There is a price to pay for everyone,' says Yvonne Chouteau, one of the five American Indian ballerinas who went on the road with the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo from the tender age of 14. The lifestyle was relentless for the youngsters, separated from their families, as they travelled by day by train and performed each night.
Many of the anecdotes and recollections are outright funny - like American Marc Platt, whose name was changed to Marc Platoff, in order to make him sound Russian. And the ballerina whose artistic director husband would bring an apple to dinner for his wife, the only thing she was allowed to eat, when everyone else indulged in lashings of spaghetti. We get a sense of the cat fights, the competitive elements, the harsh physicality, racial discrimination and the driving creativity. The historical facts are the glue that bind everything together, leaving us inspired.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
A captivating and thorough documentary that not only tells the history of the post revolutionary Russian dancers who created their own cultural revolution in the West, Ballet Russes discreetly but notably lifts the lid on the seething jealousies on stage and in business that was part and parcel of this immense story. It underlines the impact these dancers had on Western culture through their exceptional hard work and talent, shepherded by creative forces in the forms of Diaghilev, Balanchine, Massine and others.
Perhaps the most arresting aspect, one that will engage any audience whether ballet fans or not, is the human stories that underpin the interviews with the dancers - and the juxtaposing of them as vibrant veterans, with their lithesome youthfulness of 50 years ago. How have they aged? Pretty well, most of them, still teaching and moving and smiling with a twinkle in their eyes.
The film is often surprising with its revelations about the impact of history on ballet through war and racial conflict, and it never wallows in sentimentality, while giving us personal, intimate glimpses into these amazing lives. While there is ample archival footage and well utilised stills to fill in where necessary, these elements are well balanced with contemporary interviews and a wonderful and sensitive narration.
For Australians, there is a telling chapter on the company's famously fantastic tours in the alte 30s, which paved the way for the establishment of ballet as a popular artform in this country.
Ballets Russes offers us the pleasure of a vivid picture of one of the great stories of modern performing arts, illuminating the people who drove themselves to give us many works of lasting value. It makes you feel enriched by the collective experiences revealed on screen. Make a pointe of seeing it.
Email this article
BALLETS RUSSES (G)
CAST: Documentary featuring founding members of Ballets Russes, including Irina Baronova, Frederic Franklin, Alicia Markova, Marc Platt, Tatiana Riabouchinska, Mia Slavenska, Tatiana Sepanova, Nini Theilade, Maria Tallchief, Raven Wilkinson, George Zoritch.
NARRATION: Marian Seldes
PRODUCER: Dan Geller, Dayna Goldfine, Robert Hawk, Douglas Blair Turnbaugh
DIRECTOR: Dan Geller, Dayna Goldfine
SCRIPT: Dan Geller, Dayna Goldfine, Gary Weinberg, Celeste Shaefer Schneider
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Dan Geller
EDITOR: Dan Geller, Dayna Goldfine, Gary Weinberg
MUSIC: Todd Boekelheid, David Conte
RUNNING TIME: 118 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Hopscotch
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: May 18, 2006