A captivating film that truly elevates the spirit, "Ballets Russes" is the most emotionally satisfying documentary since "Mad Hot Ballroom." Is it a coincidence that both deal with dance? Maybe, but maybe not.
For though dance exists in the moment and then is gone, the grace and artistry that go into that instant make for a transcendent experience capable of conveying the best of what creativity can achieve.
If "Mad Hot Ballroom" shows us beginners just starting to appreciate dance, "Ballets Russes" occupies the opposite end of the spectrum. It's a history of the most influential ballet troupes of the 20th century, groups whose legendary members were present at the creation of modern ballet. It's also a film of multiple pleasures, not all of them expected and none of them restricted to dance fans. The stories and people presented here are involving enough to enthrall anyone.
Directed by documentary veterans Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller (who also had a hand in the writing and editing) "Ballets Russes" is a thoroughly researched narrative about 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. Goldfine and Geller are especially good at following the intoxicating twists and turns of the next 30 years of ballet history, which involved competing companies, legendary choreographers George Balanchine, Leonide Massine and David Lichine and almost every major dancer you can think of.
Though this history couldn't be more significant, it also couldn't be less dry. These dancers, choreographers and impresarios were unashamedly ardent 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.
Fortunately, we don't have to take the remarkable skill of dancers such as Alicia Markova and Alexandra Danilova on faith. The "Ballets Russes" filmmakers spent two years pursing vintage footage of dancers in their prime and their efforts have been well rewarded. Seeing the warmth and humanity these dancers brought to their work is not only rich and satisfying in and of itself, it's also a window into a dance world that is no more.
The best part of "Ballets Russes" might just be the enormously engaging interview footage of these dancers today that takes up much of the film. Starting with a first-ever reunion of Ballets Russes dancers in New Orleans in 2000, the filmmakers talked to more than a dozen key dancers and that footage is truly transfixing.
These men and women, many of them in their 80s and 90s, are as alive and articulate as people a fraction of their age. On the ballerina side these include the regal Markova, the coquettish Nathalie Krassovska, and the red-convertible driving octogenarian Tatiana Riabouchinska, who continued to teach because "what will I do, sell fruit? This is my life."
The male dancers are equally compelling, starting with Frederick Franklin, who talks movingly of his nearly 20-year partnership with Danilova. And then there is 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."
In the years it has taken Goldfine and Geller to put "Ballets Russes" together, a number of these survivors have died, making it so special that the filmmakers were able to record their unquenchable spirits. Seeing how fulfilled dance made all these lives will make the most sedentary types want to kick up their heels themselves, even if only a little bit.
No MPAA rating
Times guidelines: Adult subject matter, but suitable for all ages
Released by Zeitgeist Films. Directors Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller. Producers Robert Hawk and Douglas Blair Turnbaugh. Screenplay Dan Geller, Dayna Goldfine, Gary Weimberg, Celeste Schaefer Snyder. Cinematographer Dan Geller. Editors Dan Geller, Dayna Goldfine, Gary Weimberg. Music Todd Boekelheide, David Conte. Narrator Marian Seldes. Running time: 1 hour, 58 minutes.
In limited release.