on February 5, 2006
The good news is that in Ballets Russes, viewers don't need to know anything about ballet to enjoy this electrifying documentary by Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine, This is a lovingly and confidently made documentary that brings to life an era of unequaled artistic excitement. Equally heart-wrenching, and riveting and thoroughly entertaining the Ballet Russes unwinds like a historical thriller, laying bare the politics, rivalries, tremendous egos, and creative appetites that produced two of the world's greatest ballet companies.
Weaving actual historical footage of the companies with interviews of these dancers today, the film starts with a first-ever reunion of Ballets Russes dancers in New Orleans in 2000, and juxtaposes this with the various permutations of the troupes that started with impresario Serge Diaghilev's legendary Paris-based Ballets Russes. When Diaghilev died in 1929, ballet came to a standstill until a pair of entrepreneurs began Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo two years later.
What follows is a beguiling journey through the intoxicating twists and turns of the next 30 years of ballet history, which involved competing companies, the legendary choreographers George Balanchine, Leonide Massine and David Lichine, and almost every major dancer you can think of, including dancers such as Alicia Markova and Alexandra Danilova. The guides through this world are the dancers themselves, many white-haired and elderly, offering up sharp and often-funny anecdotes. Some were barely in their teens at the time, from families who had lost everything in the Russian Revolution.
These men and women, many of them now in their 80s and 90s, are still totally alive and articulate, including the regal Markova, the coquettish Nathalie Krassovska, and the red-convertible driving octogenarian Tatiana Riabouchinska, who continues to teach because "what will I do, sell fruit? This is my life." These dancers, choreographers, and impresarios were shamelessly passionate in pursing their professional and personal lives, and the result is a story filled with enough backstage intrigues, romantic rivalries and unlikely assignations to make it the juiciest of artistic soap operas.
The male dancers are equally compelling, there's Frederick Franklin, who talks movingly of his nearly 20-year partnership with Danilova and also the 90-year-old Marc Platt, who had his name changed to Platoff because everyone had to seem Russian, and the vital George Zoritch, captured reliving the past with Krassovska in a moment from "Giselle." Their grainy performance clips give us an emotional quality that is not to be matched, and their interviews reflected an era of excitement, novelty, innovation, and yes, even sexiness!
The Ballets Russes is one of the best documentaries of the year, a wonderful story of a grand moment in high-art culture, the archival footage so breathtaking, and the reminiscences so piquant, that even a novice can't help being swept up in this ode to one of the world's greatest art forms. Mike Leonard February 06.