Review: Ballets Russes in Documentary film at Selected cinemas

Reviewed by Marion Jones - Wednesday 19 April 2006

‘It’s like a curtain opening and I can see it happening.’

Dame Alicia Markova’s magical words, plus flickering black-and-white film of her taking a long-long-ago curtain call, open a curtain for us to see that rarest of things, a dance documentary that is both a beautiful, energetic piece of film-making and a glimpse into a vanished world. The pattern of dancer recollection and treasure-trove film footage forms the basis of this astonishing 118 minute-long film by Dan Geller and Danya Goldfine that sets out to reveal the journey of the Ballets Russes from 1929 to its inevitable end in 1962, and ends up revealing even more about the human journey.

Two things: first, oddly (and initially misleadingly, given the title), don’t expect the story of Diaghilev, Nijinsky and the rest. That iconic history is only briefly recounted to set the scene for this less-known story of the variously revived Ballets Russes companies following Diaghilev’s death. Second, brace yourself for a little nauseating American commentary, especially near the beginning, which may send film-goers of a Giselle-like disposition mad, and which is at odds with the mercurial now-poetic, now-exhilarating content of the film.

This commentary takes us through the reunion, in 2000 on a theatre stage in New Orleans (another vanished world), of nearly 100 surviving Ballets Russes dancers. It is this event that the film is built around. The firm-of-jaw narrator tells us that, though they may have been Russian, European, Latin-American, ‘in the end they were Americans, creating audiences where there were none’. You can just feel old Europe wince.

Some of the principal dancers of the Ballets Russes companies lining up on the stage are also the principal cast members of the film, and they have distinct and inspiring personalities that leap through the screen and bring alive both their own stories and the companies’. Witness Markova, so elegant and, at 90, so girlish, becoming again the 14 year old discovered by Diaghilev, and film of her – all liquid bourées – in Massine’s Rouge et Noir. There is a fine-looking George Zoritch, 83 and in the gym, plus film footage of him as a virile Faune (the women, flustered, recall how handsome he was, as photos verify). There’s the sweet affectation of Nathalie Krassovska, still living it at 82 with her fluttering eyelashes, wafting arms and knowingness. A scarily self-regarding Mia Slavenska from Yugoslavia, who could stand on point at the age of four and who says of Balanchine, ‘With my kind of looks he would have been very madly in love with me.’ A stunning Irina Baronova, the cool tomboy who didn’t fancy doing ballet still just visible in her manner. One of the Russian girls whose families fled the Revolution, she studied with Preobrajenska in Paris and was discovered in her studio, aged 12, by Balanchine. There’s Liverpool-born Frederic Franklin, the raconteur of the group, as sharp of wit as his dancing was (and still is). Marc Platt, one of the Ballets Russes’ first American dancers, discovered by Massine and later in the film of Seven Brides For Seven Brothers.

As the delicious anecdotes, Byzantine company history and dazzling, rarely seen footage build up (what fabulous dancers!), you have a sense of watching the film-makers – no ballet experts – falling in love with their subject and realising the urgency of their task, that they are recording a remarkable slice of cultural history that has to be told before its tellers disappear. This history reveals glamour, gossip, grit, passion for work and how even the latterday Ballets Russes companies were part of the great 20th-century story, from the Russian Revolution to American Civil Rights. So there becomes a palpable sense of legacy in the film that mirrors that same sense in the lives of the dancers.

The dancers’ peripatetic journeys variously lead them to hand down the Imperial Ballet world from Preobrajenska (Tchinarova et al), to set up the first accredited US dance departments (Yvonne Chouteau and Miguel Terekhoff in the University of Oklahoma), to be the first African-American ballet dancer in the US (Raven Wilkinson) and to scatter across the globe from Australia to Argentina.

We get to feel two degrees of separation from long-gone legends, as dancers recall that Massine was ‘always discovering something new’, that Nijinska ‘wore white gloves at class as she didn’t like to touch the bodies of sweating girls’. The film’s long (two year) editing process pays dividends as we hear from Baronova of the high-maintenance preparations for Krassovska’s wedding. Cue Franklin: ‘Six weeks later she’s divorced!’ Cut to Krassovska, chuckling away from under her eyelashes.

One of the most moving episodes in this vigorous film shows Krassovska and Zoritch rehearsing a scene from Giselle for the reunion. She stands in sensible shoes in a lovely first position, explaining a point. They speak in Russian. He is finding it difficult; she has been rehearsing and is not about to let her chance go. She cajoles and encourages. Zoritch, who has revealed he had a poster of her on his wall, turns to the camera. ‘She’s schmalzing me up!’ These two troupers do the scene and embrace, laughing. We are alert to their story, which we see is still unfolding.

By the closing credits, we learn that Krassovska has died since filming, and, among others, Slavenska, too. So, of course, has Markova, the last of Diaghilev’s dancers, the last of that link. Within its own time line then, the film has become less a documentary history than an elegy, its meta-narrative describing an urgent story desperate to be told, brimming with age-defying passion, energy and the love of dance.

There are still some scheduled screenings through 2006 – and the DVD is now available.

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