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Dancing toward darkness

In telling the story of the Ballets Russes, a fine new documentary also has much to say, if indirectly, about contemporary ballet's troubles.

October 30, 2005|Lewis Segal | Times Staff Writer

BEFORE the Royal Ballet was royal, before the Kirov and the Bolshoi ever toured outside the Soviet bloc, before American Ballet Theatre and New York City Ballet were more than fledgling projects in the dance world, the zenith of classical artistry, glamour, success and influence belonged to the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo.

Formed in 1932 to continue the pioneering mission of the late Sergei Diaghilev -- the Russian impresario who had revived ballet as a serious art in 20th century Western Europe and America -- the Ballets Russes had the greatest stars, choreographers and designers in all of ballet. But the company also had so many willful S.O.B. directors in its 30-year history that ruinous conflicts caused it to split and eventually collapse.

That story is brilliantly retold in "Ballets Russes," a valuable new feature-length documentary by Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine opening Nov. 11 at Laemmle theaters in Beverly Hills and Pasadena. Moreover, the anecdotes and analyses culled from some of the company's wittiest and pithiest former members may help explain why some prestigious companies that managed to survive into the 21st century could well be floundering toward extinction.

As directors, co-producers, co-writers and co-editors of the film, Geller and Goldfine emphasize the watersheds in the Ballets Russes story: the succession of artistic and executive directors, bitter rivalries with former members who started their own companies, whistle-stop tours of Australia, Latin America and the U.S.

Happily, there's also time to pay tribute to the emerging personalities and partnerships that came to dominate the roster. Additionally, we get glimpses of the dancers' Hollywood and Broadway projects and even learn how a resurgence in Southern racism crippled the American career of black ballerina Raven Wilkinson.

Choreographer George Balanchine gets detailed attention, starting with his influence on the Ballets Russes in its earliest seasons -- in particular his discovery of the "Baby Ballerinas" (teenage stars Tamara Toumanova, Irina Baronova and Tatiana Riabouchinska).

There's also evidence of the company's role in the resurgence of Balanchine's career a decade later. And there's plenty of time devoted to the autocratic, charismatic dancer, choreographer and company director Leonide Massine.

The film makes excellent use of footage shot at the historic Ballets Russes reunion five years ago in New Orleans. But the best thing about it is the archival research: the way Geller and Goldfine cut from those millennial interviews with company stars to shots of the same dancers performing in their glory days.

If someone mentions a ballet, you see it -- not in a still photo but in a vintage movie clip. And the sound editing proves equally resourceful, providing the original musical context for nearly every work.

Many of the clips come from silent home movies with a limited time-span per shot (sometimes only 30 seconds). That's not enough for the choreography to make an impression, so you must take it on faith that certain lost ballets were groundbreaking, good or successful while others were imitative, weak or even dismal.

The dancing -- that's another matter. Everyone, including the artists interviewed for the film, recognizes that dance technique evolves and improves generation by generation. But just a few seconds of George Zoritch in Vaslav Nijinsky's "Afternoon of a Faun," running with the nymph's scarf and throwing his head back ecstatically, or of Toumanova contemptuously pumping out fouettes as the Black Swan (bravura in character), and you know that these were -- are -- great performances.

Indeed, "Ballets Russes" documents not only a lost era and repertory but a lost style. In the very first clip -- the late Alicia Markova taking a curtain call -- we see a magically soft, supple, poetic use of the arms and hands. Markova was unique, but in clip after clip, the arms and hands become a detailed, distinctive component of the company's classicism -- what the dancers may mean when they talk about the warmth in Ballets Russes style.

Nobody moves like this anymore. The czarist-era Russian technique that the Ballets Russes exemplified was radically reshaped during the company's heyday into Soviet style, with these niceties pruned away in favor of a dramatically raised and elongated body sculpture. Meanwhile, American ballet focused more intently on steps, and as the Royal Ballet and the Royal Danish Ballet began to be dominated by dancers from outside their own schools, they too started to lose their connection to an older, more gracious and aristocratic way of dancing.

Perhaps inevitably, the film occasionally suffers from exaggerations and omissions. There's no mention, for example, of one major ballerina who brightened some of the company's final seasons -- a star much missed by critic Walter Arlen in this newspaper's last review of the company, two months before it folded:

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