Ballets Russes: Geller and Goldfine’s Great Docu about Revolutionary Dance Company

A glorious ode to the revolutionary twentieth-century dance troupe known as the Ballets Russes, Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine’s informative, if also nostalgic, documentary is based on a treasure trove of archival footage and interviews with the dramatis personae, many of whom still alive.

Though the focus is on two tumultuous decades, from the late 1920s to late 1940s, the docu covers almost a century of dance history, illuminating not only the historical importance of Ballets Russes, but the origins of American ballet and dance theater through the work of George Balanchine and Agnes De Mille.

Actress Marian Seldes narrates the film in an unobtrusive manner, providing basic facts and links between the various chapters. Nonetheless, the essence and contribution of the work lie in the primary and subjective testimonies offered by a dozen or so dancers, who were members of one of the two Ballets Russes companies.

The first statement is crucial to understating the origins of the company, which consisted of “Russian dancers who never danced in Russia,” and went on to glorious careers in Paris, London, the U.S., and Latin America. “Ballets Russes” the docu maps the company’s Diaghilev-era beginning in the turn of the century Paris, when artists such as Nijinsky, Balanchine, Picasso, Miro, Matisse and Stravinsky united in an unparalleled collaboration.

Diaghilev’s death in 1929 was a traumatic event, since he died young and unexpectedly, but ultimately proved to be a turning point in the history of the company. Chronicling that history would take volumes, but it’s noteworthy that the filmmakers make a good and responsible job of linking what seems to be gossipy material with the evolution of ballet dance as a modern art form.

The infamous “ballet battles” chronicles the role of George Balanchine as ballet master in 1932-1933, when he was pushed out by authoritarian choreographer and director Leonide Massine, and later, the split of the original company into two troupes and the legal battles over the respective companies’ names and personnel. Amazingly, both troupes survived for decades, often touring the same continent at the same time, due to the entrepreneurial skills of international impresario Sol Hurok.

Throughout, the documentary is infused with juicy and gossipy anecdotal interviews with many of the company’s glamorous stars, such as Dame Alicia Markova, who was born in 1910 and died in 2004. Markova, whose birth name was Alicia Marks, was discovered by Diaghilev in a London studio and hired for his Ballets Russes on her fourteenth birthday.

The most interesting decade in the companies’ history is the 1930s, before WWII, due to the fact that the troupers were able to integrate into their ranks major dancer who were Russian, American, European, and even Latin American. Ditto for the remarkable merger of international talents behind the scenes: choreographers, composers, and designers. The cumulative effect of these collaborations and mergers was an artistic height that transformed the face of ballet for generations to come.

One of the many highlights of this landmark film is a recording of the first-ever official reunion of Ballets Russes, held in June 2000 in New Orleans, Louisiana. We get to meet Tatiana Riabouchinska, one of the three “Baby Ballerinas,” who in the 1930s, as young adolescents, had carried much of the repertoire and captured the hearts of audiences around the world. Then, in a contemporary scene, we see Tatiana teaching her daily ballet class, demonstrating the steps to her students with light gestures and words.

The other two “Baby Ballerinas” were Tamara Toumanova and Irina Baronova. Discovered by Balanchine in 1931 in a Paris dance studio, Baronova was not quite thirteen when she joined the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo.

Most of the dancers were first-generation ballerinas, encouraged by their parents to pursue a ballet career. One of the witnesses talks about the cachet of being a ballerina, suggesting that it was the “in” thing to do in Paris in the 1920s.

However, Nathalie Krassovska, who studied in Paris with the “Baby Ballerinas,” came from a family of dancers; her grandmother was a soloist with the Bolshoi Ballet and her mother danced with Diaghilev’s Ballets Russes. Krassovska joined the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in 1935 as a soloist and was soon promoted to ballerina. After leaving the Ballet Russes in 1950, she danced with the London Festival Ballet until 1960, when she was 42.

Amazingly, many of the Ballets Russes dancers are still actively engaged in the art of dance, while well into their 70s, 80s, and even 90s. Asked, “Why do you still teach” Tatiana quickly retorts, “What will I do Sell books” As for Krassovska, in the early 1960s, she settled in Dallas, Texas where she ran the Krassovska School of Ballet Jeunesse at which she taught until she passed away, on February 8, 2005, right after the docu’s premiere at the Sundance Film Festival.

Though most of the dancers function as useful witnesses, some shine due to their charismatic personality and skills as raconteurs. This is certainly the case of Frederic Franklin, an active octogenarian and a fabulous raconteur. Born in Liverpool and making his debut in Paris at 17, Franklin was hired by Massine as premier danseur for the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in 1938, when he partnered for the first time the legendary ballerina Alexandra Danilova. Together, they launched one of ballet’s most enduring partnerships that lasted 20 years.

The vast majority of witnesses and survivors are women, though some men, such as George Zoritch, stand out. Joining the Ballet Russe de Monte Carlo in 1935, at age 18, the handsome Zoritch rose from soloist rank to premier danceur. He danced with the company from 1935 to 1940 and then again from 1957 to 1962. Blessed with good looks and fabulous body (most of the female dancers comment on those aspects), Zoritch is one of the few who danced in Hollywood movie, most notably in the “begin the Begin” sequence of “Night and Day” (1946), the fake biography of Cole Porter, played by no other than Cary Grant. Zoritch, who’s 88, currently lives in Tucson, Arizona

Elements of racial history are also provided. Hence, Raven Wilkinson tells a most gripping story of how she broke the color barriers as the first African-American woman to dance in a major ballet company.

Director Alert

Previously, Dayna Goldfine and Dan Geller have co-directed the performance-based “Isadora Duncan: Movement from the Soul” (1988) and “Frosh: Nine Months in a Freshman Dorm” (1994), which was nominated by the DGA for documentary direction.