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From Russia, with Dance: 'Ballet Russes' Doc Doesn't Miss a Step

By Kevin Lewis

From Ballets Russes

Ballets Russes is the Follies of dance documentaries. Like that landmark musical, Ballets Russes begins with a reunion of the dancers of the legendary Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo and examines the post-limelight lives of performers. The gathering in New Orleans in June 2000 was the impetus for this fascinating, scintillating and poignant anecdotal documentary by Dan Geller and Dayna Goldfine, which is screening in selected theaters through Zeitgeist Films.

The great and beloved ballet dancer Frederic Franklin, now 90, said to the filmmakers, "I was not a hothouse flower," and, indeed, the filmmakers have taken the hothouse out of ballet. The Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo was always the class act of dance, even though it was satirized in such classic stage and movie musicals as On Your Toes (1936 stage, 1939 film) and Shall We Dance (1937 film), and the filmmakers respect that. However, their trained eyes have humanized the artists.

Over 40 dancers from the company from the 1930s to the 1960s appear in the film, not only sharing humorous stories, but still dancing--many well into their 80s--in recital classes, ballets and reenacted performances. Goldfine and Geller traveled to Arizona, Australia and New York, among other places, to film the dancers in their homes and dance studios.

Geller and Goldfine, known for the cinéma vérité-style documentaries Frosh: Nine Months in a Freshman Dorm (1994) and Kids of Survival (1996), made an earlier documentary on dance called Isadora Duncan: Movement from the Soul in 1988. Though the filmmakers maintain that Ballets Russes was not inspired by the Duncan documentary, Geller says there are connections between the two films. "As a performer, Duncan swept through Czarist-era Russia," he explains, "and was influenced by Michael Fokine [the Czarist-era choreographer of the Ballets Russes]." Robert Hawk (who produced the film with Douglas Blair Turnbaugh) suggested the documentary to the filmmakers because he knew of the upcoming reunion. They ultimately shot over 130 hours worth of interviews and footage. The unused portion will eventually be donated to the Dance Collections at the New York Public Library at Lincoln Center, where a preview of outtakes was shown in October. Funding for the project derived from a variety of sources, including the Rudolph Nureyev Foundation.

Geller and Goldfine portray the Ballets Russes as a cauldron of backstabbing, power plays and ego. There were actually several incarnations of the company. Its origins were in Czarist Russia, when it was headed by the legendary Sergei Diaghilev. Leonid Massine (who later became artistic director), George Balanchine and Alexandra Danilova were part of this troupe. When Diaghelev died in 1929, the company was moribund until Colonel de Basil took over in 1932. Balanchine was part of this resurrection, as was Massine, who later forced Balanchine out. In 1938, Massine ousted de Basil, retained the company and its name, and Sergei Denham became its director. But Massine and Denham soon had a falling out, and Denham fired him in 1942. To Denham's credit, he forced Massine out because of his lackluster ballets, and hired Agnes de Mille. Denham presented de Mille's groundbreaking Rodeo, which married modern dance and classical ballet. de Basil founded yet another version of the company, called The Original Ballet Russe. So, there were two companies touring at the same time under different auspices.

To much of the world, the Ballets Russes was ballet in the 1930s. In 1938 alone, under the booking contract with the legendary impresario Sol Hurok, the company performed in 110 cities in six months of 1938. Considering the fact that some of the performers were underage, this exhausting schedule must have stunted their emotional growth in many ways. "Many of the dancers in the resurrected Ballets Russes were political refugees," says Geller. "They were either White Russians [natives of Belorussia, a constituent republic of the Soviet Union that bordered Poland, Lithuania and Latvia ] or just average bourgeosie who, when the Soviet Revolution happened, were persecuted and their lives were gravely endangered." These penniless refugees flocked to the cities of Western Europe especially to Paris because French was a second language to many of the White Russians.

The film also explores the fact that dancers were auditioned in the cities around the world where the Ballets Russes appeared and joined the troupe, sometimes with their mothers, on the spot. At one time, Franklin says there were 17 nationalities represented in the troupe. In the film, Raven Wilkinson, the first African-American dancer to be engaged by the Ballets Russes, tells a shocking tale of the Ku Klux Klan mounting the stage, demanding that the dancer leave. Touring the American South became impossible for her, so she only performed in the north--and was eventually asked to leave the company. The Tallchief sisters, Marjorie and Maria, who are Native American, danced with the two distinct Ballets Russes companies--Marjorie with the Original Ballet Russe and Maria with the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo. Another Native American dancer, Yvonne Chouteau, was an outstanding member of the latter company.

What is extraordinary about Ballets Russes is the footage of performances. The dance critic and archivist Ann Barzel filmed performances from the 1930s, and she generously provided her footage to the filmmakers. The Dance Collection of the New York Public Library of the Performing Arts was another major treasure trove of film. Dancers themselves shot 8mm and 16mm footage of performances, which are also in the 118-minute film. Goldfine and Geller even persuaded Columbia Pictures and other major film studios to grant permission to use clips showing Ballets Russes dancers in specialty performances in their feature films.

Surprisingly, Geller and Goldfine fudge over a crucial turning point in the Ballets Russes: the decision by Denham to leave the New York City Center, where it had a home base, in favor of a season at the Metropolitan Opera in 1948. Franklin concurs with the premise that this decision was a cause of the downfall of the Ballets Russes de Monte Carlo. "They [the Ballets Russes] went on for a long time but it wasn't the same because we had nowhere to come home to," says Franklin. "And I remember that day when Mr. Dehham signed, and I was with Danilova, and she was so angry we both said, 'What are we doing? This is our home. Why do we want to go back to the Met?' " Ironically, Balanchine, who had been ousted from the Ballets Russes by Massine, stepped in with Lincoln Kirstein and formed the New York City Ballet at City Center. Geller and Goldfine think the City Center could have supported two ballet companies, a point with which Franklin disagrees. As for the Ballets Russes, the company continued on its nomadic journeys for the final decade or so of its existence.

If dance is used as a metaphor for life, Ballets Russes can be about the art of living.


Kevin Lewis is a contributing editor to International Documentary and has written for DGA Magazine and Editors Guild Magazine.