"Ballets Russes" may not be the greatest dance documentary ever made, but it could well be the most accessible and touching.
But it also, almost slyly, does something else, arguably as important. Taking the cue from its opening line of narration"It is the nature of dance to exist but for a moment"the movie also offers portraits of the handful of surviving dancers, most of them in their 80s, who provide its commentary. That several of themincluding Alicia Markova, who danced with the troupe in its Sergei Diaghilev gloryhave since died only underscores the bittersweet grace of the movie's incalculable contribution to oral history.
Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller's "Ballets Russes" is not, however, a look at the Diaghilev years (1909-29), the period that has rightly fascinated so many others. Instead, after a brief review of that time, it tells the tale of the company after Diaghilev, the story of a troupe renamed, split in two and run by various directors and artists until its demise.
Though not maybe as legendary as the Diaghilev days of dancer-choreographer Vaslav Nijinsky, composer Igor Stravinsky and designer Pablo Picasso, this period in the life of the Ballets Russes is also fraught with glory, drama and aesthetic daring.
Right after Diaghilev's 1929 death, for example, the company enjoyed artistic leadership from a young George Balanchine, but only briefly. He introduced a period of child stars, known as the baby ballerinas, including a trio of girls just barely in their teens: Tatiana Riabouchinska, Irina Baronova and Tamara Toumanova. But after only one season, Balanchine was dropped (he would return later) in place of Leonide Massine, a choreographer many consider equal in talent and innovation. (His early work, "Les Presages," groundbreaking in its use of a symphonic score, is still in the Joffrey Ballet's repertory here.)
Through the decades, the Ballets Russes toured the globe, often bringing professional ballet to small towns in America for the first time. Along the way, it gave us classics ranging from Michel Fokine's "Les Sylphides" to Agnes de Mille's "Rodeo." For a time, after a business squabble, the troupe split into two rival groups, the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo and the Original Ballet Russe.
Not only does the film show what went right and what went wrong, it brings the dead to life via photos and recollections of such figures as Massine, Balanchine, de Mille, American impresario Sol Hurok and, briefly, Nijinsky's sister, Bronislava Nijinska, remembered by the dancers as a tough taskmaster who wore white gloves in rehearsal because she hated to touch the sweaty young bodies.
Speaking humorously, often memorably, for themselves, are Riabouchinska, Baronova, Frederic Franklin, Chicago's own Maria Tallchief and critic Ann Barzel, and the late Markova, who provides the movie with a loving testament to the riches of the art. In one poignant, memorable scene, two octogenarian dancers, George Zoritch and Nathalie Krassovska, re-enact a love scene from "Giselle."
In the end, this entrancing film reminds us of how much they all accomplished and, simultaneously, of how much this ephemeral art has lost.
Directed by Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller; written by Geller, Goldfine, Gary Weimberg and Celeste Schaefer Snyder; photographed by Geller; edited by Geller, Goldfine and Weimberg; music by Todd Boekelheide and David Conte; narrated by Marian Seldes; produced by Goldfine, Geller, Robert Hawk and Douglas Blair Turnbaugh. A Zeitgeist Films release; opens Friday at the Landmark Century Centre Cinema. Running time: 1:58. No MPAA rating (suitable for all ages).